October 1897: The Arctic explorer Robert Peary returns to New York from his latest Greenland expedition. On board he is carrying the largest meteorite ever taken to the USA - and 5 Polar Eskimos.
Some time previously, Franz Boas, the curator of the American Museum of Natural History, had proposed bringing an Eskimo to New York to study him at leisure. For at the turn of the last century, the embryonic science of anthropology regarded the Eskimos as a rare species and the arrival of a clan of 5 Eskimos in New York ranked as a sensation.
But by October 1897 Boas has long since forgotten his “order“ of Eskimos. The 10-year-old Minik, his father Keeshuh and his relatives are provided with makeshift accommodation in the cellar of the museum. Within 10 days they have all fallen sick and are admitted to Bellevue Hospital, diagnosed with pneumonia and tuberculosis.
In the ensuring period, the Eskimos commute between their new dwelling in the Bronx, the hospital and the museum. The young “savage“ Minik becomes the darling of the New York press. In February 1898 his father Keeshuh dies of tuberculosis and his bones disappear into the anthropological archives of the museum. But for the benefit of the young Minik, the museum's anthropologists stage a mock burial of his father.
Within a few months the other Eskimos all succumb to their illnesses. Only Minik survives and is subsequently adopted by a member of the museum‘s staff. He remains in America for 12 years until he finally succeeds in making his way back to Greenland.
But in the ice-bound expanse of the Arctic, his American education stands him in little stead. He knows not how to hunt, drive a team of dogs or paddle a kayak. He has to re-learn his native tongue, become accustomed to the taste of raw seal meat and the young women of his people choose to ignore the inept Minik.
By now Robert Peary is being celebrated in America as the discoverer of the North Pole, yet Minik is consumed by loathing for Peary and all the scientists in New York. After seven years spent in the Arctic wilderness, he decides to return to America.
The multi-award winning documentary filmmaker Axel Engstfeld has retraced Minik‘s life journey. In a collage of archive footage, documents, reconstructions and forensic inquiry, he recounts the dramatic tale of the young Eskimo and succeeds in providing a fascinating insight into the nascent science of anthropology at the end of the 19th century.
The film was shot in a variety of locations, extending across North Greenland, New Hamsphire, Maine and New York. Gaining access to the Museum of Natural History in New York proved particularly difficult. Six months were to elapse before the researchers were allowed to study the museum’s files and archives. A further 6 months’ patience was required until highly restricted permission to film there was ultimately granted proving just how sensitive this topic still is today.
It would appear as if these past events continue to deeply polarized the world of anthropology. Whereas some are anxious to distance themselves from the beginnings of their science, other anthropologists appear only too eager to debate its history. Among the latter group is the current curator of the American Museum of Natural History David Hurst Thomas. He discusses at length the dramatic fate of Minik and, in so doing, grants an insight into the attitudes prevalent among anthropologists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
with Axel Engstfeld
How did the American Museum of Natural History react to your project?
They were problems with AMNH from the outset. The museum assumes a central role in our film because that’s where the whole story began. It was where the Eskimos spent their initial days and where their bones were stored for almost 100 years. So we needed access to the museum. I hired a researcher in New York, a very talented and tenacious woman called Nicki Lazar, who tried unsuccessfully for months to get a foot into the door. Initially we were keen to just gain access to the museum’s archives and files. Obviously our efforts fuelled lively discussion within the museum. Whereas some reacted positively: “Why not? What have we got to hide? After all, this all happened when anthropology was still in its infancy and that’s how things were at the time”; Others disagreed: “Ermm... better not: It will harm our science. Silence is the best response.” Finally an internal email was sent to Nicki Lazar evidently by mistake and this helped her to identify the various “battle lines” within the museum and to frame her arguments accordingly. It took six months before access to the museum’s archives was finally granted. And a further 9 months were to elapse until we finally obtained filming permission. We simply sat it out. Never gave up, kept asking questions. Normally with TV productions you don’t have too much time. But in this case, we simply made the time.
You even managed to get a curator from the museum on camera.
David Hurst Thomas is curator of the Department of Anthropology and sits on the same chair formerly occupied by Franz Boas over a century ago. Thomas is a courageous man. He wrote a book called “Skull Wars” investigating the astonishing grave robberies committed by American anthropologists towards the end of 19th century. In a certain sense he is a “traitor”. And is regarded as such by many of his colleagues. But Thomas’ view is: “What have we got to hide? That was the way things were when our science was in its infancy.” Thomas was our ally from the outset. But the museum’s press officer was present during the interview and took notes. We were subject to very close monitoring.
How did the shoot in the museum go?
It almost didn’t. I had submitted a list of five motifs. But all we were permitted to film was the large meteorite and the interview. We spent half a day on site until we were finally allowed to film part of the exhibition. Everything “backstage” was off limits. We weren’t allowed to film the corridors or the anthropologists’ offices, nor the store room in which Peary’s massive collection was kept. I would have liked to look inside the countless cabinets containing skins and ivory. And apparently they still have the plaster busts of the Eskimos which were made at the time - but we weren’t even allowed to see them. We were offered a tray full of artifacts from Peary’s collection but I declined. I wanted to see the items in the archive. But that was turned down, as was our request to film down in the cellars or in the attic rooms over the Department of Anthropology. That is where the Eskimos use to live.
