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The Prize of the Pole

by Staffen Julen, Director
First Run / Icarus Films, Brooklyn, NY, 2006
DVD, 78 mins., color
Sale/DVD: $440; rental/DVD: $150
Distributor’s website: http://www.frif.com.

Review by John F. Barber
Digital Technology and Culture
Washington State University Vancouver


Robert Edwin Perry, an American Navy engineer, claimed to have reached the North Pole on 6 April 1909, the first human known to have done so. His claim was never documented as no member of the party possessed sufficient navigational skills to determine their position precisely. On the other hand, Perry's claim was never disproved. Prior to his claimed conquest of the North Pole, Perry spent two decades in the Artic, exploring, taking specimens, and fathering at least two children with an Inuit woman. In 1897, Perry brought an Inuit family to New York as part of an exhibit planned at the American Museum of Natural History. The family died, save for the six-year-old boy, Minik. In 2006, Perry's great-grandson, an Inuit hunter named Hivshu (a.k.a. Robert E. Perry II), embarked on a journey to find peace with his namesake, his own identity, and the young boy Minik. The movie by Staffen Julen, The Prize of the Pole, chronicles this journey.

Perry's great-grandson meets first with tribal elders in Greenland, who recount ancient stories of the Arctic explorer's extended expeditions in their country–Perry was the first Arctic explorer to spend a winter among the Inuits. The elders also speak of Perry's unethical zeal in pursuit of his scientific interests in the region and its peoples.

Traveling to New York, Robert E. Perry II meets officials at the American Museum of Natural History and The Explorer's Club, seeking information about the Inuit family, one of whom was his father. All but Minik died within two years of taking up residency in the Museum of Natural History where they complained of the heat and total strangeness of their surroundings. While alive and living at the Museum, the Inuits were the focus of studies by Franz Boas, the "father" of American anthropology. Boaz considered the Inuits as barbarians, called them "living fossils," and apparently after their death, conspired with Perry and others to preserve their skeletons and brains for further study. Mock funeral ceremonies where held in the Museum's garden where logs clad in the Inuit’s clothes were buried instead of their bodies.

Robert E. Perry II visits other research libraries and historical sites and eventually unravels the mysteries surrounding the disposition of his father's body. In a poignant moment he recounts confronting his father's skeleton on display in the Museum. He also learns of Minik's history; after being abandoned by Perry, Minik left New York and returned to Greenland where he hatched a plan to return to America, buy lumber, and bring it back to Greenland in order to build houses for his people. Minik did return to America–New Hampshire–where he died in a logging town and was buried. Robert E. Perry II visits his grave and notes a street named in his honor.

At the film's conclusion, Robert E. Perry II confronts the darker sides of his own explorations and discoveries, as well as the legends surrounding his great-grandfather, especially the human price paid so that Perry could realize his dreams of Arctic exploration. Hivshu proudly reclaims his native name and returns to Greenland with closure for the ancient tales and their questions regarding the fate of Minik.

On this straightforward narrative level, The Prize of the Pole is an engaging biographical and historical experience, made even more effective through its utilization of archival footage, photographs, and audio recordings. On a more critical level, we see that the vastness of the unknown Artic was a powerful magnet for Robert Perry, a man arguably keenly interested to escape the requirements and expectations of Victorian American society and culture. So strong was this allure that Perry was willing to sacrifice anything and anyone to achieve his dream. His apparent collusion with Boaz to bring native peoples of the Arctic to New York, and his apparent agreement to secretly clean their skeletons and preserve their brains after their deaths, can be linked to Perry's need/desire for funding of future Arctic expeditions which Boaz supported.

In the end, The Prize of the Pole is a documentary film focusing on contemporary personal journey–Perry's, Minik's, and Hivshu's–as well as a moving and engrossing commentary on anthropology, colonialism, multi-culturalism, and human rights.



Updated 1st April 2008

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