TIFF19: One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk


One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk is a patient, modest film that acts as a microcosm of Inuit-settler relations. The latest film from acclaimed Inuk filmmaker, Zacharias Kunuk (Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner), One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk mostly consists of a single conversation between the Inuk elder, Noah Piugattuk (Apayata Kotierk), and a white, government agent (Kim Bodnia) trying to convince him to move to a settlement. It’s slow-paced, beautiful to look at, and, most importantly, extremely funny, even if its minute attention to detail and modest concept demands a large investment of attention from viewers.

The film takes place in 1961 and is based on historical events, but it feels more like living history than a period piece. Part of this effect is achieved by the stark-white setting of Baffin Island, the primeval snow and ice which look little changed over the past 50 years. But more key to this is Noah’s own assertions, that the world out there—the world of the whiteman—is so far away from the world of the North, so as almost to be separated by space and time. Why does it matter what Noah and his fellow hunters do in the empty expanses of the North? But governmental purview knows no bounds and the agent insists that laws must be followed, even at the edge of the world.

The bookends of the film find Noah in his sod house, sitting next to his wife as she prepares tea. Kunuk takes a slow-cinema approach and holds on the same medium-wide shot of Noah for around five minutes. It’s similar technique to the one used in the films of Tsai Ming-liang: the dead space allows us to first acclimatize, in the opening, and then process all we’ve seen in the closing. With this approach, the viewer can both experience the film and process the film within the bounds of the viewing.

But the key to the film is the conversation between Noah and the government agent that stretches over an hour. Noah doesn’t speak English and the agent doesn’t speak Inuktitut, so a translator (Benjamin Kunuk) has to do the communicating between the two. Essential to the film’s effect is the translation structure, with the agent asking a question, the translator relaying the question in Inuktitut to Noah, Noah responding, and then the translator conveying this answer in English. The translator never gives a one-to-one translation during the conversation, which leads to a lot of tension and breaking of that tension with humour.

For instance, the government agent often says that he wants to understand Noah so as to learn how to help him, but instead of trying to articulate the agent’s moral investment in the Arctic, the translator simply repeats the agent’s primary question, which is whether Noah will move off the land and to the government settlement. At other moments, Noah insults the government agent, and the translator rephrases the insult to take away its sting or ignores it altogether, simplifying Noah’s answer to convey an entirely different meaning. Benjamin Kunuk’s large grin and worried eyes convey a lot of humour during these moments, especially whenever either Noah or the agent grow angry and Benjamin’s eyes dart between the two men, as if begging them with his eyes to be let off the hook of repeating the answer.

Waiting for the translation and response to each question gives the film its dramatic structure and tension. This tension is considerable, despite the modesty of the situation, because of the stakes at play beyond the two men involved. As I stated at the outset, the way that the government agent’s well-meaning but paternalistic approach clashes with Noah’s pride and common sense about the situation captures the tensions between the Inuit and the settler government that exists to this day. Neither men have bad intentions, but they also are not particularly interested in comprehending each other, making a true negotiation between them impossible.

In the moments immediately before and after the conversation between Noah and the agent, Kunuk depicts Noah and his hunting party riding their sleds between the hunting grounds and their home. Kunuk places the camera directly on the sled, but instead of facing it forward as he did in Maliglutit (Searchers), he faces the camera inward, towards Noah and the other people on the sled. We watch their faces as the white landscape passes by on the outer edges of the frame, forcing us to comprehend that the main thing at issue here is not the landscape, but the people at the centre of it. It has a transcendental effect that connects humankind to the world and beyond, placing Noah and these people in a context that seems to connect back to the beginning of time and extend far beyond the present moment.

At the film’s end, Kunuk shows real footage of a nonagenarian Noah Piugattuk coming into a settlement in 1992 and singing a traditional tune in order to record it for posterity. The sight of the eldery Piugattuk, with only one tooth remaining and little hair on his head, is moving, as is the knowledge that Kunuk and co-writer, co-editor, and co-cinematographer Norman Cohn recorded this footage themselves. This footage clarifies a whole other justification for the film, which is the preservation of a story that will pass when the people who tell it do. In an oral culture such as the Inuit have, film affords a way to preserve the past without losing the subjective perspective and concept of history as always being present that is essential to oral narratives.

Thus, One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk is a strong example of documentation and preservation. That it’s also a compelling work of cultural tension and the challenges of translation makes it all the more essential as a work of Canadian filmmaking.

8 out of 10

One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk (2019, Canada)

Directed by Zacharias Kunuk; written by Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn; starring Apayata Kotierk, Kim Bodnia, and Benjamin Kunuk.