Michael Hayward's Blog

VIFF 2019 preview: "One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk"

Michael Hayward

One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk is the new feature film from Inuk director Zacharias Kunuk, the third feature after his stunning 2001 debut Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner.

One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk is not nearly as ambitious as Atanarjuat, and it examines quite a different aspect of Inuit history. While Atanarjuat drew on myths and on traditional tales, One Day in the Life is Kunuk's attempt to preserve and share a little-known true event from 1961, one which he feels was a key moment in the history of the Inuit people, and which until now has survived only as oral history.

The film takes place in the midst of a seal hunt on Baffin Island in 1961, when a group of Inuit hunters, led by Noah Piugattuk, an Inuit camp leader, stop on the ice for tea and a smoke. They spot another dog sled approaching them from a great distance. Among the new party is an Indian Agent, nicknamed "Boss," who takes advantage of this chance encounter to try and persuade Piugattuk and his people to give up their traditional Inuit way of life and settle into a government settlement. Their rewards: money from the government (in the form of family allowance checks); a wooden house; a stove; and access to medical care. "I'm trying to help you," explains Boss through a translator. But Piugattuk remains sceptical, and holds his ground. "I don't need any help. I'm an elder now without any help from a Whiteman. I'm born here. It's perfect." Even the threat that Piugattuk might be separated from his children fails to move him, and eventually the two parties go their separate ways, the dogs panting as they pull the sleds on squeaking runners over the endless snow.

While One Day in the Life does succeed as a means of preserving and sharing an important moment of Inuit oral history, the film is less successful when judged purely as a work of cinema. Most of One Day in the Life is shot in medium closeup by a single camera, and there is very little variety in what is shown on screen. The effect quickly becomes claustrophobic: on the one hand we know that the events are taking place in the midst of a vast expanse of white, which stretches to the horizon in all directions, but Kunuk shows us only a static, crowded frame, with one long, unbroken take following another. For those who are used to a more "active" camera, and to a variety of camera shots and angles, Kunuk's cinematic style in One Day in the Life takes some getting used to (and a lot of patience).

It becomes almost painful as you watch and listen in on the conversation between Piugattuk and "Boss." In part this is because we know the eventual outcome—but it is painful also because the two parties continually struggle—and continually fail—to understand each other. We witness first one side of the conversation in Inuktitut (with the assistance of subtitles), which is then followed by a partial (and inaccurately translated) version in halting English. The process is then reversed: a reply in English, translated into Inuktitut, the subtitles again revealing many flaws.

While I'm happy to see Zacharias Kunuk continue to explore the rich cultural history of the Inuit on film, I'm not sure that One Day in the Life ever completely succeeds in overcoming the limitations of its cinematography and its editing. Those who have been waiting for another film from Kunuk of the calibre of his Atanarjuat, will, I think, continue to wait and hope.

This review is based on an advance screening of One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk. There are two screenings of One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk scheduled during VIFF 2019: on Monday, October 7 at 6:45 PM, and on Wednesday, October 9 at 1:00 PM. You can view a trailer for the film here. Tickets can be purchased here.



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