Satellite of Love: Jonás Cuarón’s ANINGAAQ
Note: this essay discusses key plot elements of Gravity and the entirety of Aningaaq. (i.e. “Spoilers!”)
Outstanding short films about Greenland are evidently like the proverbial London buses: you wait ages, start to give up hope, then two come along at virtually the same time. Originally created for a 2012 installation, Dania Reymond’s 9-minute French-Taiwanese co-production Greenland Unrealised is a gloriously simple but irresistibly odd computer-animation. Inspired by an unfilmed Michelangelo Antonioni screenplay speculating the depopulation of the frozen island, it’s been picking up film-festival screenings here and there and was by a clear margin the most impressive work that I saw at FIDMarseille in early July.
Less than two months later, I caught Jonás Cuarón’s Aningaaq on the final day of the Venice Film Festival, where it played twice in a shorts compilation as part of the Orizzonti sidebar. This provided a pleasing symmetry to my Lido sojourn, as the very first picture I saw at the event nearly ten days before had been the festival’s opening film Gravity, co-written by Cuarón (previously responsible for 2007 experimental feature Year of the Nail) with the director, his father Alfonso. A world premiere at Venice, for many attendees the 3-D space spectacle overshadowed and even dwarfed everything else they saw there over the following days, and at the time of writing is the recipient of near-universal rave reviews on the eve of its North American release.
It’s a little surprising that very few, if any, of these reviews make any mention of Aningaaq, which functions as a semi-unofficial seven-minute ‘companion piece’ to the 91-minute ‘main event.’ The two pictures have – remarkably – yet to be screened together in the same programme: at Telluride, where Gravity received its first post-Venice screening, Aningaaq was paired with John Curran’s Tracks (like Alfonso Cuarón’s film, a paean to distaff fortitude in extremis situations). It has also received exposure at certain American multiplexes, including as an unlikely prelude to knockabout drug/crime comedy We’re the Millers.
The latter programming seems to treat Aningaaq as a kind of glorified trailer for Gravity, which to this critic seems grossly unfair. This is a fully-realised short which can be appreciated entirely on its own merits, even if it only makes total “sense” for those who’ve also seen Gravity. And there’s the rub: the events depicted in Aningaaq, namely a radio conversation between the eponymous Inuit fisherman and a distressed astronaut hundreds thousands of miles away in space, constitute a kind of ‘spoiler’ with regard to the feature-film.
It’s suggested in the latter’s early stages – as well as in the trailers – that the two protagonists, scientist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and experienced pro space-technician Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) may well spend the whole narrative spinning helplessly in the airless void. That Stone is able to make radio contact with anyone indicates that there’s a rather more to Gravity‘s plot than this somewhat bleak and Beckettian prospect.
And so the ideal programming order would be to play Aningaaq after Gravity‘s credits, perhaps as a bonus short for those viewers too attentive (or, given the feature’s significant impact on the senses, too sated) to quit their seats ‘early.’ Of course, the way most people will end up seeing Aningaaq will be as a DVD extra, but just as Gravity benefits hugely from the visual and aural properties of the cinema environment, the short likewise deserves exposure on the biggest possible screen.
As with Gravity (shot by Terrence Malick’s preferred collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki), the cinematographer here is an internationally acclaimed Mexican practitioner of the art: Alexis Zabé, best known for Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light (2007), particularly its justifiably celebrated long opening shot of a rural sunrise. And whereas Lubezki plunges us into the star-speckled blackness of space, Zabé’s palette is by contrast much closer to a white-out, especially in the opening moments of a film whose sole location is a fishing-hole over the glacial, remote (and fictional) fjord, named as Sikvivitsoq.
As genially happy-go-lucky fisherman Aningaaq (Orto Ignatiussen) remarks, Sikvivitsoq is “nowhere near Qaarsut,” which is as far as Cuarón goes in terms of geographical specificity. Very useful, for anyone who’s heard of Qaarsut, a former coal-mining settlement on the western coast of Greenland, whose population in the most recent census was 196. Subtitles allow non-Iniktut speakers to grasp this information, but Ryan Stone isn’t so lucky – indeed, the scene in Gravity is part of the film’s overall interest in matters of communication between humans separated by great distances. Aningaaq and Stone know that they can’t speak each other’s language, but sometimes simply hearing another human voice is communication enough.
