Kirk French talks about his newest project, "Climate Change on the Hudson: A Century After Nanook." In the discussion, Kirk talks about the importance of documenting climate change through film and how revisiting "Nanook of the North" empowered the Inuit to tell their story, even in the face of COVID.
INTRO: There hasn't been ice in August in the bay in like 20 years. Like that doesn't exist anymore. It's just this… just two weeks ago, the town elder was telling me that it was raining. He said, he’s 70 years old, he never remembers it raining in January ever.
HOST: Welcome to Growing Impact, a podcast by the Institutes of Energy and the Environment at Penn State. Growing Impact explorers cutting-edge research and projects of scientists and researchers who are solving some of the world's most challenging energy and environmental issues or raising awareness of these issues. Each of the projects have been funded through an innovative seed grant program facilitated through IEE. Today, our guest is Kirk French, a teaching professor of anthropology and filmmaker, who's currently working on a new film project, “Climate Change on Hudson Bay: A Century after Nanook.” Welcome, Kirk. Thank you so much for being here.
Kirk French (KF): Hey, thanks for having me.
HOST: So let's jump onto the “Climate Change on Hudson Bay.” Forget, can you tell me—a century after Nanook—Can you tell me what is…? Is Nanook a storm or was it incident? I'm not clear. I don't know what it is.
KF: OK, So no. So I'll ask you, does Nanook mean anything to you?
HOST: Nanook, it sounds like an Inuit name, that's all I really can think of. That's, that's all I know.
KF: Okay. So…
HOST: …and Frank Zappa
HOST: Are you kidding?
KF: Exactly. Exactly. No. Because Nanook… so "Nanook" is the is the first full-length documentary ever made. It came out in 1922. And it laid the foundation for what just about every documentary that's come after it. I mean, it's, it's monumental. I mean, any documentary filmmaker you would talk to like Werner Herzog or anybody. They'd be like, Oh, Nanook. I mean, I mean like that changed everything, you know. And what happened is that me and my crew were sitting around talking about what we're going to do next. And we jokingly said, now we should, we should try to, instead of revisiting a film that no one's ever heard of like “Land and Water,” that a film made by an archaeologist at Penn State University. What if we took like the best documentary ever made, like a monumental one, we were joking. We were having some drinks and we joking and it was like, well, we should really make “Nanook.” And again, it was a joke. But then I just got on Wikipedia. And this was in October of 19. And I said that, “did you know that the premier of that film was in 1922?” And he actually started filming it in 1920. Like less than a year from now is the a 100th anniversary of when it started filming. And me and the crew, we were like, Oh my god, like no one's talking about a 100th anniversary of the first documentary ever made. And then of course, it just snowballed that evening. And to all the things that we could highlight where climate change is more amplified in any place in the world, in the Arctic, right? I mean, the people that have the smallest carbon footprint on the planet are the ones being screwed over the most. And their indigenous, and they're getting screwed over by everybody else in the world. It's just this classic horrible tail. And so I figured, wow, we could tell a story of climate change in a small community. In the community where “Nanook” was filmed. And then at the same time celebrate this cinematic milestone that occurred. So really you're talking about, , of course, anthropology, but also cinematic history and climate change. And you could weave all those together into one story and really reach people that you normally wouldn't reach if this was just a film on climate change, you'd be preaching to the choir, right? Everybody, people wanna watch it. They believe in climate change. They know it's real and they want to be, they want, they want to soak more of it in. This is people that would want, would watch it because they know of “Nanook of the North.” They know of this film. And it's a 100th anniversary. And there's anthropologists that would want to watch it for different reasons. So it really, it started as a joke and within an hour it was like, I think we could do this.
KF: Yeah, I mean, what's happening in the Arctic is that the warming of the planet is being felt, it's being amplified in the Arctic. And so where, you know, down in the Pennsylvania region and kind of that, that kind of latitude. The temperature increase has been, it's going up but it's going up at a slower rate. And up there it's, it's, you know, it's increasing by one, two centigrade over the last 100 years. And so if that was happening in Pennsylvania, that would still be a big deal. It’d be a big deal for wildlife and things like that. But up there, you have frozen tundra, you have permafrost, It's melting, it's releasing certain gases. It's causing the way in which they hunt to differ because a lot of the wildlife that they might depend upon, the fishing that they depend on is different. So certain animals aren't coming around that used to come around. And so the environmental changes that are going on are actually causing these very amplified and drastic cultural changes, which we are going to experience too, and we are experienced and we're just experiencing them here at a slower rate. Yes. I'm working with Andrew Carlton. He's a professor in the geography department. He's a climate scientist. He's going to be going up there with us as well to, to, to actually look at the changes as a climate scientist. And we'll be interviewing him as well to get his input on this. And so he's been instrumental in in this entire grant process as well, and we're glad that he's gone up there with us.
HOST: So how did an archaeologist become a filmmaker?
KF: I was kind of scattershot with like what I was going to do because the academic thing was just, there were freezes everywhere. I didn't know if I was going to have anything the next year. And there was a call for a for an archaeologist to do to host a TV show for Discovery Channel. So I applied for this thing and I got it. And then I had been working on a documentary that I was just interested in myself with, like, you know, people that find stuff in their backyard and they think it's like treasure or whatever. And I wanted to go kind of hang out with those people and kind of show him proper methodologies and like make it accessible to people that are interested in archaeology. But anyway, the point is, they took my idea and we developed it together and it became a Discovery Channel show. And I really got, so I was already interested in filmmaking, but I didn't really know how to do anything. I'm an archaeologist. And so, I really get to see the other side of what it is to make a movie or make a film. And it really gave me the, the, some tools to, to feel like I was a little more confident and trying to do something. And then, but I'm still doing archeology. I'm writing projects and stuff. I'm like, film is just like this thing, this extra thing that I dream about. And then what happened is I had been wanted to remake this film, “Land and Water,” that was made at Penn State back in 1962 in the Teotihuacan Valley of Mexico. And I searched around for funding. That was a seed grant from PSIEE (IEE). It was the first time I'd even heard of these things.
