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Lost in translation

One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk
Regissør: Zacharias Kunuk

ABORIGINES / Tromsø International Film Festival's opening film is a minimalist but profound study of the cultural clash between Inuit and government in Canada.


The past few years have Tromsø International Film Festival opened with a Norwegian documentary, preferably with a local section – as has been the case with Egil Håskjold Larsens Where to return, Erik Poppes Per Fugelli – Latest recipe and Solveig Melkeraaens Heavy Cut Erne, which were opening films at the last three festivals.

This year, however, "TIFF" – which is being arranged for the 30th time – has made a somewhat bolder choice of opening films. A choice that is nevertheless in line with the festival's spotlight on the Arctic region and its indigenous groups.

Slow Cinema

One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk is directed by the Canadian Inuit Zacharias Kunuk and can be placed within the "art film" wave called slow cinema: movies with slow and minimal storytelling, often in the form of long, unbroken recordings. A clear exponent of the direction is the Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr, known for Satan Tango og The Turin Horse. But, for example, the term has also been used about Apichatpong Weerasethakul's magic-realistic Onkel Boonmee som kan erindre sine tidligere liv and the portrait documentary caniba by anthropologist / director duo Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel.

Often, miscommunication is due to the deep cultural differences between
the two parties.

Zacharias Kunuk's feature film debut Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner from 2001 was the first feature film to be written, directed and shot in its entirety in the language of the Inuktitut. ilmen, he was awarded the Camera d'Or award for best debut film at the Cannes Film Festival.

Later he made the feature film The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (2006), which, like the debut, was also shown at the Tromsø International Film Festival.

Customization requirements

Kunuk's latest movie One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk is based on real events from 1961. Here the dialogue takes place in both Inuktitut and English. This is an important element of the story, which is otherwise stripped down to an almost minimum.

The first sequence shows the protagonist Noah Piugattuk (Apayata Kotierk) in the hut in Kapuivik on northern Baffin Island, while his wife prepares tea. Then we see him lead the Inuit group out on a seal hunt, where the journey of dog sledging through the snow landscape also extends over longer playing time than in a more conventional film narrative.

One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk Director Zacharias Kunuk
One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk Director Zacharias Kunuk

In the hunting camp they are visited by a representative of the Canadian authorities, played by Danish Kim Bodnia. His job is to persuade the Inuit to align themselves with the rules of the governing authorities: Their children must be given regular schooling, and families are asked to move to houses in organized settlements.

This leads to a longer conversation between him and Noah Piugattuk, portrayed in real-time, which makes up the bulk of the film. They do not speak each other's language and thus depend on the Inuit interpreter of "The Boss" – which the protagonist and his companion call the authorities sent man. As a result, much is lost in translation. It gets both comedic and worrying outcomes – and is both frustrating and fascinating to witness for us as spectators.

No words for money?

The interpreter (Benjamin Kunuk) almost never reproduces exactly what the "boss" says, partly because of a lack of linguistic understanding. At times, he also chooses to change wordings from both sides to limit possible conflicts. But often the miscommunication is due to the deep cultural differences between the two parties, which are also reflected in their respective languages.

When the Inuits are offered money by the authorities this is difficult for them to deal with, all the time they pay nothing for what they live off of nature. They refer to the counterpart as "isumataq", which is their word for "boss" (while Noah in turn is the leader by virtue of being "the elder"). In literal translation, this apparently means "he thinks of us" – and here they are undeniably in something. For while this particular "boss" desire to help them may be genuine enough, the Inuits are aware of what is really at stake: They are asked to give up their way of life – a nomadic lifestyle they have followed for many generations, and which they are very pleased with.

The Inuit are aware of what is really at stake: They are asked to state their way of life

Illustratively nuanced. The cultural collision is not less evident by the film's exemplary nuanced portrayal of both sides. Here, the white man is not drawn as a caricatured "bad guy," and the Inuit are not necessarily ignorant victims. Nevertheless, they are faced with an impossible dilemma, and history has shown how this went – something the film also reminds us of in a moving epilogue.

One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk Director Zacharias Kunuk

The historical backdrop also includes the escalation of the Cold War. At the time the film depicts, the Arctic became part of Canada covered by the nuclear armament on the western side, without mentioning it specifically in the film.

Director Kunuk himself was born in Kapuivik in 1957. The beautiful landscape of Baffin Island is a strong backdrop for the action, but photographer Norman Cohn's photos are always close to the people the film tells about. Cohn has had several features on both of Kunuk's previously mentioned feature films and has also written the screenplay for One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk with the director, in addition to having cut the film.

In 1990, the two co-founded the artist collective Isuma, Canada's first Inuit production company. In 2008, the collective established the world's first platform for media art by indigenous peoples from all over the world, IsumaTV – and four years later, the Internet-based Inuit network followed Digital Indigenous Democracy. Both this and IsumaTV will be presented in Tromsø, promises the festival. But first it should be opened with a feature film, which with simple means tells a lot about an increasingly difficult situation.

One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk gets its European festival premiere in Tromsø. However, it had its world premiere as a video installation at this year's Venice Art Biennale, and has later also been featured in galleries elsewhere. But even though the movie probably works in such settings, slow cinema tends to do its best in the movie theater.

One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk is the opening film on the 30th. Tromsø International Film Festival, which is held in the period 13-19. January.

Aleksander Huser
Aleksander Huser
Huser is a regular film critic in Ny Tid.

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