Sunday, February 2, 2014

PuSh 2014: Nanook of the North/Tanya Tagak

Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North (19222) is perhaps the most famous, or infamous, documentary ever made. Technically, as one of the film's first intertitles boasts, it set a representational standard against which almost all non-fiction films since have been measured. Working with only a single camera and a skeleton crew in an unforgiving landscape, Flaherty captured some truly stunning shots. At the same time--the making of the igloo, for example--many of those shots were clearly staged. (Flaherty's camera was too big and too hot to get inside a completed igloo, and so the interior shots of Nanook and his sleeping family were taken within a three-sided structure.)

As an "ethnographic film," the work is even more controversial in its portrait of the primitive, yet "happy-go-lucky Eskimo" battling the elements. Nanook wasn't even the real name of the film's protagonist; nor was Nyla his actual wife. Moreover, the "frozen in time" ideology Flaherty conveys with his successive images of Inuit hunting traditions is, to say the least, a misprision. By the time Flaherty made the film, the Inuit were hunting with rifles rather than harpoons. And I daresay that a phonograph had likely made its way to the top of Hudson Bay by then.

So how to salvage--politically and aesthetically--such a controversial artifact of salvage ethnography? That's where the amazing throat singer Tanya Tagak comes in. Accompanied by violinist Jesse Zubot and percussionist Jean Martin, Tagak creates a live soundscore to the film, literally breathing new life into it.

In the second of two PuSh Festival performances last night at the York Theatre on Commercial Drive, Tagak announced that she and her bandmates were in a good mood. That spirit of fun informed my reception of the performance that followed, which I read as neither an outright indictment of Flaherty's colonialist impulses (though Tagak does intone, in rhythmically propulsive blasts, the word "colonizer" in more than one scene) nor as a melancholic requiem for a lost way of life and lost generations of Indigenous peoples. Rather, in the spirit of the Idle No More movement (at whose heart, from the very beginning, have been music and dance), Tagak adopts a cheekily ironic pose that is at once defiant and dialectical. Wholly appropriate, then, that I couldn't stop shifting my gaze back and forth between Tagak and the film, a constant and conscious perceptual adjustment that forced me to re-calibrate, in the moment, my reading of each.

A powerful way to end this year's 10th anniversary festival.


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