Staffan Julén’s re-examination of the complicated relationship between an Arctic explorer and the Inuit people he lived among debuted at Odense Doc fest in 2006. Its festival circuit also included Hot Docs, Planete Doc Review, DocAviv, and CPH:DOX, among other events.
Julén’s film retells the story of Robert E Peary, who long claimed to have been the first to reach the North Pole in 1909. Earlier in his career, in 1897, Peary was engaged by the American Museum of Natural History to set up an exhibit of Eskimo life, using, as was the custom of the period, an actual Inuit family as “living fossils.” The journey of the six Inuits he brought to NYC is re-traced in the present-day by Inuit hunter Hivshu, who shares his alternate name, Robert E Peary II – he is the great-grandson of the explorer, who sired children with an Inuit wife despite already having a family back in the US. Hivshu’s own exploration re-opens difficult truths about attitudes towards so-called “primitive” people among not only the general public but professionals in the museum world and in academia. While a bit clunky in its exposition, the film is a worthwhile project for its reminder of the legacy of colonialism on cultural anthropology and on the people it impacted.