Interviews

The POV Interview: Zacharias Kunuk and Natar Ungalaaq Talk ‘Maliglutit’

New film is a visionary take on John Ford’s classic western ‘The Searchers’

Natar Ungalaaq, Tanya Tagaq and Zacharias Kunuk at the World Premiere of Maliglutit
Jeremy Chan WireImageGetty for TIFF


Director Zacharias Kunuk reteamed with his Atanarjuat star Natar Ungalaaq for the acclaimed new film Maliglutit. Kunuk and Ungalaaq, who co-directs the film and plays a supporting role in the film, offer a visionary take on John Ford’s archetypal western The Searchers that harnesses the harsh landscape of the north as a new frontier. Maliglutit draws upon the plot of the classic western as a feud between two families puts a man and his son on an intense trek to save the women of their clan who have been kidnapped by their rivals. The filmmakers fuel the hunt to a propulsive score by Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq and draw upon myth and lore along the journey.

The filmmakers discuss Maliglutit with POV publisher Judy Wolfe and editor Marc Glassman in this interview recorded at the Toronto International Film Festival where the film was one of two Canadian movies selected for the prestigious Platform competition. Kunuk and Ungalaaq talk about their documentary roots, elements of folklore, Hollywood mythmaking, the legacy of Atanarjuat and, of course, their new feature Maligutit.

Maliglutit returns to Toronto as the centrepiece of the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival on Friday, October 21.

Benjamin Kunuk plays Kuanana in Maliglutit (Searchers)
Courtesy of IsumaTV


Interview with Zacharias Kunuk and Natar

ZK: Zacharias Kunuk
NU: Natar Ungalaaq
JW: Judy Wolfe
MG: Marc Glassman

JW: Let’s start with who the characters are. How do we distinguish between the good guys and bad guys?

ZK: The bad guys are very rude. As you can see, they are sleeping with this man’s wife. So that’s how we built the character. They show no mercy. They are hunters. They are trying to do anything they want. They’re like the mob. They’re not scared of anybody. The way we introduce the good guys—-they’re a family. they’re hunters, not murderers. There are children there.

JW: Is there a deeper story about civilization, or change due to modern weapons?

ZK: With the gun: there aren’t too many gunsand he has only three bullets—-we wanted to introduce when new things started to come, like the gun, the primus stove, the plate, the cup, metal knives.

NU: In the first script I read, there were more than three bad guys. I couldn’t understand – ok there’s a club and a harpoon – you’re going to use them how? And use the three bullets. So we created props.

ZK: We had an idea that sometimes real trees are flown in for Christmas. So we made a bat out of one. We also made a duplicate down here that was supposed to be rubber. But when we were up there acting, the plastic froze [laughs] and it looked more dangerous than the wood one.

JW: What era is the setting? We figured it could be any time between 1850s and 1950s.

ZK: It was the 1950s but could have been earlier. We came into settlement in the ‘50s. Natar and I loved to see the movies. In those days, our parents never had any money. We used to cry for quarters so we could go to movies. [Editor’s Note: this would have been in the ‘60s or early ‘70s]. So Natar and I started carving. We would go to a show and try to sell pieces. Sometimes we would sell our carvings and get in. At that time, we didn’t know about how the system worked. Everything felt like god-sent. I remember our fathers and mothers, would go to the movies, too. They didn’t know one word of English. They would talk to each other and say, ‘That’s going to be you and that’s going to be me; let’s see how this ends.’ They would point the gun at you, it would be scary. We were hunters and used the weapon to hunt.

NU: I noticed that your father could understand English and speak French.

ZK: A little bit. He used to sing but he didn’t understand it.

JW: As an Indigenous person, what did you think of films like The Searchers. It’s the Indigenous people who are the bad guys. How did that influence you?

ZK: Movies have a star, and we were favouring that star. We watched a lot of cowboys and Indians films, so we knew ‘these are the good guys, these are the bad guys.’ But later on you know you’re on the other side, you’re on the bad guys’ side.

