June 13, 2002
Inuit All Along
Call him Norman of the North -- or the Wandering Jew.
That's the best way to explain how cinematographer Norman Cohn of Washington Heights, N.Y., moved to the Canadian Arctic and shot the first Inuit-language feature film. He was the only non-Inuit to work on Zacharius Kunuk's "The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat)," based on an ancient epic about a community torn apart by jealousy. The haunting film won a top 2001 Cannes prize and was deemed a "masterpiece" by The New York Times.
But Cohn, 55, doesn't think it's weird that a guy who grew up playing stickball and idolizing his Orthodox grandparents now lives in a shack on the tundra. "If I'd been born in Russia in the 1870s, I would've been the first member of my family to go to America," he says. "It's a partly spiritual, partly psychological personality trait."
The Cornell grad's journey began after he helped a friend build a house in rural Canada and bought 50 acres there himself around 1973. A decade later, he chanced to see a video by Kunuk, who was born in a sod house and lived nomadically until age 9. "Most people's work didn't look like mine, but his did," Cohn recalls. "Inuit culture is nondidactic, so it was the sensibility of using the medium to look at things rather than talk about them."
Cohn -- who is divorced with four children -- promptly finagled an invitation to teach a video workshop in Inuit territory. By 1990, he'd co-founded a production company with Kunuk and friends.
"I had to relearn how to do everything," he says of relocating to the village of Igloolik. "For example, when [Inuit] people visit you, they just walk into your house without knocking." While sharing a sled ride, Cohn would leap on and immediately fall off. On fishing expeditions, he'd catch one fish while everyone else caught 25. "I felt like the brother who got dropped on his head when he was little," he says.
By the time Cohn shot "Runner" in 1999, he was proficient in the language as well as the culture. He camped out in primitive dwellings on the sea ice, shot inside smoky igloos and ate seal for lunch. So what if the weather got down to minus 40. "The Inuit have lived in this environment for millennia, so it was like Woody Allen filming in New York," he says.