TIFF Review: 'Maliglutit (Searchers)'

Maliglutit (Searchers)
(Canada, 94 min.)
Dir. Zacharias Kunuk, Writ. Zacharias Kunuk, Norman Cohn
Starring: Benjamin Kunuk, Karen Ivalu, John Qunaq
Programme: Platform (World Premiere)
Courtesy of TIFF
The tables have turned on the western. The popular genre has roots in colonial power as it draws upon the myths of Manifest Destiny and American expansionism. The arid landscape of the frontier is a limitless space ready for settlers to cultivate and pillage. Progress comes at any cost and without concern for the people who built a relationship with the land long before the settlers’ arrival. The western frontier is therefore a hostile territory for Indigenous characters, best known as “savages” from the days of the early talkies, as the world of the western was no country for non-white men. Times are changing.

Maliglutit offers Inuit hunters and pioneers as writer/director Zacharias Kunuk offers a visionary western by remaking John Ford’s 1956 classic The Searchers within the Inuit tradition. The film features an all-Inuit cast and Inuktitut dialogue as it shows the early habitants of this fair country as the bravest pioneers of them all.

The film loosely resembles the Ford film as it tells a story of a conflict between two families. The rift within the Inuit community explodes when two women from one family are kidnapped in a violent attack, and the husband of one of the victims vows revenge like any dutiful westerner would. Lots of chasing, running, and dogsledding ensues as Kuanana (Benjamin Kunuk) treks across the arctic in search of his wife.

Zacharias Kunuk and co-director Natar Ungalaaq (who makes a brief appearance in the film) make excellent use of the natural landscape as Kuanana braves the elements to restore honour to his family. Westerns use the sense of limitless possibility embroiled within a landscape to drive their themes of progress and civilisation, but Maliglutit uses the expansive power of the Arctic setting to envision a frontier that is cold and unforgiving. Images of the searchers peering through telescopes almost feel redundant as the borderless tundra of ice and snow creates a setting that offers no place to hide. Long takes let the power of the frigid arctic consume The Searchers as Maliglutit watches the small dots of weary hunters traverse the land, engulfed by the unforgiving elements and fuelled by them.

The high frequency of long takes mixes suspense with malaise. Unlike Kunuk’s Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, Maliglutit runs at a glacial pace. It’s very slow, but the sluggishness of the film emphasises the harshness of the landscape as breath crystallises in the air and icicles form on mustaches as the searchers trudge through the snow.  As with Atanarjuat, Kunuk delivers a new form of direct cinema as Maliglutit favours minimalism and realism. The film draws on the power of the natural elements, like the landscape and sunlight, to present a part of the world that rarely appears on film.

Few images of Inuit life exist from this chapter of history and Maliglutit offers a snapshot of the north that feels timeless. Kunuk offers few elements to indicate the time period, too, aside from a rifle, a telescope, and a ceramic coffee mug that mark the action within a post-colonial context. The film draws upon Inuit myth and folklore as Kunuk frames the narrative within the tradition of oral storytelling as unseen speakers relate the tale in silhouette throughout the journey. A totem that Kuanana receives adds the spiritual power of the animals, too, as calls of the loon reverberate throughout the film. These calls mix with the haunting soundtrack as music and throat singing by Tanya Tagaq fuel the hunt. Maliglutit turns the western on its head as its sends rugged white cowboys out with the sunset and envisions a western that’s no cowboys, all Inuit. It’s a visionary work.

TIFF runs Sept. 8-18.
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