DER Documentary

The Drums of Winter (Uksuum Cauyai)

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From the Alaskan Eskimo series
by Sarah Elder and Leonard Kamerling
color, 90 min, 1988, digitally remastered 2015

Digitally Remastered DVD Edition


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This feature-length documentary explores the traditional dance, music and spiritual world of the Yup'ik Eskimo people of Emmonak, a remote village at the mouth of the Yukon River on the Bering Sea coast.

The Drums of Winter gives an intimate look at a way of life of which most of us have seen only glimpses. Dance was once at the heart of Yup'ik Eskimo spiritual and social life. It was the bridge between the ancient and the new, the living and the dead and a person's own power and the greater powers of the unseen world.

In The Drums of Winter, the people of Emmonak tell us through actualities and interviews how their history, social values and spiritual beliefs are woven around the songs and dances that have been handed down to them through the generations. We also learn that it is not just old songs that are important; new songs and dance movements are created to reflect modern life with all its complexities. Each time a person gets up to dance, he is strengthening the continuity of the ages, and insuring the survival of his culture.

The film follows the elders of Emmonak as they prepare for the coming ceremonial gathering (potlatch) with a neighboring village. In the Kashim (qasgiq or men's house), they practice their songs and painstakingly work out the motions of the dances. Each movement has meaning and plays a part in telling a story. In the days before television, radio, bingo and weekly basketball games, dance was the sole means of entertainment.

Throughout the film, archival photographs and film footage accompany the words of early missionaries who brought Christianity to the area. These sequences provide a historical context for the film and give us a strong sense of the resilience of Yup'ik culture, having survived despite a century of missionary suppression.

"Nothing that has been written about Yup'ik dancing comes close to the power of the Yup'ik commentary contained in The Drums of Winter. Nor does any previous film treatment of Yup'ik dancing communicate so well the historical and contemporary context of dance. The combination is extraordinary, accomplishing much more than either the written word or the un-narrated image in isolation. The result is an example of the best that documentary film can offer." — Dr. Ann Fienup-Riordan, Author of Freeze Frame: Alaska Eskimos in the Movies
"My favorite film music is in The Drums of Winter by Leonard Kamerling and Sarah Elder. This music was not composed for the film. The music is the subject of the film. In The Drums of Winter we see and hear traditional songs of the Yup'ik people of Western Alaska performed with dances in the intimate setting of the potlatch ceremony. The sound and the cinematography are equally strong. There is no narration, no one who tells us what to think. Rather than watching from the outside, we feel as though we're inside the dance house experiencing each moment with the community" — Alaskan composer John Luther Adams in Sight & Sound magazine

Drums of Winter has been added to the National Film Registry. Read an article from the University of Buffalo about this prestigious honor.

Film Festivals, Screenings, Awards
Official Selection, National Film Registry, 2006
The Best of the Mead, Margaret Mead Film Festival, Osaka, Japan, 2000
Third Prize, Nuoro Ethnographic Film Festival, Nuoro, Sardinia, 1998
Best Documentary, Best Doc. Director, Best Cinematography, Festival of the Native Americas, Santa Fe, 1996
The Heritage Award, Alaska International Film Festival, Anchorage, 1995
Award of Excellence, American Anthropological Assoc., New Orleans, 1991
Special Commendation, International Ethnographic Film Festival, Manchester, UK, 1990
Grand Prix Best of Festival, Third International Arctic Film Festival, Fermo, Italy, 1989
First Prize, Blue Ribbon, American Film Festival, Chicago, 1989
Silver Apple Award, Educational Film and Video Festival, San Francisco, 1989
The Northern Lights International Film Festival, Anchorage, 1996 Parnu International Visual Anthropological Festival, Parnu, Estonia, 1991 Hawaii International Film Festival East-West Center, Honolulu, Hawaii, 1989 Neighbor Islands Festival Week of the Hawaii International Film Festival, Kauai, Kona, and Hilo, 1989
Anthropos International Film Festival, Los Angeles, 1989
Musica Dei Popoli Festival of Ethnomusicology Films, Florence, Italy, 1989
Tallin International Ethnographic Film Fesival, Tallin, Estonia USSR, 1988
Margaret Mead Film Festival, American Premier, New York, September 1988

other films from the Alaskan Eskimo series:
At the Time of Whaling
From the First People
In Iirgu's Time
Joe Sun
On the Spring Ice
Reindeer Thief

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