The Searchers came up when we were making Maliglutit . We tried to use some of the lines from John Wayne movies. He’s always playing a military leader in them. He sends his scouts out and they don’t come back. They go out to look for them and they’re all dead. They’re covered in arrows, even the horses. And Wayne says, ‘What kind of savages would do this?’ I tried to use that line in our film, but to use ‘savage’ these days is not appropriate. So, he’s crying, and saying, ‘What kind of people would do this?’

We use that kind of storytelling from The Searchers to make this film. A lot of it – tying the women – I saw that myself, when I was a child. I experienced it once. I saw a woman being tied up. It was tradition. It was our culture. The day I saw that, I saw these adults running around, a man and woman, outside. Nobody does that, very unusual. I remember we had a sod house at the end of the camp. There were six or seven sod houses.

They ran into my sod house. I was curious. I wanted to know what was happening. I ran home. I saw them fighting,—heavy breathing, no shouting. I looked at my mother, and she was sewing as if nothing was happening. If I had been fighting like that with my brother, she would have been on top of us! That’s the culture: ‘It’s not your business.’

JW: I was intrigued by the last line of the film, and the astonishing self-control and resilience that the woman expresses. ‘Whatever bad happens to you, keep going.’

ZK: We put her in the front of the film, talking about when they want to get a woman, they’re ruthless, and we put her at the end. When she starts telling the story, we see it. That’s her being tied up, and we finish it with her.

He only has two bullets at the end to kill three people, and he’s losing, and he’s about to die, so we let her [kill the bad guy].

Joey Sarpinak plays Kupak
Courtesy of IsumaTV


MG: Natar, what does the co-director do?

NU: You have to do what’s discussed between the director and co-director, all the way to the camera and the sound. When we get to something difficult and we want to get our image, the key is to collaborate to try to solve it. If it doesn’t work, it’s his choice as director [to go for the best shot].

On the murder scene, he needed to rest so he [Zacharias] let me do the whole scene. It was pretty challenging. It was cold; we were inside the igloo. They were going to break it. Everything had to be put together to avoid the cold coming in. That was a challenging part.

ZK: It was so cold in that breaking-igloo scene that my glasses froze and fell off and I couldn’t direct any more. Some of the time when I got sick, Natar covered for me. Everybody wants to be the director! Don’t you know there’s a Qallunaat saying, ‘when you have too many cooks, it spoils (the broth)’? You’ve got to be prepared as the sound man. He wasn’t. His equipment wasn’t. The second sound man was, because he was Inuk. He could deal with it much more easily than the Qallunaat.

MG: Certain choices are extraordinary. For example, you use the camera, shooting through one opening, in the igloo breaking scene. I found it extraordinary. You knew how to direct the action so it would be perfectly framed.

NU: We built the igloo. Everything was interior. We had to take pictures of the exterior and then redo it. The designer was an Inuk. Had to be.

JW: The shots inside, the shots of the throat singers – so beautiful. How did you make it so authentic?

ZK: The hunters know how to build igloos. We hired them to build our sets. After they were done, the women come in and made the bedding, the qulliq, everything inside. Just the way they remembered it.

JW: Thinking about the documentary aspects, you bring so much traditional knowledge to it.

ZK: When we were just starting out, we would interview elders. When we did drama, we tried to recreate their time. A lot of stories I heard about when they were kids, how they wanted to go with their fathers, and they would cry. I tried to include that with the audio, while the sled is moving away.

JW: Another bit of the soundscape: the distinction between the raven and the loon. The loon is a totem for the good guy. Was the raven only with the bad guy?

ZK: No, he’s not a bad guy, he’s a shaman who leads the camp. The bad guy had a polar bear sound to him.

MG: That’s what she says before he bursts in, ‘I hear a polar bear.’

