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Spirit of the North

Courtesy of TIFF

Ever Deadly (2022)

Tanya Tagaq is a well-known name in Canada, and this documentary about her life and work, which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and which she codirected with Chelsea McMullan, takes that a little too much for granted. Ms. Tagaq is a poet – excerpts from her book “Split Tooth” are read in voiceover over anatomically correct animated drawings by Inuk artist Shuvinai Ashoona. However she is mainly known as a singer – a throat singer, to be precise. The movie begins with a display of traditional Inuit throat singing, which is always a duet, in which Ms. Tagaq and Laakkuluk Williams Bathory appear to be passing the same breath back and forth as they vocalize. But the core of the film in a concert performance of Ms. Tagaq’s contemporary throat singing, in which she is backed by a three-piece band as she takes over a concert hall by appearing to harmonize with herself.

Some years ago I was lucky enough to attend a concert of Ms. Tagaq’s in London, where she sang over a screening of “Nanook of the North,” the problematic classic documentary from 1922 about a Inuk hunter and his everyday life. It was like witnessing a sea witch crawling out of the water and getting used to the disappointment of being on land. The noises she made hardly felt human, and took a little getting used to, but by the end the audience was poleaxed with emotion, stunned into disbelief at such a raw, primal experience. The applause was thunderous – the movie barely remembered in the background – and the evenings was truly that overused word, unforgettable.

Interspersed with “Ever Deadly’s” concert – which is filmed in such tight close-up by Alejandro Coronado you hardly get to see the space it’s performed in – are some casual sequences of Ms. Tagaq playing with her kids or chatting with her mother at their remote Nunavut home. Painful stories are told; as a child her mother was part of the forcible resettlement of Inuit to Resolute Bay in the 1950s. Ms. Tagaq’s grandmother gave birth on the transport ship taking them there, which spent a month frozen in ice on the way, only to discover the amenities promised by the Canadian government, like buildings, did not exist. They were forced, with an infant, to pass the winter in a tent, all so the government could claim sovereignty over the surrounding islands and waters (the Canadian government apologized and paid compensation in 2008). Later there were residential schools where their native languages were beaten out of them, and modern miseries including vegans on Twitter who don’t understand seals are one of the only food sources in this sparse place. Ms. Tagaq is proud of her home, and happy to discuss how it feels to live in a part of the world that isn’t safe – if you get hurt you have to be airlifted to a hospital, so better to not get injured in the first place – and how that need to protect and be cautious informs every aspect of their lives. And we learn a great deal about the music – the concert is interwoven throughout the film so its sound envelops the story; and Alexander Unger’s sound design is more than up to the task.

But as with the live performance of hers I saw, the documentary is barely remembered in the background. If it was the hook needed to hang a concert film upon, that’s perfectly all right; how Ms. Tagaq owns a stage with her astonishing voice is something worth savoring. But the weakness of the rest of the film hardly matters when Ms. Tagaq opens her golden throat and makes those other-worldly noises. This is a glimpse of her life and work, nothing more. But it’s so tantalizing you won’t want to look away.


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