Here Inuit sculptpr-turned-filmmaker Zaccharias Kunuk presents one of the year’s best films — from anywhere. It’s an intensely felt story of the tragic assault upon Inuit culture.
In North Baffin Island, 1961, a government agent is despatched to compel a historically nomadic people to leave their life for a “settlement.” They will give up their igloos and their hunting for wooden houses with a heater and medical treatment — and their children will be put into the white man’s schools. That “progress” costs the people their roots.
Ironically, while this drama is shot in the spectacular open space of the North, its long, most compelling scenes are in close-up. Two or three faces fill the screen. The agent Boss (Kim Bodnia) speaks through the earnest but struggling Inuit translator Evaluarjuk (Benjamin Kunuk) to persuade the elder, Noah Piuguttuk (Apayata Kotiurk), to move his people off their free, nourishing land into the strictures of a settlement.
But from his experience with an Anglican priest Noah has learned to distrust the white man. And for all his goodwill, tact and sensitivity, Evaluarjuk misses some key translation, like Boss’s threat to remove the tribe’s children to the school, and Noah’s willingness to accept an improved new house — if it’s on his present home site.
Kotiurk in particular presents long scenes of unarticulated but eloquent interiority. Kunuk is humorous, tactful, a wholly engaging spirit, but helpless before the cultural abyss before him. Even as the relative villain Bodnia reveals a generous soul, committed to doing the best he can but unable to bridge the cultures. The film’s core shows two well-meaning people simply unable to understand each other. Yet as one has the power, the other is doomed.
These three performances rank with the best honoured at the recent Oscars. But they will be as ignored in awards season as the cast of the much-honoured Parasite was. After all, the two main actors are Inuit, as those others are Korean. So guess they really weren’t acting. Nonsense. These are simply great performances well beyond the actors’ selves. The Academy still disrespects the Other.
The translator’s name, by the way, could be director Kunuk’s homage to the master Cape Dorset carver Henry Evaluarjuk, famous for his prowling bears.
The key themes are subtlely limned in the opening scene, where Noah awakens his wife and daughter in their sod hut. From the opening credits on, Noah is struggling to read the Inuktiktuk Bible that the minister gave him as (inadequate) payment for a two-month job). It’s a struggle because even the Inuit’s written language is new to them, a break from their oral tradition.
There’s no sugar for the tea, his wife informs him, but Noah appreciates its flavour anyway. He jokes that the white man considers even that tea to be food, as if it were soup. But he resolves to go hunting that day, to be able to trade for the white man’s goods. Their fresh bleeding walrus head is not sufficient.
As the day proceeds the culture’s undermining by modernity unfurls. Noah’s daughter comes along, hoping to meet a particular young man (who has “a cute bum,” she giggles with a girlfriend). He does appear, on Boss’s sled, but Noah rejects that relationship. The Catholic boy is unacceptable to the Anglican Noah. Again, the traditional Inuit culture has been fractured by the white man’s intrusion, here its religion with its imported prejudices and suppressions.
Absent the sheriff in Stagecoach, here no-one can save the Inuit from “the blessings of civilization.” Those dubious blessings include that negative religion, a forced removal from their traditional life and the ruinous white man’s diet. The people raised on raw fish and cariboo are seduced by the white man’s sugar and empty filler biscuits slathered with jam. Noah’s wife has a cough suggestive of the tuberculosis the white society also brought in.
In the penultimate scene, as Noah is home enjoying that destructive diet, he implicitly reconsiders his rejection of the settlement. His wife’s cough enhances the promise of medical attention.
His decision is implied in the documentary epilogue — a recording of the late, real Noah Piuguttuk. In an archival tape he sings an Inuit song of his longing for the sea he has abandoned. So Noah did buckle and move to the settlement. In his yearning for the sea he yearns both for the life he lostand the traditional death he would have with dignity enjoyed, adrift in the sea instead of in the painful alien culture. His sole remaining tooth summarizes the cost of the white man’s subversion of the Inuit culture and people.
One last irony. Noah recalls the silly priest who wanted to “shoot” a polar bear with a camera instead of securing its hide and meat. He was willing to sacrifice Noah’s life for that shot, for the Inuk’s life was more expendable than his own. Now Zaccharias Kunuk brings back the camera — to honour the life and culture so tragically wasted. This is truly a moving picture.