TIFF16: Maliglutit (Searchers)

Zacharias Kunuk and co-director Natar Ungalaaq’s Maliglutit (Searchers) is inspired by John Ford’s The Searchers, but it’s no remake. Where The Searchers explored White America’s damaged relationship to its Indigenous peoples (and examined John Ford’s own racism), Maliglutit is concerned with the Inuk community divided against itself. A band of malcontents steal a man’s wife and daughter and kill his parents and son. The man, Kuanana (Benjamin Kunuk), sets out to find the captives and avenge his dead family members. This is a primal film, both because of the landscape and the deep-seated emotions it explores and stirs in the viewer.

Like his earlier classic, Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, which won the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival back in 2001 and recently was named the best Canadian film of all time by TIFF, Maliglutit is as much video history as narrative. The film meticulously recreates the customs and rituals of the Inuk people. Thus, there are scenes showing how to sew caribou skin, how to carve frozen fish, or how a shaman divines the position of game using a stone. Kunuk’s films are stories in the traditional Inuk sense: they tell a narrative, but they also preserve traditions. He has frozen an ancient way of life into a digital record of sound and image.

But the film is nothing as dry as a history lesson on film. It’s stirring cinema. Kunuk has gotten even better at the technical aspects of filmmaking. His frame is more precise. He often shoots characters through the open door of his igloo, the blinding whiteness of the landscape offset by the darkness of the hut; it’s another way he recalls Ford, who was famous for framing through doorways.

His action scenes are more vicious and are visually dazzling. There are countless chase scenes through the harsh northern landscape and Kunuk often places the camera directly onto a dog sled, affording it great speed as well as a fascinating vantage. In the film’s standout scene, in which the villains attack Kuanana’s family and steal the women, the family first believes a polar bear is attacking as they hear its roars outside. As the wall crashes down, Kunuk reveals the sounds belong to Kupak (Joey Sarpinak), the leader of the band. He has been taken over by the spirit of an animal, as no human could commit such a monstrosity. It’s a terrifying scene: a flurry of vicious sound and image.

The music by Tanya Tagaq and Chris Crilly has to be mentioned, as it’s essential to the film’s success. Maliglutit begins with a shot of two women throat-singing behind a skin veil and often cuts back to them throughout the film, reminding us that what we’re seeing is a song being sung to the community. Thus, the film’s themes of betrayal and bloodshed—Kuanana’s common refrain is “What sort of people can do this?”—carry great weight in the Inuk world. In the harsh landscape, the community cannot fight against itself or it will perish.

Maliglutit may not carry the same revolutionary impact of Atanarjuat, but it may prove more accessible than its predecessor. It is half the length, is shot more conventionally on higher quality cameras, and is more action-heavy. Over time, it might prove an essential work of Canadian cinema.

8 out of 10

Maliglutit (Searchers) (2016, Canada)

Directed by Zacharias Kunuk; co-directed by Natar Ungalaaq; written by Norman Cohn and Zacharias Kunuk; starring Benjamin Kunuk, Karen Ivalu, Jonah Qunaq, Joey Sarpinak, Jocelyne Immaroitik.