By Max Modell
A haunting story of yesterday, One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk is a wholly unique film. It demands that you lean in close, to pick up every detail, not just because of Inuktitut language and subtitles, but because so much happens non-verbally. From the shared looks and laughs of Piugattuk’s group to the blinding white landscapes and background action (the film’s Inuit are never idle, creating contestant movement in the otherwise motionless environment). It’s these illustrations of the Inuit traditional lifestyle which set the stakes for the film.
Zacharias Kunuk’s (Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, Maliglutit) latest film observes Noah Piugattuk (Apayata Kotierk), an elder in his small community of both young and old, as he leads them in seal hunting, like their ancestors before them. But it is a time of change: 1961. When hunting, Piugattuk and his group are visited by a white man, known only as “The Boss” (Kim Bodnia), who, through a translator, tells Piugattuk they need to move to a settlement in Igloolik, forgoing their traditional lifestyle and allowing their children to receive Canadian schooling. This encounter speaks volumes. While it is highly specific to time, space, and people, it is an interaction which has played out countless times, in countless communities across Canada, usually with the same outcome. Through the nuance of language and the complexity of translating ideology across tongues, Kunuk preserves a pivotal historical moment, previously only kept alive through an oral tradition, in both micro and macro detail.
In many ways, the film is a balance of contradictions. It has the feel of a documentary, yet every shot is deliberate and precise. The story pivots on a lengthy and frustrating attempted communication which expertly illustrates the futility of a conversation in which neither party can, nor wishes to, understand the other. It highlights the failures of government-Indigenous relations with a sense of foreboding tragedy that nods to the historical context. This strange and dangerous conversation, initially at least, seems like nothing more than friendly small talk. It is these contradictions which draw you in, making what could have been drab, mesmerizing and thrilling. These small dichotomies in the film gain further meaning when expanded to the larger dichotomies of the Inuit and the White Man.
The central conversation is bookended with prolonged moments of beauty and silence, honing in on the faces of the characters and holding. The effect is two-fold. It gives the audiences time to contemplate the true implications of what is happening. What role does our complicity play in their narrative? What will Boss’ promises come to? Is this really a necessity? What can we learn from this story? These moments of pause also allow the audience to immerse themselves in Piugattuk’s life, a slow and simple existence in which family is the most important thing. This is when the stakes of the film truly sink in. This embedded perspective gives a rare insight into what colonialism looks like to an indigenous population – something that is often incomprehensible to the outsider.
Overall, One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk is a gem of a film. The simplicity is all-consuming and the story and themes are poignant. The only thing that took me out of the film was seeing “Boss” for the first time, which caused me to double-take. Is that Konstantin from Killing Eve? No, it can’t be. The naturalism of his performance in no way resembles the heighten camp and Russian accents of Killing Eve. Although it does definitely look a lot like him. Could it be?
Spoiler alert: it’s him.
This film isn’t for everyone. If you are the kind of person who complains about “slow film in which not much happens”, you are not going to enjoy this film. But if you are interested in Inuit culture and history, or, like me, fascinated by the nuance and struggles of cross-cultural communication, this film is unmissable.
Max Modell is a Journalism, Communication and Politics graduate from Cardiff University, and will be returning to complete a Masters and PhD, studying news podcasts. He is also the co-ordinator of the ProNappers NapChat blog.