Inuit director Zacharias Kunuk’s Maliglutit (ᒪᓕᒡᓗᑎᑦ) is a suspenseful Arctic thriller

To celebrate National Indigenous Peoples Day on June 21, local movie theatre the Cinematheque and the UBC Public Humanities Hub collaborated to present the 2016 film Maliglutit (ᒪᓕᒡᓗᑎᑦ), or “Searchers”, by acclaimed Inuit directors Zacharias Kunuk and Natar Ungalaaq.

The film screening was followed by a UBC panelist discussion, including Maliglutit (ᒪᓕᒡᓗᑎᑦ) producer Jonathan Frantz and UBC film professors Dr. William Brown and Dr. Ilina Iurascu.

Kunuk creates a story of an Inuit family living in 1913 Nunavut, which gets separated due to a series of unfortunate events. Kuanana (Benjamin Kunuk), the father of the family, goes on a caribou hunt with his older son, while the rest of the family stays at home. One cold night, a band of outcasts looking for wives seizes their igloo, kidnaps the women and slaughters the rest of the family, including the little boy. When Kuanana returns and finds out, he’s determined to go after the snatchers, save his family and bring them back home.

The film is based on the 1954 Western film, Searchers — transposed into the North, into Inuktitut with English subtitles and with an all-Inuit cast. It’s also almost completely improvised.

The movie showcases Inuit lifestyle, culture and traditions, told exclusively in their own voices and language, on their own land. As a non-Inuit audience member, the film allowed me to appreciate and learn about their culture without the stereotypes and colonial erasure which so often suppress Inuit stories.

“Zach wanted the cold and environment to be a character,” said Frantz. “He wanted people to feel the cold and to hear it, and you can’t fake that.” The sheen of frost on the actors' beards and their thick layers of warm sealskin outerwear viscerally communicates the icy intensity that surrounds them.

According to Frantz, Kunuk told the actors and producers to "just do what comes natural.”

The film is a tense thriller throughout, with impressive fight scenes considering the fact that a lot of the scenes were only shot once with minimal scripting.

“We can’t often rewind and ask the actors to do some things again to get a better perspective,” said Frantz. “Especially when they smash the igloo, that was one take, one shot, and that was it.” In this scene, we see the outcasts breaking into the igloo to kidnap the girls and murder other family members.

“It was a super-super emotional scene, the cries and the screaming were real. It was really hard for everybody to do that, so there’s no way we were going back,” he explained.

The action ramps audience emotion up to a fever pitch by the final fight scene. Kuanana, who runs out of bullets, goes into a fistfight with his enemy to save his wife. The producer films from a distance, creating a dramatic showdown between the two silhouetted figures as they duel to the death in the snow.

“In the wide shot you’re not really sure who’s winning, who’s the good guy, who’s the bad guy until the end,” explained Frantz. The producer’s logic behind this scene was to not only emphasize the duel, but to highlight the Northern environment as the main character in a moment of serious conflict.

The soundtrack by acclaimed throat singer Tanya Tagaq makes the story more intense, amping up the volume and pace at crucial moments of tension. During the panelist discussion, Frantz said that the director’s goal was to make the film as authentic and realistic to his own experience as possible.

So, if you want to enjoy a scenic and gory revenge thriller which centres Inuit storytellers, make sure to include Maliglutit (ᒪᓕᒡᓗᑎᑦ) on your movie list. Although it is no longer running at the Cinematheque it’s available on AppleTV. I promise you won’t regret it!