Film

Negotiating and Understanding the Threats to Inuit Life in Canada

The video art of Isuma, the first international media organization created by and for Indigenous peoples, highlights the contemporary and historical impasses they are forced to navigate.

Apayata Kotierk and Kim Bodnia in One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk (2019) (courtesy Isuma Distribution International)

VENICE — How do we attempt understanding across difference? What does self-representation mean, and how might it aid in this task? 

While these questions come up in all kinds of contexts, when in Venice for the Biennale, I saw them taken up exquisitely by a film and its accompanying live webcasts and a vast repository of Indigenous language films and videos available online. Isuma, the Inuit collective based in Igloolik, created this tripartite project for the newly renovated Canada Pavilion. Its centerpiece is One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk, a two-hour film directed by Zacharias Kunuk that makes powerful statements about time, space, and land. Ultimately, as the film’s narrative unfolds, it dramatizes the inadequacies of language and attempts at “understanding” between cultures. It speaks poetically and fiercely to the idea that we may never “understand” one another, and that this fact may sometimes best be accepted and acted upon accordingly. 

The film opens with a view of the landscape Kapuivik, on North Baffin Island in 1961. A broad, snow- and ice-covered plain stretches horizontally with sod homes and sleigh dogs in the middle distance, and above the horizon a bright, low-hanging sun glows from the center of the scene. The only sounds are a ticking clock and a murmuring voice. It is the same year that Yuri Gargarin landed on the moon, the Berlin Wall was built, and that John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps. It is also the year that Inuit Elder Noah Piugattuk was told he and his family could no longer inhabit their ancestral lands on the northern reaches of Canada’s coastline. 

Production Designer Susan Avingaq on set. (2018) (photographer: Samuel Cohn-Cousineau; courtesy Isuma Distribution International)

There is an inkling of what is coming from the outset, with the clock sounds comprising the soundtrack of the first moments of the film. As the scene shifts to the interior of one of the sod homes, we are introduced to Noah Piugattuk, his wife, and his daughter who wake up for the day ahead. A hunting excursion becomes a meeting point between Piugattuk’s hunting party and a white man named Boss and his Inuit translator. In the blindingly white atmosphere of the hunting grounds, Boss delivers tea, biscuits, jam, and sugar as gifts to Piugattuk. Then he reveals his mission in seeking out the Elder: Boss is an agent of the Canadian government attempting to convince Piugattuk that he and his family should leave their land to relocate to the nearby settlement in order to comply with the government’s insistence that all children attend school, including Piugattuk’s. 

There is a translator with Boss, an Inuit man who lives in the settlement, who is the pivot point of the conversation. He mediates what Boss and Piugattuk understand of one another, or so it seems. As the “lost in translation” conversation unfolds, anger, frustration, tenderness, generosity, and rage all flow through the interactions between these men. The phrases, “I just want to understand him,” “I understand,” and “I want to understand” are spoken by Boss in close proximity to one another at the high point of the conflict. However, Piugatttuk refuses to answer whether he will move to the settlement willingly or have his children taken away forcibly by the government. While Boss seems to think Piugattuk simply doesn’t understand that the government will take his children away from him even if he decides to stay, Piugattuk rebuffs him to preserve his family’s way of life. 

Neither man understands the other literally, but they both know the result of the conversation. As they continue to speak and sit in silence, the weather transitions from clear and sunny to increasingly cold and windy. What started out as a good hunting day has turned. Their mustaches and beards form icicles. They are each freezing into their positions. 

Their impasse is more than a conflict of that moment in 1961. It speaks to something basic. Boss may or may not understand what this land means to Piugattuk and his people, but it is clear that for Piugattuk, without the land, life shifts into a space of the unknown. Boss mentions the money that Piugattuk’s children could make in the settlement, and Piugattuk and his kin joke about neither caring about nor understanding why money would be desirable. They reject it as useless.

The film’s end mirrors its beginning, back inside of the sod house. Piugattuk drinking tea with his wife, now sweetened with the sugar that Boss gifted him. The clock continues to tick, counting down the days they might continue this routine on their land, in the sod house, as generations have done before them.

Exterior of Canada Pavilion at Venice Biennale (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of Isuma at the Canada Pavilion at Venice Biennale (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

In the context of the Canada Pavilion, this film is presented beside Isuma Online, a collection of films in Inuit and other Indigenous languages from across the globe available free of charge on Isuma TV and iTunes, and a series of live webcasts from Baffin Island. The webcasts center on contemporary land issues for the Inuit as their island is again under threat, this time from a multinational corporation planning to build a railroad and supertanker route. The clock continues to tick, as 1961 becomes the present, and territory and its use remain the focus. 

The four founders of Isuma began working together in 1985 when Zacharias Kunuk was the first Indigenous person to be awarded a cultural grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. Kunuk was joined by cameraman Norman Cohn, editor, Paul Apak, and storyteller Pauloosie Qulitalik. They then worked together for a decade creating the first Inuit media arts center, a women’s collective filmmaking organization, as well as a youth media and circus group. In 2008 Isuma TV launched as the first international media organization created by and for Indigenous peoples. They have since made numerous fiction and non-fiction features, as well as establishing a resource of representation of Indigenous peoples internationally, a radical act of preservation and self-determination engaging subsequent generations along the way. 

I highly recommend traveling down the rabbit hole of the many videos available on the Isuma website. In the absence of understanding, we can try to see one another. And being seen requires that we broadcast images of ourselves and the meanings we find in the world. Isuma has profound ways of doing just that. 

Isuma selected five curators to organize the Canada Pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale: Asinnajaq, artist, writer and curator from Inukjuak, Nunavik; Catherine Crowston, Executive Director and Chief Curator of the Art Gallery of Alberta; Barbara Rischer, Executive Director and Chief Curator of the Art Museum at the University of Toronto; Candice Hopkins, Senior Curator of the Toronto Biennial of Art; and Josèe Drouin-Brisebois, Senior Curator of Contemporary Art, National Gallery of Canada. The 2019 Venice Biennale continues through November 24.

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