Before Tomorrow | Inuit Women’s Film Opens in Fairfield to Benefit Icon Gallery

In the Inuit film Before Tomorrow, the main characters are played by Madeline Piujuq Ivalu and her grandson, Paul-Dylan Ivalu (© Felix Lajeunnesse, Igloolik Isuma Productions).

It’s no surprise that Before Tomorrow, the first feature film from the Inuit women’s collective Arnait Video Productions, based in the small Canadian Arctic community of Igloolik, scooped up a number of awards prior to its public release in February 2009. From the opening credits to the final scene, the film is pure poetry. 

The Midwest premiere of the film on February 27 and 28, a benefit for ICON Gallery in Fairfield, will give Iowans a chance to be among the first U.S. audiences to see the film.

I was fortunate to attend the first “family screening” of Before Tomorrow with the cast and crew in Igloolik almost a year before its official release. Afterward, the audience sat in stunned silence, then burst into applause and cheered the local women who had toiled for several years to make the film. Like Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) and other productions of Igloolik’s acclaimed Inuit filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk, Before Tomorrow features homegrown talent as actors, directors, screenwriters, photographers, prop-makers, and cultural consultants.

Co-directed by Marie-Hélène Cousineau and Madeline Piujuq Ivalu, Before Tomorrow is an adaptation of Danish author Jørn Riel’s novel Før Morgendagen, set in 19th century Greenland. After reading the novel, Cousineau proposed that the women of Arnait use it as the basis for a film script. “They were touched by it,” she says. “They recognized it as a true story—something that was true to the culture and to their lives.”

A Story of Survival

Co-starring Madeline Piujuq Ivalu and her real-life grandson, Paul-Dylan Ivalu, the film portrays their struggle to find the means and will to survive after disease decimates their extended family. Stranded on an Arctic island as winter closes in, grandmother and grandson face hardship together with dignity, resourcefulness, tenderness, and humor. A compelling human story of survival that is both mythic and realistic, Before Tomorrow evokes the historic experience of Inuit and indigenous peoples throughout the world who have been devastated by disease and other influences imported by outsiders.

As Ningiuq, Madeline Piujuq Ivalu is magnificent. Whether telling a story as she tends the qulliq (seal-oil lamp), singing a haunting ayaya song, or grappling with tragedy, Ivalu’s performance is natural, affecting. At times, the depth of feeling she projects through a glance can be simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting—a quiet affirmation of the best of human nature. Paul-Dylan Ivalu shines as Maniq, her brave and devoted grandson, who harpoons his first seal, helps dry fish for winter, and tends to his beloved grandmother’s wounds after a wolf attack. “You are so able,” she tells him.

This compelling story sings out through the camera, which reveals the grandeur of the Arctic landscape, the changing quality of light in different seasons, the lush sensuality of caribou and sealskin clothing, and the transcendent radiance of the qulliq’s flame inside a cave. Susan Avingaq’s art direction is superlative, as is the camera work of videographers Norman Cohn, Félix LaJeunesse, and Cousineau.

Facing Production Challenges

Filmed in natural light on the land near Puvirnituq, Nunavik (Arctic Quebec), over four seasons in 2006-07, the production presented numerous challenges to the cast and crew. For starters, the Igloolik-based women’s collective had planned to shoot the film near their home community, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, as they had done with projects since 1991. 

However, with increasingly uncertain funding prospects in their home territory, the women of Arnait scrambled to find a Nunavik locale that would enable them to attract adequate funding. The group settled on Puvirnituq, a modern Inuit community in northern Quebec.

“We wrote [the script] for Igloolik, but in Puvirnituq there is no floating ice,” Cousineau says. “It’s a very different landscape. It’s on Hudson Bay, well below the Arctic Circle. The seasons are different, the animals are different. We had to adjust everything to what we found there.”

Besides rewriting the script, the group faced other challenges in the new location. While Puvirnituq had regular airline access, a good hotel, guides, and a boat-building shop that could produce traditional kayaks and umiaks (traditional women’s boats), the filmmakers discovered the community no longer had Inuit who knew how to sew caribou-skin clothing, craft sealskin tents, or make drums. The solution was to hire experts in Igloolik to craft the costumes and props, and then transport them to Nunavik.

Not surprisingly, weather presented challenges for the production. Puvirnituq was windier than Igloolik. Its snows and ice arrived late. When the snows finally came in January, the script’s “dark winter days” were filled with sunshine. At the same time, working in temperatures of minus 40 F, even inside the cave, took a toll on the actors. During the winter shoot, Ivalu says her biggest challenge was a scene where she had to lie down in the snow with the skin of her shoulder exposed. She barely escaped severe frostbite.

Despite production challenges, the group adapted. In the end, Cousineau says Arnait managed to blend the best of both communities—the traditional knowledge of Igloolik and the modern conveniences of Puvirnituq. “The people of Puvirnituq were wonderful to us—welcoming, professional, and supportive at every step.”

Winning Festival Awards

The result is a film that captivates the audience from start to finish. Igloolik’s hometown crowd was enthusiastic, a response that quickly spread. When Before Tomorrow premiered at the 33rd Toronto International Film Festival in September, it garnered rave reviews. It also won its first award, Best First Feature Film. As of press time, the film had won more awards, including Best Film at the American Indian Film Festival (where Ivalu also received a nomination for Best Actress) and Best Dramatic Feature at the Imagine­ Native indigenous film festival. In early December, Before Tomorrow received an honorable mention for Best New Canadian Feature Film at the Whistler Film Festival. Actor Donald Sutherland, head of the competition’s jury, singled out the film, saying it was “a great work.” The film was also selected as one of 16 international films (from 1,012 entries in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition category) to be screened at the January 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

Iowa Screenings & Lecture

In Iowa, Before Tomorrow will screen on Friday, February 27, at 7:45 p.m., and Saturday, February 28, at 2 p.m. and 7:45 p.m., at ICON Gallery, 58 N. Main, Fairfield. Admission is $10.

Sonia Gunderson will give a slide talk, “Living With the Inuit,” about her year in Igloolik, Nunavut, on Sunday, Feb. 22,   2 p.m., Fairfield Public Library, hosted by ICON. Admission is free.        

Sonia Gunderson is a freelance writer, specializing in arts and culture. She is currently writing a book about Inuit cultural preservation initiatives in Igloolik. Email her at

More about Before Tomorrow: Co-directed by Marie-Hélène Cousineau and Madeline Piujuq Ivalu, Before Tomorrow was co-produced by Igloolik Isuma Productions, Inc., and Kunuk Cohn Productions, creators of the critically acclaimed films Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) and The Journals of Knud Rasmussen. It was produced in association with Telefilm Canada, SODEC and the Nunavut Film Commission, with support from NITV, Makivik Corporation, First Air, and Air Inuit. It was released by Alliance Atlantis Motion Picture Distribution in English-speaking Canada and Alliance Atlantis Vivafilm in Quebec. It will be distributed internationally through Isuma Distribution International. In Inuktitut (with English subtitles). Running time: 93 minutes.

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