Review: ‘The Book of the Sea’

Hot Docs 2019

4 mins read

The Book of the Sea
(Russia, 85 min.)
Dir. Aleksei Vakhrushev
Programme: Animal Magnetism

Fans of the Hot Docs 2016 Audience Award winner Angry Inuk will want to see The Book of the Sea. This artfully thrilling doc-animation adventure from Russian-Indigenous director Aleksei Vakhrushev (The Tundra Book) takes audiences for a wild ride. The film observes life in the Bering Strait as Inuit and Chukchi hunters engage in the harvest that is a foundation of their culture as they embark on expeditions to catch marine mammals like whales, walruses, and seals. There are obviously cultural, political, and historical variances between the hunters that Vakhrushev depicts and the Inuit who appear in Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s film, but The Book of the Sea is a stirring example of the way of life for which Aaju Peter and the characters of Angry Inuk fiercely advocate in their fight to preserve the seal hunt. The film deftly weaves a tale of heritage and legacy as Vakhurshev infuses the present-day hunt with the myths and folklore that drive it.

The film takes a handsomely textured approach to heritage and history. On one hand, The Book of the Sea offers verité-style footage of present-day Inuit and Chukchi hunters as the community’s elder, Alexander, joins the community’s younger leader, Alexei, in guiding the group on the expedition. In chapters, the different hunts for whales, walruses, and seals unfold while the footage highlights the nuances of each quest. The range of coverage affords some spectacular shots on the waters as the wise old Alexander surveys the landscape and imparts his knowledge to the group.

On the other hand, The Book of the Sea contextualizes the contemporary footage with fancifully animated chapters that bring to life the legends informed by the sea. Intricately detailed clay animation builds visual interpretations of the myths that connect the Inuit and Chukchi to the sea. For example, one humorous chapter tells of a woman who gives birth to a whale, which bestows upon her community a sense of duty for the creature, as well as an awareness of its connection to the human race. The animated sequences are a visual delight that draw upon traditions of oral storytelling to keep culture alive.

Top marks go to the film’s editor, Julia Trofimenko, for bridging the two vastly different modes of the film in a seamless tapestry. Using some perceptive matches, particularly cuts that link the action of the animated sequences to Alexander’s gaze as he looks out over the icy waters, the film beautifully links past and present. There’s a great sense of cultural heritage to The Book of the Sea, a richness of history, but it also looks to the future as the hunters see alarming evidence of climate change and draw upon the tales of the sea to instill within the younger hunters a duty to protect and preserve the land. Book charts an important history with many new chapters to come.

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival!

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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