Natar Ungalaaq plays Tivii, the Inuit hunter who contracts TB from a foreign visitor, in Benoît Pilon’s film The Necessities of Life.
Once, maybe twice, in your life, a film may knock you back on your heels. You forget to breathe until the lights come on, so compelling are the story and the imagery. As the credits roll, you linger in your seat, reluctant to leave the universe that has just enlarged your own.
That happened to me in July 2002 when I saw Zacharias Kunuk’s The Fast Runner at the majestic Michigan Theater in downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan. I was not alone. Long after the screen went dark, hundreds of people continued to sit in silence.
Were others, like me, in a mild state of shock, trying to integrate the transformative excursion to Canada’s High Arctic, the intimate immersion in Inuit culture? When I finally caught my breath, I remember turning to my mother, then an adventurous octogenarian, to exclaim, “What a privilege!”
At the time, I knew the film had garnered a slew of awards, including the Camera d’Or at Cannes, and that reviewers like A.O. Scott of the New York Times had called the three-hour film a masterpiece, “a work of narrative sweep and visual beauty that honors the history of the art form even as it extends its perspective.”
But I didn’t know what ingredients made the film unique—that it was Canada’s first feature-length film written, produced, directed, and acted in Inuktitut by Inuit, all of whom came from Kunuk’s home settlement of Igloolik, a small island off the northwest coast of Baffin Island. I didn’t realize the story was a thousand-year-old legend, an action thriller from the Igloolik region that had been passed down orally for generations to teach Inuit youth the danger of putting personal desire above the needs of the group. Or that Kunuk was self-taught, bringing a discerning eye honed by years of survival hunting to capture the endless hues of Arctic light and tundra so audiences could experience his culture through Inuit eyes.
I would learn all of that and more during a five-year period when I interviewed Kunuk in Ottawa, then flew to Igloolik on assignment and traveled 40 miles by sled to a remote outpost camp to live with many of the same cast and crew while Kunuk shot his next feature film, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen. I journeyed back to Igloolik the following spring for the first screening of that film, and returned several more times, including a Fulbright year in the community to study Kunuk’s work and other local cultural preservation initiatives.
In Igloolik, I got to know Natar Ungalaaq, the award-winning actor who excels as Atanarjuat, the lead in The Fast Runner. He also stars in The Necessities of Life, a more personal contemporary film that chronicles one aspect of the disruptive impact outsiders had on 20th century Inuit.
Directed by Benoît Pilon, Necessities tells the story of Tivii, an Inuit hunter who in 1952 contracts tuberculosis, one of many devastating diseases introduced by travelers to the Arctic. He is forcibly removed from his nomadic family, flown south, and quarantined for two years in a Quebec City sanitarium. Surrounded by alien customs and a language he can’t understand, he begins to despair until a nurse introduces him to an Inuit boy who is also suffering from TB. In teaching the boy about his traditional way of life, Tivii recovers his will to live.
In a behind-the-scenes coincidence that I have come to expect in Inuit filmmaking, actor Ungalaaq had more than a passing familiarity with Tivii’s dilemma. His grandfather had been treated for TB during the same 1950s epidemic depicted in film.
“From the start of the film and the time that I read the script, I didn’t want to [talk about] that very personal part of the film,” Ungalaaq said. “After the film was made, that is when I started to share the whole personal part of it.”
Shortlisted for a 2009 Academy Award as Canada’s official Oscar entry for Best Foreign Language Film, The Necessities of Life premiered in August 2008 at the Montreal World Film Festival, where it received numerous awards, including the Grand Jury Prize. Among the many awards Ungalaaq has won for his performance is the 2009 Genie (Canada’s equivalent of an Oscar) for Best Actor.
Fairfield’s ICON Gallery will host the Midwest premiere of The Necessities of Life and The Fast Runner Feb. 18-21. The showings will serve as a benefit for the non-profit gallery. ICON, a venue that displays high-quality contemporary fine art, provides public awareness programs, workshops, and events to educate artists and cultivate an appreciation of the arts throughout Iowa.
All screenings will take place at ICON Gallery, 641-919-4193. 58 N. Main St., Fairfield. Admission is $10.
The Fast Runner
• Thurs., Feb. 18, 2010, 7 p.m.
• Sat., Feb. 20, 1:30 p.m.
• Sun., Feb. 21, 7 p.m.
The Necessities of Life
• Fri., Feb. 19, 2010, 7:30 p.m.
• Sat., Feb. 20, 7:30 p.m.
• Sun., Feb. 21, 2 p.m.
Also, watch for a delightful short on Inuit hip-hop February 5-7 at the 1st Fridays ArtWalk.
Sonia Gunderson has spent many months in Igloolik, researching Inuit culture. Read Sonia’s other articles about Inuit life: Inuit Culture in Transition, Inuit: Legendary Masters of the Arctic, and Inuit Perspectives on Climate Change.
Sonia Gunderson is a freelance writer, specializing in arts and culture. She writes regularly for two Canadian magazines: The Inuit Art Quarterly and Above & Beyond. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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