After Tanya Tagaq’s appearance with Nanook of the North at the 2015 Fusebox Festival in Austin, I heard from a couple people that it was the sleeper hit of the festival, the piece most people went in to not knowing what to expect and left wowed by. So I was excited to get the opportunity to see it as part of Under the Radar 2016. (It’s worth noting the piece has been performed in New York previously, most recently, I believe, as part of the opening fall 2015 season of National Sawdust.) And indeed, it was surprising and moving and, I think, disturbing in some brilliant ways.
There’s a lot to unpack in the piece, but to begin with, a simple explanation of what to expect. Nanook of the North is an iconic documentary, filmed in 1920-1921 in Northern Quebec by an American named Robert J. Flaherty, following an Inuit family led by a noted hunter, the titular Nanook. Celebrated on its release in 1922, the film earned Flaherty a reputation as the “father of ethnographic film,” and it became, if not the first feature-length documentary, then the first commercially successful documentary, a template followed over subsequent decades by individuals operating in what is known as “salvage ethnography,” essentially an effort to document—primarily through film but also other means—so-called “primitive” tribes and cultures who were increasingly being exposed to elements of modernity, and therefore having their long-time ways radically altered.
While this particular ethnographic impulse has been subject to all matter of criticism over the past several decades (due primarily to its inherently colonialist enterprise), Nanook of the North has been subject to a series of very specific criticisms. For one thing, parts of it were staged, most notably its most iconic and parodied scene, in which Nanook, being shown a phonograph at a trading post, bites the record in an attempt to understand how it works. (In reality, Nanook—whose real name was Allakariallak—was already familiar with phonographs.) Also, Nanook’s wife wasn’t actually his wife, and in the famous walrus hunt scene, they used spears rather than the already typical guns (an admittedly recently introduced tool) at Flaherty’s request.
So Nanook of the North is today recognized as a problematic document. While many have defended Flaherty’s impulse, and contrasted the resultant film and its heroic depiction positively against racist stereotypes of the era, it is also, without a doubt, a document of a white American looking at another culture, and a conscious staging, not of the “authentic Other” but rather of the filmmaker’s own psycho-social construction of who that Other is.
Which brings us to Tagaq. An Inuk artist raised in Cambridge Bay in far northern Canada, Tagaq began exploring traditional Inuit throat singing while studying art in Halifax. After her performances began receiving notice along with her visual art, she wound up receiving an invitation to join Bjork on tour in 2004, which gained her substantial exposure. Since then she’s released four albums blending throat singing with contemporary electronic forms and even, occasionally, hip hop (I particularly dig “Fire – Ikuma,” a collaboration with Faith No More’s Mike Patton).
Tanya Tagaq’s performance of Nanook of the North began in 2012 as a commissioned presentation of the Toronto International Film Festival’s retrospective “First Peoples Cinema: 1500 Nations, One Tradition.” A collaboration with composer Derek Charke, percussionist Jean Martin, and violinist Jesse Zubot, Tagaq’s piece is, essentially, an original and counterpointing musical score performed opposite an end-to-end screening of the silent film.
In a 2014 interview with the CBC, Tagaq explained her relationship to the film, which she first saw in school, was complex and contradictory. On the one hand, “There are moments in the movie where … my ancestors, they’re so amazing. They lived on the land and I just still can’t believe that,” she said. On the other, though, she remembered “being really, really embarrassed and annoyed when he was biting on the record. And there were a couple of scenes like that where I’m embarrassed and annoyed.”
“Yeah, like, ‘Look at these savage people that have no idea what this is, oh isn’t that funny, they don’t know,’” she said. “And it’s like yeah, why don’t we take someone living in England and put them on the land and laugh at them for dying in the cold? ‘Oh, he’s being eaten by a bear.’”
So for Tagaq, the performance is a reclaiming of experience, identity, and history. She herself characterizes it as finding “some hardcore punk” to challenge Flaherty’s vision. And it is powerful. Throat singing is centered on the breath, aggressively and athletically expelled. The closest approximation I could manage would basically be a grunt, but in Tagaq’s infinitely more skilled performance it’s a visceral vocal form that reveals the physical efforts of the performer. Much like some forms of contemporary dance rely on revealing the effort expended in performance (as opposed to graceful “effortlessness” of classical ballet), so too is Tagaq’s vocal performance made manifestly physical. And Charke’s composition, by turns melodic, drone-y, and atonal, provides a compelling soundscape through which Tagaq’s vocals weave. The effect, amped up to match the urgency of the film’s famous hunt scene, is akin to an opera singer performing an aria after doing 100-meter sprints over the score of Jaws. Except, you know, it’s good.
Still, I think there’s something deeper and more fascinating happening in this piece.
There’s a memorable scene in Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian in which the Judge, the novel’s iconic villain, is found wandering around an ancient Native American site in the American Southwest. Long abandoned, the Judge patiently selects beautiful pieces of pottery and other artifacts that he painstakingly sketches in his notebook before destroying them. This scene is one of the most profound metaphors not only for the subjugation of First Nation peoples in North America by European settlers, but for the colonialist enterprise in general and its ethnographic offshoot. It’s not just a physical subjugation of people to a Eurocentric power structure, but a process of divorcing them from their own past by controlling it directly. This is the most pernicious exercise of power inherent in ethnographic enterprises: It’s not just that, in its presentation of the Other, ethnography reveals own racist biases of the ethnographer, but as an exercise in power, it attempts to force the Other to see themselves exclusively through its lens.
It’s precisely this fraught relationship that lies at the heart of Tagaq’s stated ambivalence about the Flaherty’s film. As much as the film may represent the racist perspectives of its maker, it’s also a document—one of the few—that sought to capture the experience of Tagaq’s own ancestors and their way of life, which Flaherty (an engineer and operative of European and American corporate concerns, who in fact funded his film) was guilty of helping transform and end. The world Tagaq grew up in, in a small modern town in Northern Canada, is the creation of Flaherty and his associates. And the only way she and her kin can see (literally see, through the film) back to where they came from, is through a mechanism of his own devising.
So there’s a tension in the film between Flaherty’s vision as a director and the reality he captures, which has a life of its own. In her pre-show spiel the night I saw the performance, Tagaq mentioned not only how impressed she was with her ancestors’ intelligence and cleverness as captured in the film, but also their humor and caustic wit, which she saw being expressed through the actors’ performances. Because of course Allakariallak really was an actor playing “Nanook.” Allakariallak is the reverse of a “stupid native” Nanook’s depicted as in the phonography scene. Rather, he’s the prototypical example of the ethnic casting stereotypes we grapple with in film to this day.