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Tanya Tagaq is Very Much Alive — and Extremely Awesome

Ever Deadly shows the renowned Inuk throat singer in her purest form. 

by Yasmine Shemesh

The last four minutes of Ever Deadly, the intimate cinematic portrait of renowned Inuk throat singer, songwriter, and author Tanya Tagaq, is Tagaq’s favourite part. 

It’s the climax of her performance, which is entirely improvised, captured in a single shot, and runs through the film like a backbone. The camera closes in on Tagaq as she rocks back and forth, her eyes shut, head shaking, chest heaving. Everything is bathed in purple and blue light. The shot pans to the band, who are feeling it too. The audience then erupts as Tagaq, one-by-one, high-fives, tightly hugs, and touches the hands of the musicians who have joined her on this journey, riding the waves of joy, pain, anger, ecstasy, vulnerability. Before it all cuts out, Tagaq walks towards the camera, tucks her hair behind her ear, and smiles. 

It’s very hard, Tagaq tells RANGE, speaking over Zoom, to describe in words how she feels when she performs. “But, it’s being alive.” She nods. “Fully being alive and experiencing, in my flesh what it is to be alive.”

It was, in fact, after seeing Tagaq perform live that filmmaker Chelsea McMullan was inspired to do a documentary about the artist. What would it be, they thought, to try to represent that pulsating, emotional, immersive—truly indescribable—experience that is Tagaq’s performance, cinematically? McMullan and Tagaq had a mutual friend in Rae Spoon, about whom McMullan had made the award-winning 2013 film My Prairie Home. Spoon introduced the two and, from there, grew a friendship and a collaboration. 

Tagaq, who was born and raised in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, has been an innovative creative force from the start, as Inuit throat singing is traditionally done as a call-and-response between two women face-to-face. Tagaq is a storyteller and fighter, her work an act of healing and resistance. She speaks powerfully about the horrific injustices Indigenous people have faced, and continue to face, at the hands of racist colonial government policies, turning intergenerational pain into beauty. She is a Polaris Music Prize and Juno Award winner, recipient of an Indigenous Voices Award for her 2018 novel, Split Tooth, Member of the Order of Canada, and one of the most important and original artists of our time. 

Tagaq has been approached many times to do a documentary. She always declined. She’s never liked being on camera. But with McMullan, doing this, and directing it together, felt right. Plus, it sounded fun to try a new artistic medium. 

“I really like visual arts,” Tagaq says. “I’d like to try sculpture eventually. I think I’d like to do more acting. I’d like to maybe do a play someday. Just try everything. Try everything to see if I like it. I never thought I’d be an author. So, it was like that. Like, oh, what’s this new thing? What’s this thing with the stops and starts? What’s this thing that you get in front of this camera and it feels a little awkward and you don’t know what the thing is going to be in the end? I just wanted to do something I was afraid of and that was more of a challenge.”

First, she wanted to capture the visceral nature of the performance onscreen. “After that, we got really excited about, well, you have to come home. There has to be some land in the film, right? And that built upon itself.”

“Tanya had a very clear vision of the film and all of these ideas,” McMullan says, also speaking over Zoom, in the frame beside Tagaq. In early meetings, McMullan furiously took notes as Tagaq described specific images she wanted: ice flows, exploding muskox, sand animations she’d watched growing up, reference points like Akira Kurosawa’s magical realist Dreams. Their process was very much about following Tagaq’s instincts. “That’s what’s so exciting to me about working with Tanya and the opportunity to collaborate on this film: letting go of a lot of the approaches I’ve used in the past where everything is really, really planned,” McMullan continues. “It was all about improvisation, all of it being fluid, adapting, finding the moment.”  

Guided by Tagaq’s performance, which progresses in intensity along with breathtaking shots of landscape, hand-drawn animation by Shuvinai Ashoona, historical depictions of Inuit, performances by artists like Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, and lines from Split Tooth, Ever Deadly has a rhythmic flow to it. And the music of it all comes in many forms. The land itself creates a kind of spontaneous score: shells crunching under Tagaq’s feet, the lapping of the water. “It’s where the music comes from,” Tagaq says in the film, swinging her arms and twisting her hands, peace beaming through her cheeks, as she fishes by the rocks.  

“We were just at home for six weeks—my husband and I, my children and my brother—[and] we were out on the land a lot,” Tagaq recalls now. “And my husband was forever talking about the sound. The sound. Like, you just hear one loon. And it’s so loud. Just being on the land is meditation. It’s an entire experience. It’s being part of everything. When you’re just sitting  completely quiet and the little lapping of waves becomes louder and louder and louder, and then one bird flies by, and the sounds of its wings: lightning, but peaceful. I think that’s how I learned to listen. And so much of music is listening. And improvisation is just reacting to whatever is happening.”

“It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life,” McMullan adds, of visiting Nunavut. “I dream about it all the time and it’s calming for me. It just had such a huge presence in my psyche.” 

Tagaq smiles. “It’s my best friend. And it has as much impact on me as any of my family members.”

Family plays a significant role in Ever Deadly. There are loving, playful scenes of Tagaq’s children running and climbing. Archival footage that shows Tagaq’s grandfather in Land of the Long Day, a 1952 film presented by the National Film Board of Canada, harpooning narwhals. One of the most powerful moments is when Tagaq’s mother, Mary, recounts how the family was forcefully relocated from Pond Inlet to Resolute Bay by the Canadian government. She shares the story in her language, Inuktitut, which feels like an act of self-determination. 

“It’s important for people to be held accountable for what has transpired,” Tagaq says. “Having her talk about it—that’s my mom. We love our mothers. It’s not fucking funny. You don’t want that done to your mom. You don’t want to see your family suffer. Indigenous people suffer the most in Canada, more than any other demographic. And I’m sick of it. I don’t want to see it anymore. I want things to change. So that’s why we make this art, and also to celebrate our amazing beauty and humour and natural ways of being. White supremacy sucks, you know? It really does. There’s so much missing out of our lives and our culture because of white supremacy. A good thing about [Ever Deadly] is for people to understand delivery; often, it’s difficult when you do written notes. People will assume when we’re having these discussions, they don’t see our way of speaking. People treat us like we’re screaming, angry freaks. But listen to me: I’m just talking.” 

For Tagaq, with Ever Deadly, it’s not about having control over her story. It’s more that she’s giving consent for it to be shared. 

“I realized that to make good documentaries, and to make good films, you need that kind of content—hard content. But Chelsea was really respectful around my own personal traumas and what I wanted on the camera or not.” Tagaq turns to McMullan. “I just am very thankful to you, because it could have been more splashy and more painful. But it was done in a very respectful way. Quite often audiences will demand trauma porn, where Chelsea didn’t do that. We tried our best to have it be a thing that came out of both of us.”

Including the film’s title. It’s an inside joke. Tagaq smiles. She starts to giggle. “Native people,” she begins, holding it in, “if you say something’s deadly, it means it’s awesome. So, ever deadly, basically, this is really awesome. We thought we’d troll white people by calling it Ever Deadly.” Tagaq smirks. She looks at McMullan. They burst out laughing together. 

Ever Deadly screens Sept. 30 at the Calgary International Film Festival and Oct. 1 & 9 at the Vancouver International Film Festival (Proudly sponsored by RANGE Magazine)