HOST: Kirk says that COVID and the pandemic that followed, really change their plans and they're filming. But it wasn't all bad.
KF: We were supposed to be on our fourth… third or fourth trip right now up there. But, you know, we haven't been able to go at all at all because you know about but the money in February or March. And then we're going to go through the summer. There's some super awesome silver linings here of, of COVID in regards to this project of us not being able to go up. You know, “Nanook,” the film itself is a great. But it's, it's, there's some highly unethical just nonsense in there.
KF: So I was worried about this with working with the Inuit and all that. And they've been so overjoyed that we want to celebrate this and do all of this. I ship them camera equipment. They started filming on August 15th, 2020. On the exact day that Robert Flaherty started filming “Nanook of the North” in the same village. They're interviewing people. They, instead of, uh, instead of a white guy up there, a bunch of white guys trying to get their input and filming what we think is important, they're actually filming both sides of it on, on both sides of the camera. And we're collaborating with them on a level that yes, we would have collaborated. We couldn't have done it without them. But this is like a true partnership in every way. I mean, So it's it's really cool. The elders, I have these talks with the elders up there of how it's going and what's going on and it's been… that wouldn't have happened the same way, you know. So it's kind of I'm definitely looking at this as a, as a silver lining. It's only going to enrich the film because they'd been able to start this project without our interference really.
KF: So, them re-watching “Nanook” and seeing what it looked like. A knowing the changes, the environmental changes that they're seeing right now is so drastic. And then of course, those environmental changes have, have exacerbated or forced cultural changes. Things that they eat and way too hot and the way they do things.
KF: This idea of, of, of working with the public and public outreach is something that's very dear to me, very important to me. And I think that these films bring scholars together with community members and a different type of dialogue exists. But the thing is, that's great on a micro level, but by recording it and filming the whole thing and interviewing both sides and interviewing them together, and then showing that to the public. It's really giving a voice to both academia and these community members. And at the same time amplifying these problems of climate change and cultural adaptation. And, and you know, just treating people fairly and realizing that the, that the, the decisions that you're making here in New York City or in an in Tokyo or in State College or Mexico City or wherever. They're actually affecting everybody else that we really are all connected. It's a round world and we have one atmosphere and it's affecting everyone.
HOST:And so what kind of, what are you looking at next year? What's coming up in the next even six to 12 months, something like that?
KF: We we're being optimistic about being getting up there by the very end of June or early July of this year 2021. And then we will go but we will go up every season. Like will go up about two weeks every season. So it will be up there in the summer. We'll go back in the fall, we'll go back next winter. And then we'll go back in the spring. And the original goal of this project was to premiere our finished film on June 11th, 2022. the exact date of the premiere of “Nanook of the North” was in New York City on June 11th, 1922. Granted, because of COVID, we're so far behind with filming, there's no way for that to happen. So what we're doing instead is on June 11th, 2022, we are going to host and help fund a large celebration to celebrate this milestone of the, of the and, it happens to fall on a Saturday. How great is that? Falls on a Saturday? We're going to have a big party and they're going to fly in elders from different communities and community members. I think we're even going to invite like if they're good with it, invite Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, come up there. Because this is, I mean, the first documentary film. It wasn't only filmed in Canada, it was filmed in this little, this indigenous community. And they're very, very proud of it, right? I mean, it put the Inuit on the map and it was all over the world. So we're going to celebrate that. But then this is another one of these silver linings kind of… COVID… because we're having to do it that way. We will show the original film. We will also show like a 10 or 15 minute clip of some of the things that we will have put together and show them a little bit of what we've been doing. But we will have all these people together, “Nanook of the North” and the 100th anniversary is fresh on their mind. It'll give us a great opportunity the days before, the day of and the days after to conduct great interviews with people from all over Canada. And then that celebration is now a part of the documentary we're going to make. So instead of it being the premiere, the party itself is going to be just one kind of chapter of the documentary. And then we will continue to film for another six to eight months. And then we'll edit and I don't know, 2023. I hope 2023, you know that we'll have a premiere and we will do the premiere up there. They get to see it first. We did the same thing with “Land and Water Revisited.” The premiere was in San Juan Teotihuacan. They deserve to see it first before anybody else. And so same thing is going to happen there. And so that's kind of the plan, but plans now, I mean, I don't have to tell you or anybody else in the world right now. It's like if plans were ever futile, they are beyond futile now, it's like almost impossible to even think about it.
HOST: So I wanted to thank you. Thank you, Kirk, for being part of today and I wish you all the best and hopefully we will talk soon.
KF: Wow, thanks for having me. This was great.
HOST: Thank you for listening to Growing Impact. I've been your host, Kevin Sliman. Thank you again to Kirk French for speaking with me. His latest film, “Land and Water Revisited,” will be televised on PBS during Earth Week in April. Check your local PBS station for times and dates. This is season 1, episode 1 of Growing Impact, a podcast of the Institutes of Energy and the Environment. Thank you for joining us.