Aningaaq the short fills in the gaps of the strangers’ extended conversation – a precarious affair relying on the most tenuous of technological links – chiefly for the viewer’s benefit. In Gravity, the character Aningaaq is simply a voice crackling over the ether, with a background of howling wind, husky-dogs and occasional baby-cries; but in the film that bears his name we get to see his face, his clothes, his environment, his family (wife and child), his dogs. And we see nothing of Stone. There’s something piquant, amusing and arguably even a little subversive about one of the world’s biggest movie stars – and one of its most recognisable faces – being ‘reduced’ to such an off-screen contribution while the unheralded Ignatiussen, whose sole previous big-screen credit was 13 years ago, takes centre stage.
In addition to its intrinsic pleasures, Aningaaq comments subtly and elegantly on themes which Gravity explores on its much wider, grander canvas. There’s the fundamental question of how mankind interacts with technological developments which may save or imperil our lives – almost the first thing we see here is a decidedly low-tech and old-school fishing-mechanism whose handles appear initially to be turning without any human involvement.
The story then pivots on the plight of the fisherman’s elderly female husky, an unnamed stalwart who is ailing and fading fast. “There’s nothing I can do but sacrifice her,” explains the garrulous Aningaaq to an uncomprehending Stone, rattling on in blithe disregard to the language-barrier (while the pack of huskies look calmly on).
The fate of the dog has evidently been weighing on Aningaaq’s mind for some time, and it’s the fleeting communion with Stone which propels him towards decisive action. After the radio connection has been broken, and Aningaaq’s wife and baby have joined him at the fishing-hole, the camera pans up to the pale blue of the Arctic sky. Thin white streaks resembling shooting stars slice the firmament – recognisable to Gravity viewers as a Chinese spaceship, with Stone its terrified passenger, entering the atmosphere*. At this point a single gunshot is heard, wrapping proceedings on a full-stop note of poignant but unsentimental economy.
(Aningaaq, by the way, makes it appear that the dog is euthanised only a few seconds after the conversation ends – but Gravity clarifies the situation, as several minutes elapse between the chat and the entrance of the spaceship fragments into the atmosphere.)**
The unseen, merciful death of the female dog ‘rhymes’ obliquely with the unseen, accidental death of Stone’s only child – also female – as recounted to Kowalski in one of Gravity’s more explicitly sentimental exchanges. The wailing of Aningaaq’s baby, meanwhile, is heard by Stone in what she understandably believes to be very probably her last few minutes of life – a sad reminder of her loss, but also an optimistic signal that, regardless of personal or even galactic calamities, life does and can go on.
Concepts and images of motherhood and fertility recur throughout Gravity, and Aningaaq adds further nuances to these elements – not least in Cuarón’s decision to call both character and film by a particular name. As defined in Hope B. Werness’ Continuum Encyclopaedia of Native Art, Aningaaq is “the male principle in nature and also the inua (spirit) of the moon among the Eskimo [i.e. Inuit]. It was widely believed that Aningaaq was responsible for the fertility of women of whom he was particularly fond–indeed, it was believed he could impregnant women simply by shining on them.”
Aningaaq itself can also be seen as a kind of ‘satellite’, a physically ‘minor’ body or entity in a kind of orbit around the relatively ‘giant’ and thus planetary project that is Gravity – though to automatically regard Jonas Cuaron’s contribution to the Gravity/Aningaaq ‘gestalt’ as a junior one would be a mistake.
For me, both were among the most significant and noteworthy titles I saw at Venice this year – but while Gravity dazzled me, made me vertiginous and palm-sweatingly tense, it didn’t move me in the same way as Aningaaq. As the credits rolled, I found myself, to my considerable surprise, powerfully affected – as the Irish would put it, I was “in bits,” seeking a quiet refuge until my tears subsided.
This was partly due to the cumulative effect of Aningaaq following on from Gravity, completing the ‘circle’ with such grace, humour and warmth. But I’d like to think that the short would still have exerted its effect even if I’d never seen or even heard of Gravity. It’ll be interesting to find out reactions from viewers who either by accident or design encounter Aningaaq first. I hope they’ll get in touch – by whatever direct or technological means they find at their disposal.
2nd October 2013
**or perhaps not — judge for yourself! (short online 20 Nov 2013)