Why is the museum so restrictive?
Because it is still a politically sensitive issue. And a source of embarrassment to the largest natural science museum in the world. During the past century, journalists have continually have pressed for information on Minik and the other Eskimos. And for such an institution silence appears to have been the best solution. After a long struggle by American Indians, the so-called “Repatriation Act” came into force 10 years ago: Since that time all bones plundered from graves and subsequently stored in museums must be returned to the tribal grounds. So nowadays, if a curator were to parade the bones of an Indian on camera he could be sued. This has, of course, heightened public awareness for the issue.
Another example is the behavior of the Smithsonian in Washington. Stored beneath the cupola over the entrance is the collection of Ales Hrdlischka who collected the bones and skulls of 30,000 people for the Smithsonian. And he also examined the brains of the dead Eskimos. After much procrastination, the curator finally consented to open up the collection. Probably the main reason for this was the cooperation of David Hurst Thomas, whom he clearly didn’t want to be outdone by. Yet when we arrived in Washington with the crew, the curator had simply disappeared. Supposedly he was unable to come due to a snow storm. However, we managed to travel here from the centre of the snow storm in Pennsylvania without any problem. The museum kept us on tenterhooks for three days until it became obvious that the curator had had a change of heart the whole story had become too hot for him to handle So we just left empty handed.
In Berlin we discovered a further collection containing some 10,000 skulls which had been transferred into a former bunker from the local museum of ethnology. Among the collection was a skull bearing the signature of Franz Boas. Selling skulls used to be a lucrative sideline for anthropologists. 5 US dollars for a skull was good price back in 1900. They used the proceeds to finance their studies and expeditions and consequently the graves of many indigenous populations were extensively plundered.
There is one re-enacted scene in the film where a reporter from a tabloid newspaper interviews Minik in 1917 - after he had just returned to America. Is the dialogue genuine?
Yes, it was actually reported verbatim in the “The World” in 1916. Fortunately for our story, Minik had become a kind of darling of the New York press. The “tamed young savage” who was transformed from an eater of raw meat into an educated American. The pages of the Sunday supplements were full of the story and over the years his progress was regularly chronicled by the press. This is all material we could rely on. A series of long interviews with Minik was also published when he was just 18, which reflected his situation accurately. And then there were the letters which he wrote to a friend in New York and which were in part also published. These letters are very impressive because his language has a literary quality. In terms of visual material there was also a handful of photos, which is why I decided to dramatize a few scenes.
Where were the re-enacted scenes shot?
We did those in Prague. We have been working with a small studio there for years and filmed re-enactments for our documentary series. Normally we shoot these re-enactments without sound, and they serve more as tableaus for the narrative. But this time I wanted to impart more life into the scenes so we inserted a dialogue which was later synchronized. Casting a group of Eskimos in the heart of Prague was a massive challenge for our line producer.
How did you find the actor to play the part of the young Minik?
Through an agent who represents a Mongolian dance group. We cast a number of Mongolian kids but they were all overweight. Something which is unheard of among Eskimos because food is so scarce in that inhospitable environment. Then one day the 9-year-old Anuu Jin Boldsaikhan and his parents walked into the office. Anuu had just arrived in Prague two weeks previously from Mongolia. His face betrayed his astonishment at the unfamiliar surroundings. On the first day of shooting he didn’t even realize when we were actually filming and when not. Later that afternoon he asked when we were going to start. But within three days later we were working well together. We were able to guide him through a complicated scene containing exact stops and glances - absolutely astonishing.
However, he did have difficulty with one scene in which he was examined naked by an anthropologist. Nakedness is a taboo among Mongolians. Yet he still did it - although all the women had to leave the studio first.
You have made so many films in ice-bound regions why the great fascination?
Well often when we are working on location on a project we meet many new faces. In 1996 we realized the Polar series “Im Bannkreis des Nordens” for ZDF, which also featured the Arctic explorer Peary. During our research on this figure, we stumbled upon the story of Minik. At the time, it was little more than a footnote to the main story meriting just one minute in one of the episodes. But I knew from the beginning that there was a great story to be told here. I started writing the script in 1997 but didn’t fancy the prospect of returning to the ice so soon. Then in 2001 I began raising the finance and quickly met with very positive response from commissioning editors and potential financial backers. People were immediately touched by the fate of the small boy. Actually realizing the project took a considerable time not least because of the uncooperative attitude adopted by the museum in New York.
How did you approach the realization? Was there a visual concept?
On this film we worked with three different looks. The scenes in Arctic were shot on Super 16 primarily because of the range of contrast of the film material. The documentary elements of the forensic-style investigation were shot with Digi Beta and the reenacted scenes with Digi Beta and a PS Adapter using a 35mm lenses to obtain a different depth of field and more "cinematic feeling". In addition, there is the level of the archive footage - which was a relatively complex mix which we used to relate the story with as great immediacy as possible.