The Drums of Winter
directed by Sarah Elder and Leonard Kamerling, color, 90 min, 1988
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 Yupik 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... 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 and Sound magazine