Uvanga: Myself

(Canada, 88 min.)
Dir. Marie-Hélène Cousineau and Madeline Ivalu, Writ. Marie-Hélène Cousineau
Starring: Marianne Farley, Lukasi Forrest, Travis Kunnuk, Paka Innuksuk, Madeline Ivalu, Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq, Carol  Kunnuk .
Lukasi Forrest (Thomas) and Travis Kunnuk (Travis). Courtesy of Mongrel Media.

Take a trip to Igloolik, Nunavut, in the striking melodrama Uvanga. Uvanga, directed by Marie-Hélène Cousineau and Madeline Ivalu, two members of the Arnait Video Collective and the winners of the Best Canadian First Feature Film award at the2008 Toronto International Film Festival for Before Tomorrow, takes an age-old story of a return to one’s roots to reclaim what is missing. The story could literally take place anywhere, but Uvanga, shot entirely in Nunavut during the season of twenty-four hour sunlight, feels both universal and specific.

Films set in the contemporary Arctic are rare, so this tale of homecoming has a freshness that compensates for the sags in its story. As Anna (Marianne Foley) arrives in Igloolik from Montreal with her fourteen-year-old son Thomas (Lukasi Forrest) and introduces him to the grandparents he never met (a likable pair played by Samson Kango and co-director Ivalu), Uvanga offers an introduction of sorts to a corner of Canada that rarely gets its time before the camera. The story about the mysterious death of Thomas’s father, Caleb, who passed shortly after Thomas’s birth, doesn’t really add much to the film besides a vehicle for introducing Thomas to the community and traditions of his father’s roots, yet Cousineau and Ivlau let the elements of Inuk culture speak for themselves as Thomas tastes his heritage with nibbles of muktuk and hunts his first seal. Uvanga’s languid pace can be frustratingly so, especially when a handful of the performances have a limited range of expression, but the sedate, pensive cadence of the film features an authenticity that simply demands to be seen.

The serene cinematography takes in the ever-present sunlight and films the rocky landscape and frigid waters with a lovely post-card perfect eye. Uvanga avoids romanticising the Arctic, though, regardless of how much Anna insists of upholding a comfortably crooked memory of Caleb for Thomas’s sake. When Uvanga looks inward at the community, Cousineau and Ivalu depict life in the Arctic simply and honestly with no objective other than to share a realistic self-representation. (It’s fitting that Uvanga translates to ‘myself.’) The effects of alcoholism are everywhere in the community, substance abuse cripples lives and relationships, and children are often left to fend for themselves in the absence of their parents. The ever-present reality of the problems with which Caleb struggled during his brief romance with Anna breaks down the outsider’s rose-coloured view. Uvanga says that openness and acceptance is far better than finding closure in a lie.

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Uvanga screens in Ottawa at The ByTowne until August 27.