Zacharias Kunuk's One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk is exclusively playing on MUBI in the United States from April 17 - May 17, 2020 as part of MUBI's Canada Now series.
Igloolik elder Noah Piugattuk was born in 1900 and passed away in 1996. His life story is that of Canada’s Inuit in the 20th century – that of my parents’ generation and my own. What happened to Inuit over the past century; and how did we get from where we were then to where we are today?
Piugattuk’s life and mine crossed paths many times. I was born in 1957 in a sod house at Kapuivik in north Baffin Island. My family was part of Piugattuk’s camp. I was at the time sleeping with my frozen Kamik boots under my pillow, learning to drive a dogteam and to be a hunter like my father. I never saw a white person until I was nine years old. In 1966, my parents dropped me off in the settlement of Igloolik. They were told if I didn’t go to school they would lose their monthly government Family Allowance. So, I went to school to learn English, left behind by my parents who went back out on the land for a couple more years.
One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk was shot in the same Kapuivik camp where the story took place on a beautiful spring day in 1961. I would have been three years-old, riding around on my mother’s back in her amauti. Piugattuk’s hunters had stopped for tea while seal hunting when the region’s government man showed up to tell Piugattuk he had to give up his nomadic life on the land and move into Igloolik. Pre-fab settlement housing had been built during the Cold War to centralize government control in the Arctic. The White Man was actually named Mr. Whyte; Inuit called him Isumataq, meaning Boss, although the exact translation would be ‘he-thinks-for-us.’
Many years ago, Pauloosie Qulitalik, my family member and founding partner of Igloolik Isuma Productions, told me about how Boss came out on the land one day with a revolver on his belt and tea and sugar to share. His presence revealed to Piugattuk the irresistible power of governments who make world wars to get their way. At first, the visit seemed friendly; but it prompted momentous change. Piugattuk moved into the new settlement, and then I moved too. My parents finally came in. Now everyone has moved and no one lives on the land.
A few years ago we started brainstorming about making a film of that very day, wondering if we recreated it back then, watching Piugattuk pass through it, maybe we could see what really happened to us all, and use our video skills to show this to Inuit and the world.
While Piugattuk and other Inuit foresee the inevitable loss of Inuit independence in a Canadian future, they also believe in the enduring strength of Inuit values—of working together for a common purpose and adapting resourcefully to unexpected circumstances.
Our filmmaking invites all audiences to think for themselves, about what they see and understand. There’s a story inside the film and there’s the story of the film. The simple fact that Inuit today make a state-of-the-art digital film for both Inuit and world audiences to see demonstrates the resilient power of Inuit culture to adapt to our ever-changing world. In this sense, One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk offers truth and reconciliation as 21st century media art from the Inuit point of view. That’s my director’s vision.