THE DRUMS OF WINTER
Sarah Elder, Leonard Kamerling
color, 90 min, 1988, digitally remastered 2015
Also available on DSL and DVD
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.
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