Screen still of Benjamin Kunuk in Maliglutit (Searchers) | Image source: tiff.net
As part of TIFF 2016, acclaimed Inuit filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk debuted his third feature length film, Maliglutit (Searchers) to a full house at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto Monday evening. Kunuk uses his signatures style weaving intense action scenes with raw shots of the vast arctic tundra and lengthy sequences depicting the intricate details of the lives of Inuit people.
Maliglutit actually means “followers” in Inuktitut, and is based on the John Ford western film, The Searchers where two young white ladies are kidnapped by a group of Comanche and must be saved by their family. Kunuk re-tells the story in an Inuit context. Much like his first film, Antanjurat The Fast Runner, Maliglutit (Searchers) is spoken all in Inuktitut and is set in the past, this time around 1913. During the Q & A after the premier, Kunuk stated the reason why he likes to do timepieces is to preserve his community’s history, culture and language. Everything you see on camera is consulted by and set up with Elders from his community so that if someone were to watch it a 100 years from now it would be authentic and concise. Before the premiere, I met up with Zacharias Kunuk to talk about Maliglutit (Searchers) and the profound effect that his film’s successes have had on the community.
MM: Maliglutit (Searchers) is inspired by John Ford’s 1956 western The Searchers a story about revenge and violence. What compelled you to tell this story in an Inuit context?
ZK: We came off the land 50 years ago. I was nine years old when we started watching movies and we watched these cowboys and Indians [films]. Based on that, we used our own stories, our own experiences in life that we saw when we were children. [One time] we saw what adults were doing and based on that we made this story similar: bad guys murdering and kidnapping women, husband trying to rescue his wife and daughter, so it’s sort of the same story.
MM: Since your acclaimed first film, Atanarjuat The Fast Runner you have gone onto create three more successful films. How has your creative and storytelling process evolved since your first film?
ZK: We started to build in the last 30 years; it’s our job to. We’ve been recording Elders, making films, documentaries all about the past, so 100 years from now it’s still going to be there. People will see the films; see the costumes and the sets. We try to do everything exactly right and with the language.
MM: Isuma means “to have thought” in Inuktitut. How have you incorporated Inuit values and knowledge into your filmmaking?
ZK: Isuma means a lot of things, it means to have an idea; it means brainstorming. In 2001 we went into receivership right away when we built this company. We’re still trying to do the same thing, still trying to save our culture and language, and still trying to protect it. That’s why we film it all in Inuktitut. Always in Inuktitut.
MM: You founded Isuma Igloolik Productions in order to produce independent community-based media that preserves and enhances Inuit culture and language. In what ways do you think your films have impacted the community?
ZK: It’s a new thing. We used to watch movies when we didn’t know how much trouble it [was to make them]. We didn’t even know what a camera was or how many people were behind the camera. Movies, I thought were just ‘God sent’. When we started making films we put the whole community to work. Hunters building igloos for the set, Elders stitching clothes and making costumes with young apprentices learning how to do it and dog-teaming. These people that we filmed had never dog-teamed in their life, they had to learn. It’s what we have done since we made Atanarjuat. We taught actors how to try to get into character. If you can do that- that’s all we want.
MM: What advice do you have for the next generation of aspiring Inuit filmmakers?
ZK: There’s a lot more now since we started because we did a certain style. There’s a lot more comedy, children’s, women’s issues that we are not doing. We just trail blazed. There’s a lot to learn from [filmmaking]. The number one thing is having a good story and having a mastermind from all the writers and this crazy thing called financing.
We want to be on par with everybody. We want to be on the same level. That’s why we are doing this in our style. Someone asked me why don’t the actors speak English? I told them because then it’s going to start looking like those bad Kung Fu movies. So we do our own thing; we stay with our own style.
MM: Of the North is a “documentary” film that plays on the negative stereotypes of Indigenous/Inuit people that has been screened at film festivals in Canada and internationally . What are your thoughts about the ethics and responsibility of film festivals that screen (and filmmakers who make) racist films under the guise of freedom of expression?
ZK: It’s a free country. Anyone can do that. We just have to know that with this amazing tool (film making) that we are using, we could use it for good and that it’s very easy to use it for bad. Some people use it for bad, but we use it to preserve our culture. Some people want to be on TV, but Inuit don’t want to be on TV. There are times I think, lets get the camera and go knock on some doors and talk to politicians- but that’s not our style.
Zacharias Kunuk, OC (born November 27, 1957) is a Canadian Inuk producer and director most notable for his film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, the first Canadian dramatic feature film produced entirely in Inuktitut and won the award for Best Canadian Feature at TIFF and the Caméra d’Or at Cannes. He is the president and co-founder of Igloolik Isuma Productions, Canada’s first independent Inuit production company. Maliglutit (Searchers) is his latest feature, which debuted at TIFF 2016.