A picture of our collective loneliness framed in small square boxes, video chat screens became the window to an outside world when physical touch was no longer viable during the global pandemic that began in 2020. Carol Kunnuk and Lucy Tulugarjuk’s Tautuktavuk (What We See) takes viewers back to that tumultuous time with their fascinating exploration of isolation and memory.
While most films about the pandemic, or set during it, address the current mental health and economic impacts of COVID-19, Tautuktavuk ponders the ways that sense of isolation in the present connected us to the past. Taking inspiration from the co-directors’ own lives, and incorporating a verité documentary aesthetic, the story unfolds around two sisters, Saqpinak (Kunnuk) and her younger sister Uyarak (Tulugarjuk), as they attempt to maintain connection during the pandemic with the former living in at home in Nunavut and the latter stuck down south in Montreal.
Minimalist in its approach, the film primarily takes place over a video conference screen which the two sisters use to connect. Staring into their respective computer cameras, the sisters share the hardships of the pandemic as images in their tiny bubbles. Saqpinak’s grandchildren and Uyarak’s daughter occasionally appear in the background. In between conversations, Kunnuk and Tulugarjuk inject the malaise of having to mask up and avoid others while picking up a few groceries, emphasizing how fearful and isolating daily life became in the early days of the pandemic.
Saqpinak and Uyarak’s virtual conversations not only convey their longing to reunite in-person, but also provide a glimpse into society’s shifting views of the pandemic. The latter of which really hits home as they remark on the increasing reluctance of white residents to wear masks as the Covid related death toll continued to rise in Indigenous communities with settlers bringing the virus up north after Inuit communities weathered early lockdowns. While the social commentary is pointed, the film’s real emotional core is rooted in the repressed memories that awaken within Uyarak.
Haunted by the recollections that flow through her dreams, Uyarak begins to share with her sister her nightmares that feel all too real. Tales of abuse at the hands of residential school officials and past partners, horrors that she tried to forget. Just as Uyarak sorts through what is a dream versus reality, the filmmakers also blur the line with their presentation.
Playing out in a realm where drama and documentary aesthetics intertwine, the film keeps the viewer off balance. This sense of instability helps to accentuate the unease of the central characters. As more of the memories are revealed and dissected, one not only gets an understanding of a legacy of trauma, but the ways it can be suppressed for generations due to societal pressures to keep it private.
What makes all this so fascinating is that Kunnuk and Tulugarjuk ensure that the light of healing finds a way to emerge through the cloudy memories. It is only through verbalizing that which was left unsaid for decades, that the sisters can move forward in mending the scars they each carry.
Offering a unique and thought-provoking look at memory and healing, Tautuktavuk (What We See) is a film one does not easily forget.
Tautuktavuk (What We See) screened at imagineNATIVE.