Written by Norman Cohn and Zacharias Kunuk
Directed by Zacharias Kunuk and Natar Ungalaaq
SFIFF fun continues with my first ever visit to the BAMPFA – Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive – for the Inuktitut-language film Maliglutit! I didn’t have time to enjoy the rest of the museum as I had to grab some lunch and then BART it back to San Francisco to make another film, thus is the life of someone who bought two tickets to movies. Maliglutit is a film by Zacharias Kunuk, this timed joined by Natar Ungalaaq in the director’s chair. It’s inspired by the John Wayne Western The Searchers, but discards much of the racial politics of the plot in favor of an internal setting between different groups of Inuits. But it keeps the basic premise and even the title, though translated (never fear, the English title is helpfully added in parentheses!)
Kuanana (Benjamin Kunuk) returns from hunting with his son Siku (Joseph Uttak) to find that the rest of his family has been killed and his wife and daughter kidnapped. He must go rescue them and stop the people responsible, in what can only end with more people dead. Before the attack, the group is seen hanging out at a local party where they are kicked out for just being leeches in regard to taking food and romancing women while not contributing anything. The attackers are four men who are occasionally called the Kupaks after their leader, Kupak (Joey Sarpinak) The men tire of their lonely scavenger lifestyle and think some wives would be just the thing to make things better, and how else do you get wives than be raiding a peaceful household?
The attack by the Kupak group thought to be a polar bear attack by the family at first, they smash into the igloo through the wall and the scene is shot as if an animalistic attack is happening (which is basically what is happening.) Man is again the apex predator, Kuanana’s parents are beaten (and die later when Kuanana returns home) and his youngest son is killed. The men run with the wife and daughter, but soon realize they are being followed and must set up a confrontation before Kuanana picks them off one by one.
The slow pace of the film fits in with the setting. The beginning scenes have a lot of sitting around watching food cook and making clothes, stories are told, songs are sung, life is as it was. There is a lack of modern conveniences but a limited amount of Western tools such as metal knifes and tea sets and a gun with a few bullets. We also get a nice class on igloo building as some of the characters rapidly put up structures (Kunuk had a crew on standby that would help them make authentic structures, which probably came in handy during the cold weather they had during filming!)
The family asks for help from a spirit to locate the food Kuanana and Siku go out to hunt, and Kuanana calls upon a spirit to help guide him to what is left of his family. The scenes set Maliglutit apart, a new twist on a familiar tale. I’ve seen some people try to label this film as something different from a Western, but it is a Western, it follows all the movie rules of a Western, we just trade horses for dogsleds and a snowy wasteland for a desert. There is no need to divide this into something new, and that potentially limits the audience that might get exposed to it (which would be a crime!) There just isn’t enough native filmmaking, especially native films that are good and can find an audience that might not have watched it otherwise.
Maliglutit fits in perfectly with remix film culture, not just with the Turkish Star Treks but with the Infernal Affairs/The Departeds. It will be something you haven’t seen before while being just familiar enough to want to see who it plays out.