One of the most intriguing films of the year. A film that says a lot by saying little
Marie-Hélène Cousineau’s and Madeline Ivalu’s slice of life of a small band of Inuit people in extreme northern Canada may well be one of the most subtle, and misunderstood, films of the year. When viewed by Inuits and other “native” people with knowledge of those first meetings with Europeans two hundred years ago the reaction will be “so, what else is new.” When viewed by average audiences in developed countries the reaction will be “what is this all about?”
At first glance the movie is a story about a few months in the several thousand year history of a remote native tribe on the edge of the Arctic Circle. As the tale progresses the film emerges as an allegory about family, loyalty, life, death and the joining of humans with the earth. The film will be too slow for many to watch without getting squirmy in their seats. It has this in common with Asian films that seem to be taking a long time to “say” something. The reason the film seems to be taking a long time to say something is most viewers won’t understand what is being said.
An example is the homecoming of the Inuktitut hunting party in their canoes. By the way, the canoes, tents, spears, clothing and every other aspect of the sets and costumes in this film are perfect. They are perfect because the actors in the film are actual native people wearing actual native clothing. The film is like the Australian aborigine masterpiece “Ten Canoes” in that way. It is the telling of a story within a story in which the characters and the actors are one and the same.
When the canoe comes home with the catch there is great rejoicing and everybody plays a part. There are no members of the tribe that are marginalized or written off as too old, or too young, to be an important part of the event. Every part of the catch is consumed or saved for the dark winter months when hunting will be difficult. There is celebration and a rejoicing over the gift of life. The returning hunter relays the curious story of the white men with knives made from a fine new material which is not rock or bone at all. The material is steel (for an engrossing exploration of this read “Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” (1997) by Jared Diamond). They trade with the Europeans but, of course, they get more than they bargained for. In addition to steel they get the germs for which they have no resistance.
The hunter departs, but his son Maniq (Paul-Dylan Ivalu) asks to stay behind to take care of his grandmother Ninioq (Madeline Ivalu). There is no heat in the tents; people disrobe in their beds of furs and hides in order to preserve body warmth. The only light is a simple oil lamp made from bone. As the night progresses Ninioq slowly extinguishes the oil lamp. Bit by bit the light dies, echoing the films refrain that “No child can live alone.”
In the end the audience is left to wonder what is really lost when the ways of ancient peoples are lost. Modern civilization has become both too good at living and too bad at, at the same time. If we seize comfort by using nonrenewable fossil fuels that cause lethal changes in the global climate are we any better off than others who consume only what they need? This group lives on what the earth provides on a daily and yearly basis. They do not consume wealth stored in the earth from millennia past. In this way they live in harmony with the earth.
In the same way they accept death as just another facet of life. But this is not just the death of a person it is the death of a civilization and the death of a culture. If all cultures die who have respect for the principles of sustainable existence, who are the real losers? Will the death of our industrial civilization be far behind?
Directed by: Marie-Hélène Cousineau and Madeline Ivalu
Written by: Susan Avingaq and Marie-Hélène Cousineau
Starring: Madeline Ivalu and Paul-Dylan Ivalu
Release: December 2, 2009
MPAA: PG (Canada)
Runtime: 93 minutes
Language: Inuktitut with English subtitles