Film Reviews

Review: ‘Bowhead Whale Hunting with My Ancestors’

Zach Kunuk goes hunting in Igloolik


Bowhead Whale Hunting with My Ancestors
(Canada, 40 min.)
Dir. Zacharias Kunuk, Carol Kunnuk

Zacharias Kunuk took audiences on a riveting hunt in the Arctic with 2001’s Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. Deemed the best Canadian film ever made in a 2015 poll conducted by the Toronto International Film Festival, Atanarjuat endures as a landmark of Canadian cinema for presenting an Inuit story told by an Inuit filmmaker in his own language. Kunuk brought audiences back to the north in the dramas The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (2006) and Maliglutit (2016), but his documentaries, while under-seen by comparison despite being far more prolific in output, are equally vital representations of Inuit life up north.

His latest doc, Bowhead Whale Hunting with My Ancestors, co-directed with Carol Kunnuk, has its world premiere at imagineNATIVE as part of a spotlight on Isuma TV. This slice of life verité-style doc is as raw as a slab of muktuk and it might not have the same cinematic scope as Atanarjuat, but the significance is equally grand.

The doc offers the rare opportunity to observe the hunt for a bowhead whale for the people of Igloolik. This tradition has been part of Inuit life for thousands of years, but in the recent turn for their people’s history, the Inuit now only have an opportunity to bag a bowhead every few years when the Canadian government grants them the tag.

Kunuk and Kunnuk capture the excitement of the townspeople as they prepare for this ceremonial hunt and eagerly await the big prize that will put 25 tonnes of food in the bellies of their children. Conversations about the trappings the Inuit want to use and the tools the government wants them to use—spears versus little depth charges—illustrate the tensions between tradition and contemporary bureaucracy. The effort to preserve heritage is important though, as the final act with the hunt demonstrates.

When the townspeople finally embark to catch the big bowhead, the filmmakers document the action from a distance. This decision is partly practical and partly in compliance with stipulations from the government to safeguard the hunt. However, shooting the action from afar means that the hunters and boats obscure the camera’s sightline. We don’t actually see much of the hunt since the boats block the whale. The doc might be a bit anticlimactic consequently, but the emphasis is on the community. Isn’t that the point?

Bowhead Whale Hunting screens thursday 19 October at 1:30 PM.
imagineNATIVE runs Oct. 18-22.