Film Review: Before Tomorrow

The third in a cinematic trilogy of pre-Christian Inuit life that began with Atanarjuat, <i>The Fast Runner</i>, <i>Before Tomorrow</i> is an outstanding film which presents a distinctly feminine view of the history of the Inuit.

Sheltered from the boreal winds outside, Maniq, a 12-year-old Inuit boy, and his grandmother Ningiuq eat the meat from his first catch. It’s winter in the Arctic and the two, having been separated from their family, are living in a cave, hoping to survive until spring. Ningiuq asks her grandson to tell the story of the hunt, and Maniq describes the seal surfacing in the ice hole, and his anticipation as he waited for just the right moment to harpoon it. The conversation, near the close of Before Tomorrow, is more than a modest celebration of Maniq’s right of passage: The film is set in 1840, just as the Europeans were arriving, when the Inuit had only an oral tradition. Storytelling was their one defense against diaspora.

Before Tomorrow
is the third in a series of films that began with Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner, the first movie in Inuktitut, a Canadian Inuit language. Atanarjuat, and the second in the trilogy, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, were written and directed by New Yorker Norman Cohn and his Inuit collaborator Zacharias Kunuk, who are executive producers on Before Tomorrow. Based on a book by Danish author Jørn Riel, the movie is a collaboration between Cohn and Kunuk’s production company and Arnait, a women’s video cooperative founded by Montreal native and co-director Marie-Héléne Cousineau. Like Atanarjuat and Journals, Before Tomorrow is a cross-cultural collaboration but reflects Inuit sensibilities. It is a spectacular debut film, distinct from the others in its intimate depiction of the immutable qualities of Inuit life.

Before Tomorrow opens with Maniq and Ningiuq trudging across a flat, snow-packed landscape, the boy begging his grandmother to tell him another story in order to keep the cold and fatigue from overcoming him. Ningiuq recites the tale of a raven and a girl caught in the belly of a whale, a dark, cavernous place the girl has kept illuminated with a single flame. In the end, the girl and the raven die when the bird ignores the girl’s instructions for keeping the flame alive. The portent of the story remains as the film moves backward in time, to a summer family gathering. One of the male elders recounts his adventures trading with white men, and Ningiuq, already despondent over her friend Kutuujuk’s illness, feels a deepening sense of dread as she listens to the elder’s description of the white man’s desire for sex with Inuit women.

Soon, it is time to prepare the family’s summer catch of fish and seals for the coming winter, and Ningiuq volunteers to travel to a nearby island, away from predators, where she can safely dry the meat. Her grandson and Kutuujuk accompany her. As the short Arctic summer ends, her friend dies, and Ningiuq’s fears grow: Maniq’s father, who promised to return before the fall rains, never arrives to bring them home. The cave she and Maniq found for drying the fish becomes their refuge, but when another tragedy befalls them, Ningiuq realizes that her grandson may be the last of her family. She alone must keep the oil lamp lit, but can she teach him all of her stories before tomorrow—the tomorrow that promises annihilation?

Storytelling for the nomadic Inuit was a recounting of the family and the world: Only in Ningiuq’s imagination did another population of Inuit exist. Although the movie will be interpreted as a story about the terrible consequences of first contact, Before Tomorrow is actually a founding myth, a narrative of the Inuit world absent patriarchy. It’s a narrative about time, too, because storytelling dispels all our false notions of the passage of time, of the years that separate the old grandmother from her young grandson. Like the girl and the raven, the two share one light and one soul. This continuity is emphasized in the visual style of the film: Whatever emotion or action informs the sequence gets resolved with few cuts, so that we have the illusion of unbroken time.

When Kutuujuk dies, Ningiuq is at her side. We hear the old woman’s last words to Ningiuq, then the death rattle. We witness Ningiuq’s stinging grief, the loving way she shrouds her friend’s body and, afterward, are allowed to imagine Ningiuq’s thoughts as she takes her last, long look at Kutuujuk. If there are any cuts in that sequence, they’re so natural as to be unnoticeable. We are left with a sense of having felt the whole of the lives these two women shared in that one intimate moment, uninterrupted by the unnatural shifts in time that a cut from close-up to medium shot, for instance, would engender. The ancient myth of a shared soul in Ningiuq’s tale of girl and raven is again reflected, suddenly and profoundly, in the lives of the two old women.

Here, the continuity of Inuit life is not isolated in a struggle for hegemony that is then immortalized, as it is in the first two films in the trilogy. They were epics, but Before Tomorrow assumes these proportions only in contemplation. The historical moment is contained in the personal, and is illustrated in the story of a relationship: The forces which tie families, tribes and nations together are evinced in the bonds of love, devotion and responsibility which Ningiuq and Maniq share. It is a distinctly feminine vision of the world, which the filmmakers must have felt when they discovered Riel’s inspiration for writing the novel. The author lived among the Inuit of Greenland for nearly two decades. In the 1950s, on a remote island in the northeast of the country, he discovered a cave where, undisturbed for perhaps half a century, were the bones of a woman and a young boy. In a 2005 interview with Riel by Cousineau, the author explains that at first he wondered why no one had rescued them. Then he realized the woman and the boy had perished when all of the Inuit of that region were dying.