JW: Bad guys and good guys have different colour dog teams and different colour parkas. Were they supposed to be from different communities?

ZK: Yes, that’s supposed to be the trigger. We talked about the dogs, what kind of dogs they would use. Some people choose the colour of the dogs. The white colour is beautiful to watch. Shooting the white dogs coming, they are like ghost dogs.

We had to design the parkas. For the bad guys, we designed their outfits. The good guys are traditional.

We tried to show they were from different communities.

MG: And it would be a terrible thing to say that you wouldn’t share your food. Did you use the throat singers to break up the narrative?

ZK: We used the throat singers as a bridge.

MG: Very mystical.

ZK: Helped that it was Tanya Tagaq.

NU: I’d heard a lot of her on audio. Hearing her live [at TIFF], she was amazing. I had tears. The performance, the throat singing. Amazing. She said to me she was nervous, but I said, ‘It’s no use being nervous!’

ZK: We used her in Atarnajuat.

ZK: Right now I’m making TV series called Hunting with my Ancestors. We hunted a bowhead whale this summer in Igloolik. I’m going to hunt a polar bear with dogs. We did that once but I want to do it again with better cameras. We’re using different animals—walrus, narwhal—and we’re hunting with an elder and a young person and a hunter. I’m the guy who’s talking to the camera. [At Isuma TV.]

MG: Is it different for you to do documentary or fiction?

ZK: It’s true they’re different. When you’re making a documentary, you’re like a detective, trying to find as much information about the subject. When you’re making a feature film, you’re following a script.

MG: But you leave yourself a lot of space. It gives the viewer a lot of time to absorb a different world. Down here storytelling is very fast. Your storytelling is very different.

ZK: We had this idea, that when you’re watching a frame, there are so many things to see. We don’t want people just to watch people talking. We want people to look around for a bit. That’s why we do it a bit longer.

MG: there should be a new genre. Instead of calling them ‘westerns’, we should call them ‘northerns’! (General laughter)

JW: Do you have a propaganda goal?

ZK: We want the world to see our life, our culture. We want to be filmmakers, just like filmmakers down here.

We wanted to open Atanarjuat when the new territory was being carved out. But the financing system in those days was different. We couldn’t do it. Nobody could do it in those days. We had to go to the English envelope to make the film.

Right now, it’s CMF Canada Media Fund. We tap into there and into our Nunavut Film dollar budget, little bits here and there. That’s how we do it. It’s a lot bigger now than before. When we tried it the first time, some of the money was capped at aboriginal levels. They were capped at $200,000 so nobody could make a movie in a million years. My Indian friends down here never cracked that system.

Atanarjuat
Courtesy of TIFF Film Reference Library


MG: Telefilm agreed for Atanarjuat – it was great that the government changed something just because it made sense. With the right sledgehammer!

How does it work with finding an appropriate crew?

ZK: We still have to bring crew up. We haven’t mastered sound. Camera, we can do it. We can do everything except sound. That’s where we’re lacking.

MG: Do you want to train someone?

ZK: We have to.

MG: The key thing in documentaries, the most difficult thing, if it’s not working, is sound.

NU: It’s scary sometimes when you’re making a documentary. When I worked on a documentary, the research was not done well. I had feedback from the relatives and family. They confronted me in a bar and beat me up. So, if I go for another documentary, I’ll have to ask, ‘Was it well researched?’ If yes, ok.

MG: Did anything change in your life after starring in Atanarjuat?

NU: My grandmother used to tell me stories about love, once in a while when I was becoming a teenager, because that was more like an adult story. When we were young and when we were growing up there were tons of X-rated stories. [Laughs.] Many people told me stories like that after they saw the film. Paul [Apak Angilirq] did the right research from our region.

MG: How cold it was while making Atanarjuat?

NU: We had to re-shoot in 1998-‘99 because we ran out of money. We came back and volunteered ourselves for the whole year while they looked for more money.

