Dirs: Marie-Helène Cousineau, Madeline Piujuq Ivalu.Canada. 2008. 93min.
Before Tomorrow is a complex and intimate drama about an existential crisis on several levels, all seen through an aboriginal lens. The third film in a loose trilogy begun with Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner and The Journals Of Knud Rasmussen, it faces the same hurdles of its predecessors. Shot entirely with Innu actors in their native language of Inuktitut, the cadence and narrative structure make for challenging viewing.
That said, the Camera d’Or-winning Atanarjuat’s ground-breaking foray cleared a path for Before Tomorrow. The third film is less forbidding than the more allegorical Rasmussen albeit no less grim in its tale of life and death at the extreme of the world. Sundance, where the film screens in world dramatic competition, with its traditional acceptance of native American film, is an ideal environment for the film’s move into the wider world. The film won the best Canadian first feature film award at Toronto and the American Indian movie award at the American Indian film festival in San Francisco. But its smaller canvas limits the likelihood of success on the scale of Atanarjuat.
Where Atanarjuat represents the world before the Western concept of time and Rasmussen charts the moment when indigenous people became what they are today, the third film represents the near extinction of indigenous peoples.
It is1840, well after first contact, but the members of one clan have never met these strangers from elsewhere; the only proof of the strangers are the tools gained in trading with other clans: a steel-bladed knife and a steel sewing needle, supernatural in their keenness.
But Ningiuq (Ivalu), a tribal elder, views these marvels with suspicion. Nearing the end of her life, she seems to sense the shift the white culture represents while she draws closer to her husband on the other side. Presented with an opportunity to perform one last useful task, she volunteers to dry the clan’s fish catch on a remote island, away from predators. Her old friend, Kutuguk (Qulitalik), and her grandson, Maniq (Paul-Dylan Ivalu), a young boy just learning to hunt, join her. The food will keep the clan alive through winter.
After only a few days on the island, it’s clear the frail Kutuguk has pushed herself too far. Then, after a few weeks, no boat has arrived to collect them and the winter provisions. Grandmother and grandson hazard the boat ride themselves only to arrive at a scene of devastation: the entire clan is dead, their corpses covered in the blisters of small pox. The bearer of marvelous tools is also the bearer of a new kind of death.
In the lead role, co-director and co-screenwriter Ivalu captures the polarity of a person facing death trying to maintain a positive outlook for the benefit of her oblivious grandchild. His first steps as a provider are touchingly presented and the poignancy of these minor triumphs contrast with the inevitable advance of the killing polar winter. Cinematographers Norman Cohn (who shot Atanarjuat and Rasmussen) and Felix Lajeunesse employ a series of rhapsodic visual metaphors to capture the austere beauty of the environment.
The film’s only misstep is its musical book-ends - Kate and Ann McGarrigle performing a song with the recurring refrain of ‘Why must we die”, a sentimentality at odds with the film’s tone. Its great achievement is to transport the viewer into another mindset, to see the world through ancient eyes.
Igloolik Isuma Productions
Kunuk Cohn Productions
Isuma Distribution International
(1) 514 486 0707
Madeline Piujuq Ivalu
Based on the novel Før Morgendagen by Jørn Riel
Madeline Piujuq Ivalu