Directed by Zacharias Kunuk, Maliglutit attempts to engage John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) in conversation. I’m not sure the Inuk film satisfactorily addresses the key issues and questions raised by The Searchers. Ford’s film is a revenge flick. Two white girls are kidnapped by a tribe of hostile Aboriginals. Our hero, John Wayne, sets out to find them –with one catch: he says that he will kill the girls if he finds them since they’ve most likely been raped by the hostiles, and he doesn’t think that they should have to live on after something like that. Thankfully, Wayne’s character does change his mind, but The Searchers was always about questioning the wishes of the supposed hero and his quest for revenge.
Kunuk’s film seems to aim for something else entirely. I am not sure comparisons to The Searchers are appropriate. This is not a remake or a revisionist approach. If it was, it would have to have some white people, at least to create situations that would allow the deconstruction of the racist ideologies espoused by John Wayne’s character in the original. Secondly, it’d have to face head-on the misogyny demonstrated by Wayne’s hero. Neither racism or misogyny are addressed in Kunuk’s film – and instead, the film seems to be your boilerplate get-revenge and rescue-damsels-in-distress fare mixed up with amazing visuals of Nunavut as it would have been in 1913.
Kunuk’s film appears to be trying to achieve two goals at once. Firstly, it wants to be a revenge flick. Unfortunately, I did not sympathize with the characters as much as I would have liked. Kunuk’s filming style is distracting and alienating. He uses wide shots that showcase the landscape but minimize the characters, so that often, it is hard to see what is happening on screen. He rarely uses close-ups, and as to be expected, everyone is bundled up in the cold, so facial expressions and body language are hard to read. There’s not much dialogue. Of course, if your family has been butchered and/or kidnapped, you will want revenge – but it would have helped if the viewer was brought into the characters’ mindsets a little bit.
The second goal that Kunuk’s film is trying to achieve is to be an accurate representation of what Inuk life was like in 1913. Of course, Kunuk and his crew and his advisors are the experts on this matter. I willingly defer to them and would enjoy learning about Inuk life from them. The problem is that this film is trying to do two things at once – be a revenge flick as well as a naturalistic look at the Inuk way of life. There are long stretches in the film where characters are hunting, preparing food, eating, and trekking the landscape – these all detract from the excitement of the revenge quest, and it is unclear as to what should be our focus. Should we be learning about the Inuk people, or should we be urging on our protagonist’s bloodlust?
Kunuk’s film is also marred by suspect camerawork that fails to focus on what is most important in specific scenes. A battle in an igloo is practically unwatchable as the camera seems to be in the wrong place at various times. Sound work is also suspect as music is not always present, and the film could have benefitted from sound effects with regards to attacks during various fights and struggles.
Despite excellent intentions and a desire to bring the lives of the Inuk people into the forefront, in this case, revenge is a dish best served hot.