directed by Percy Adlon
(Pelemele Films, 1991)
A young Inuit woman stands in the middle of a giant, rim-lit satellite disk and howls, wolf-like, into the polar night. Only the chained-up huskies respond. Across town, a middle-aged librarian beds down in her sparsely furnished apartment, surrounded by jars of berries picked so long ago they've begun to ferment.
These are only two of the images that dominate Percy Adlon's unusual look at the modern Arctic, Salmonberries, but two you're not likely to forget.
Kotzebue (k.d. lang) is the Inuit who knows nothing about her background, except that she was found by her foster parents in a box marked Kotzebue, which is also the name of the Alaskan town where she lives. Roswitha (Rosel Zech) is a relative newcomer to the area who emigrated there after fleeing from East to West Berlin 24 years earlier. On the way, however, she lost something -- her husband, who was shot down by East German guards.
Now the two women live in a frontier town populated mostly by Inuits but dominated by a white man known only as Bingo Chuck (Chuck Connors), so called because he runs the town's sole source of nonliterary recreation, a bingo hall.
In the beginning, of course, we know none of this. All we know is that Roswitha is having a hard time running her literary outpost with Kotzebue storming in between shifts in the local lead mine to either lecture her on Alaskan history or heave books in every direction.
It's only through the course of 95 harrowing minutes that we begin to see the common suffering that brings these two uncommon women together, and only in the last few minutes do we see the healing they can offer one another.
Films like Salmonberries can come only from the heart. Some find them thought-provoking; others would say disturbing.
What's impressive about Salmonberries is that it's as technically proficient as it is thoughtful, as exacting in its finely carved ice sculpture of Alaska -- where sled dogs share the ice with snowmobiles -- as it is in its depiction of two souls about to undergo a meltdown.
Much of the credit must go to cinematographer Tom Sigel, whose crisp images capture the stark contrasts of the Arctic landscape from both air and land, and to lang, whose wrought-iron voice angles the film's theme song around numerous scenes, tying plot and themes together even at the film's most inscrutable moments.
Salmonberries was made for a limited audience: people who prefer insight to explosions, psychology to slashings. The "family values" crowd will no doubt find it offensive; and action film fans would be foolish to even consider it.
But if you're part of the limited audience that remains, rejoice. Your film has arrived.