MG: Did you do other acting?

NU: A few. I’m on my 16th film. I can do both acting and directing. Whatever I can do. I’ll always be there for Zacharias.

ZK: We’ve been doing this since we were little boys. We were the last settlement to get television, because there was nothing in Inuktitut, when Inuit Broadcasting started. In 1983, we gave in. Before that, they showed movies in the little community hall. We had movie nights every Saturday night. Smaller than this room. I went to school in 1966. Two years later my family came in from the land.

[About the actors] They’re just acting their roles. Actors have to get into their character. When they can do that, they’re really good.

Jocelyne Immaroitok plays Ailla and Benjamin Kunuk plays Kuanana in Maliglutit
Courtesy of IsumaTV

MG: Was the film hard to cast?

ZK: What we’re looking for is faces. Anybody who’s interested, we let the word out first. Usually people are interested. This time a lot of young people were interested. We took their happiest face, their meanest face, and put them on the wall. Then we downsized it. Then I started drawing on the faces, tattoos on the women’s faces, long hair on the men. Then if they come out right, they make it. They’re all from Igloolik.

MG: Who are other directors you like?

ZK: Mel Gibson. He made Braveheart. That was so beautiful. Apocalypto – wow! I like his work.

MG: Is distribution still being organized?

ZK: Yes, I’m going to Vancouver, Yellowknife, then Rankin Inlet. Then maybe in February, I’ll go to Berlin with it. Now that I’ve been there, I love Berlin. I love the food there!

NU: I like the idea of his new film.

ZK: Down the road, I want to make a movie about The Eskimo Hunter.

Neil Diamond, the Cree director and I made a documentary called InuitCree Reconciliation. We were looking for a conflict between the Inuit and the Indians on the borderline, if there were any wars in the past. While we were in Northern Quebec, we came to Kujarapik, where Inuit and Cree live together in the same community.

I was asking Inuit elders about any conflict stories they have. And Neil was talking to the Cree. We came upon this story in the mid-1700s, when there was starvation on the land in the Eskimo area. The company had put up a few trading posts along the coast. The Eskimos ransacked the trading posts, twice. The second time it happened, the company manager had a stock boy, and he went caribou hunting. The Eskimos ransacked again and killed the boy. When the manager came back and saw what happened, he ran back down south.

We did make a documentary but I want to make a drama based on what we know. I want to show a board meeting of the company in old Montreal in the mid-1700s: ‘Let’s show those damn Eskimos.’

They would send mercenaries. I don’t know if they were Mohawk or Iroquois. They would send them up by canoe to Fort Albany or Moose Factory. The company would supply them in the summer. They would give them two big Hudson Bay canoes, and they would sail up the coast of Hudson Bay, hunting for Eskimos. First year, they had a successful hunt. They were taking scalps and ears as proof. The second time around, the Cree teamed up with the Eskimo. Only in cartoons, I’ve seen Indians giving smoke signals, but in this story, the Cree would give the Eskimo smoke signals so they would hide in the bush. So they sailed back. But there’s a little island whose name means “bloated stinky smell.” The Eskimos were hiding there and they slaughtered them. A few of the Eskimos at the end jumped on their kayaks and headed out to sea. I believe that Belcher Island is populated with those survivors.

I wanted to make the film like Romeo and Juliet, but now I want to make it from the hunter’s point of view. After the hunt, they’re drying scalps and women are softening the skin. Strings of ears, probably. I just imagine they slaughtered those Eskimos and took the scalps. Imagine how that sounds!

I don’t know what happens at the end. But that’s the story we’ve got. I want to be near the hunter. I think it’s been under the table since the 1700s. It’s Canadian history. We went to Ottawa to look at some archives, but they would never write it. There are little paragraphs saying, ‘The Indians are here and up to no good’.

Maliglutit screens at imagineNATIVE on Friday, October 21 at 6:30 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2. Please visit imaginenative.org for more information.