June 18, 2016
The Forge, Camden, London
When Tanya Tagaq performed at the Southbank Centre in 2014 to accompany the 1922 silent film Nanook of the North, the venue was dark and vast. Tagaq’s performance was excellent but the focus of the darkened room was the film.
There was reason for that. Nanook of the North is undoubtedly beautiful as it captures the “mysterious barren lands” of northern Canada with “snow smoking fields of sea and plain.” Nanook of the North is seminal in Canadian film history and to documentary film-making more generally. The film has sparked endless debates over the relative merits of pure cinema verité versus staging scenes to represent a fundamental truth.
We’re talking about a film known in full as Nanook of the North: A Story of Life and Love in the Actual Arctic where the protagonist wasn’t really called Nanook and his ‘wife’ was, in reality, the common-law wife of the American film-maker. Memorable scenes inside an igloo were filmed in a three side mock-up as the real thing was too dark and small for the bulky camera equipment of the early 1920s. Meanwhile, the hunting methods depicted were anachronistic – most of the Inuk hunters used guns as standard by that time.
Tagaq summarised the history and controversies associated with the film with grace and humour. She acknowledged that hunting 300 miles north of the magnetic North Pole would have been prohibitively time-consuming and uncertain for the film-makers if it wasn’t staged; for her brothers it had often been a 12 hour affair. Plus, as Roger Ebert once pointed out, “the walrus hasn’t seen the script.”
Tagaq was no apologist for the film or the socio-historic conditions underpinning it, speaking out about the “effects of colonization on my people.” She spoke from the perspective of both sides – she is English on her father’s side whereas her mother was raised in an igloo until the age of 12: “She carries with her the kind of calmness I can’t find elsewhere.” Tagaq spoke knowledgeably of her heritage, especially of throat singing traditionally performed by two women singing in each other’s mouths – once banned as “the priests didn’t like that!”
Tagaq was most dismissive of the idea that the joy and laughter in the film signifies stupidity; that, conversely, dourness somehow equates to intelligence. She explained that in a life replete with hardship and danger, it’s crucial to “make laughter” however and wherever possible. Indeed, for all the criticism of simplistic portrayals of the film’s subjects, their irrepressible joy, expressed without words, is delightful. We see a child giggling while sledging on the back of an adult then on a tiny sled pulled by an excitable Husky puppy. Later, puppies file out of a tiny igloo built to protect them overnight.
All-too-soon the fascinating talk was over as it was time for the main event. Tagaq asked that no videos or photographs be taken during the performance (all these shots are from the talk or credits only), for good reason. Each performance is improvised – it is of and for that specific time and space. Watching a jittery clip online wouldn’t truly convey the intense performance; the slow build-up to a crescendo of intense noise or the writhing, head-first off the stage representation of the tumultuous hunts.
Without the context, it may be difficult to appreciate how the band captured the desolate landscapes, notably with atmospheric, discordant violin parts, or how Tagaq encompassed the traditional two singer approach of her predecessors by combining two distinct tonal elements. Her voice ranged from a Bjork style screech to a guttural roar, at times otherworldly, like a record played backwards.
Tagaq had acknowledged that some might find the performance too uncomfortable to watch but, for most, it was incredibly compelling. The lure to watch the performance rather than the film was strong – admittedly, the conditions were not the best for the projection; a little too much ambient light and bleed through of the wood panelling behind.
Crucially, the performance was natural, nothing like contrived performance art. The audience’s reaction were real too. There were tears, contemplation and – unusually for London – conversations with strangers about a raw and vital shared experience.
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