Oral Versus Written Traditions

Oral Versus Written Traditions

In The Blinding Sea, I combine different kinds of historical memory: oral and written traditions, artifacts, medical evidence, oil paintings, engravings, photographs and sculpture, to name a few. I set this memory in the context of my personal experience, testing it in real-world conditions, by crossing the Southern Ocean on a three-masted bark, wintering on an icebreaker on the Beaufort Sea, chatting at the kitchen table, dog-sledding in Alaska, the Yukon and Nunavut, eating wild berries and narwhal blubber, filming a family as it builds an igloo, and using every means of transport at my disposal, from helicopters to skis, hiking, horseback-riding and snow-mobiles.

While making this film, I got to know Gloria Corbould, first in Mexico, then in Quebec. She is the daughter of Cakonita, a little Chukchi girl Roald Amundsen legally adopted in Siberia in 1920, then brought back to Norway.

At the same time, in conducting interviews, I have had to be critical – not in the sense of being aggressive or nasty, but rather in the sense of assessing what people say. And I have sometimes done this by a process of analogy, recalling the story my grandfather Frederick C. Grant told me, of being cured of whooping cough as a baby by an Oneida medicine-man in the forest, whereas the local white doctor had given him up for dead. He told me this story at least seven times, when I was a child, and it opened to me the world of Aboriginal knowledge. That is my family context. By the way, the feature image at the top of this blog shows an Iroquois false-face mask, traditionally used in healing.

Paul Ikuallaq building an igloo for me in Gjoa Haven – some Inuit have thanked me for helping conserve Inuit oral traditions

All of this represents a departure from what I would call conventional history-writing, which consists of research in databases and libraries. But then The Blinding Sea is a film, not a book. (The companion volume WildTrekker will come later: it will go into the story of Amundsen and his polar expeditions in greater depth and will pursue additional avenues of research.) Also, The Blinding Sea shows people doing things rather than just saying things. I made this choice quite consciously, because the art of film-making requires it.

Oral traditions are living memory, and they offer the advantage of spontaneity, interactions (dialogue) and follow-up questions. Written traditions are frozen memory, and offer the disadvantage of a controlled monologue, more deliberate story-crafting, multiple drafts and self-possession.

Going from one world to another: crossing the Southern Ocean on the three-masted bark Europa provided many visual metaphors

Long years as a journalist introduced me to the importance of oral traditions. If I think of each person as a little world, a microcosm, then conducting an interview ideally means going from one world of experience to another.

I must have interviewed 15,000 people altogether during those years, and this convinced me that an interview can be an important personal statement of memory. What happened, and when? Are you willing to describe your personal experience of what happened? Are you able to share that? How do you know it happened? How involved were you or your family with what happened? What meaning do you give to what happened, after the fact? Would you say something similar if I interviewed you a second or third time?

Julian Evans, grandson of Teddy Evans, the second in command on the Terra Nova expedition, during an interview in Blackburn Forest, in the Midlands

An interview is not simply a matter of turning on a microphone and letting people talk. An interview necessarily involves interactions. I noticed in my first encounters with Inuit, while conducting research for BBC and CBC Radio in northern Quebec, how far their experience of life was from my own. This was in the mid-1980s. How could I understand what it meant for a young Inuk woman to have been taken from her small coastal settlement and sent to residential school, where she was beaten for speaking her native language, Inuktitut, rather than English?

The fact she decided, upon leaving the residential school, never to speak another word of English for the rest of her life meant I needed help with the interview. I needed the assistance of another Inuk to translate each of my questions into Inuktitut, then to put these questions to her with the best pronunciation I could. I felt, during the interview, given her facial expressions, demeanour, tears and hesitations, that she left many things unsaid, that it was better for her to draw a veil over part of her experience. I realized, while interviewing this young woman, that her words and mine were only a part of the interview.

Sculptor Damien Iquallaq helped me represent Inuit memory, for example by creating this work showing the Inuit sea-goddess Nuliajuk

A question I ask myself: what are the limits of interviews as a way of recording oral traditions?

The subject of subjectivity came up during my recent film tour in France, and our discussion there points to the limits of interviews. As I wrote in a recent blog: “Yves Chevaldonné [a professor of cinema at the Université de Perpignan] mentioned my film is part of the New Wave of documentaries, which share the author’s point of view and subjective interpretations. We then discussed whether objectivity is possible (we are not sure it is). We also discussed the limits of inter-subjectivity – that is, of seeing other people not as objects but rather as thinking and feeling subjects with their own inner world of experience. I said inter-subjectivity is a philosophical ideal, although it can only go so far, given that I may simply have no idea about the inner world of experience bound up in that other person’s subjectivity.”

Sometimes it felt I did as many interviews as there are fishes in the sea!

Back to the 15,000. I have interviewed Nobel prize-winners, warlords, refugees, convicted murderers and fraudsters, billionaires, former hostages, authors, inventors, prime ministers, a former US secretary of state, Aboriginal mothers and fathers, sea captains, artists, school teachers, spokesmen, spokeswomen and many others. There can be no question of my agreeing with every word these people said, or of my being eternally in their debt for taking the time to share experiences with me. My job was to obtain their consent, treat them with respect, not abuse or distort what they say, not splice it into punchy soundbites while taking their message to the public out of context.

I have mentioned various kinds of historical memory here. By the way, I have also reconstituted memory in The Blinding Sea, for example in having Peter Butler create an animation of Émile Danco’s shrouded remains, drifting in the depths of the Bellingshausen Sea. My daughter Iona created many digital illustrations for the film, to help viewers picture what was happening. and sculptor Damien Iquallaq created several works for me, to represent the Inuit mythical world-view.

Peter Butler created animations for The Blinding Sea, such as this one, showing the shrouded remains of an officer on the Belgica, drifting in the depths of the ocean off Antarctica: this is an example of reconstituting memory

Roald Amundsen disappeared without trace during a polar flight long before I was born. I never had the opportunity to interview him! Even so, I studied his published and unpublished writings, to find out what he said and left unsaid, piecing together family memories from his great-nephew Johan Leon Amundsen and his great-niece Anne-Christine Amundsen Jacobsen, as a way of driving at the meaning of his experience.

Roald Amundsen during a polar flight in 1925




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