Tuesday, April 11, 2023

On Inuit Cinema | Inuit TakugatsaliuKatiget

On Inuit Cinema | Inuit TakugatsaliuKatiget

by Mark David Turner

St. John's Newfoundland: Memorial University Press, 2022


Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

This remarkable book about Inuit cinema certainly catches the eye with its cover art by Jessica Winters, which depicts a camera operator, a director, and a sound technician with a boom mic standing in the snow (it takes a moment to sort this out). It also catches the ear with a relatively new word: TakugatsaliuKatiget, which indicates "cinema" but can be literally translated as "those who are working together on making that which will be able to be seen." It's a fair definition of what cinema -- and this book -- encompasses.

The format is also surprising at first, as the first two-thirds consists of transcribed interviews with Inuit filmmakers, actors, and organizers -- but indeed, this makes eminent sense, as they are the ones who are actually working together to produce Inuit cinema. Turner is also seeking -- rightly, I believe -- to avoid defining a still-emerging area of  cultural activity in any way that would seek to overwrite the Inuit's own sense of what it means and where it's going. This is not, therefore, a comprehensive account of the field of Inuit cinema (though the filmography and other materials at the end -- of which more anon -- approach this possibility), but a snapshot of a moment in the development of something that is still in the process of arriving into being.

The interviewees include a number of key figures in the recent emergence of Inuit cinema: a group associated with Arnait Video Productions (including Lucy Tulugarjuk, known for her performance as Puja in Zacharias Kunuk's Atanarjuat); media producer Stephen Agluvak Puskas (who adds a "checklist for making film in and with Inuit communities"); filmmaker Isabella Rose Weetaluktuk; Inuk Silis Høegh; and members of Nain's OkâlaKatiget Society. The discussions range widely, from the personal experiences of each interviewee to how they got involved in film, to what they see as the current direction for Inuit films to come. At times, they offer some insights into the recent history of such films, but there's also a fair amount of general chatter, not all of which really seems to advance the book's purposes. For me, the most interesting part was learning about the emergence of filmmaking in the Nunatsiavut region, with which I hadn't been very familiar.

Esther Eneutseak with her daughter Nancy Columbia
But the most valuable parts of this volume, to my mind, are the two last ones: a checklist of Key Moments in Inuit Cinema, and a filmography of more than 500 film and television productions both about and by Inuit. It's well-researched, comprehensive, and includes numerous early films that will be unfamiliar to many readers, along with frame stills. In particular, I was glad to see that Turner drew from the research that Kenn Harper and I have done on the silent films in which Esther Eneutseak and her daughter Nancy Columbia appeared; these include the (since lost) 1911 film The Way of the Eskimo, for which Nancy received the credit for writing the scenario (the silent film equivalent of a screenplay). Ninety years before Atanarjuat, it featured a nearly all-Inuit cast as well, with the frozen shores of Lake Michigan standing in for Labrador. 

There are always a few niggles in any such listing -- those films in which Nancy Columbia played Seminole Indians and other non-Native roles aren't mentioned -- and the inclusion of novelty films, such as 1918's Das Eskimobaby, is a bit odd (though Turner is quite right to point out that it marked the first portrayal of an Inuk by a non-Inuit actor). Nevertheless, it's the first thorough filmography of its kind, and forms an intrinsic testament to two phenomena: first, the seemingly endless fascination of early and classic-era Hollywood with "Eskimo" subjects, and second, to the slow, steady, and growing emergence of film in which Inuit have taken control of their own representation. It's something both to recognize and celebrate, and it's to be hoped that this trend will continue and grow. And there's a good sign: we've now finally arrived in the era when Inuit are making films that aren't necessarily solely about Inuit and can hold their own commercially, films like Nyla Innuksuk's Slash/Back,  which manages to give a sharp portrait of teenage life in Pangnirtung, while at the same time being a fast-paced thriller filled with flesh-eating alien worms that wear human skins as a disguise.

But I digress. Turner's book is a landmark in this field, and should be a part of any collection or library focused on Inuit culture -- as well as any with a focus on film and film history.

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