• Interviews

Lucy Tulugarjuk on Co-Directing the Award-Winning Film Tautuktavuk (What We See)

Oct 18, 2023
by Anqi Shen

Content warning: This interview touches briefly on issues surrounding violence and trauma.

Tautuktavuk (What We See)
, a new film by Lucy Tulugarjuk and Carol Kunnuk, starts with breath—the heavy breath of a woman running barefoot through the snow that morphs into katajjak, a duet of breaths passed back and forth between singers. I didn’t pick up on the life in breath, the singing in breath—a reminder to return to a work of art, to understand what you may have missed. 

Tautuktavuk had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September and will be shown at imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival in Toronto, which runs from October 17–22, followed by a screening tour and television debut in communities in Nunavut this winter.

In the film, two sisters, the elder Saqpinak and younger Uyarak, played by Kunnuk and Tulugarjuk respectively, become separated from each other during COVID-19. Filmed during the height of the pandemic, Kunnuk and Tulugarjuk had to navigate public health policies that forced changes to filming locations and ultimately shifted the storyline to an intimate portrait of two sisters who connect over a vast distance. Through conversations filmed on location in Iglulik, NU, and Montreal, QC, they speak and respond to traumas they have experienced. All throughout, luminous shots of the land fill the screen. 

Here, writer Anqi Shen speaks to Tulugarjuk about her experiences making the film.

Anqi Shen: Before the screening at TIFF, you were talking to the audience and one of the things you said was “support one another.” Could you talk about that sentiment?

Lucy Tulugarjuk: Oftentimes when a settler comes up North, they have no idea what to expect. I said we need to support one another, to have that open door and understanding instead of judging us right away. Take time to understand why someone may be intoxicated by the Northern store, or why they may not be living with their abusive partner. Give them space instead of judging right away. Give them time. Ask them how they are, for real.

When I live in Montreal, often we're judged as drunk street people and that's not who we are. We are not drunks. And we're not always on the street. It's only a handful who are and it's very visible. We are stereotyped often by people who have never stepped foot in the Arctic. People in the South don't ever learn about Inuit or regional divisions or different dialects or the actual history of how Canada became Canada, unless you hear it from Indigenous people. So give us space to explain.

I never grew up in an abusive home, thankfully. I never saw my parents drinking and I never saw violence, thank goodness. I was in a peaceful and loving family. So it's so hard to see some families who have to go through this when you're growing up, not understanding what is happening. As a kid, I would think, why is that happening? I think we need a lot of time to heal.

AS: What was the writing process like and how did that carry forward into filming?

LT: The writing itself changed quite a bit, considering we were going to cover the topic of what Inuit settlements, like the community of Iglulik specifically, go through. Due to pandemic restrictions that limited travel to Nunavut, a lot of our stories shifted to staying home. Zoom calls were created to avoid having people in our houses because we couldn't have cast and crew members in the house. But we still had to continue the filming in order to report to the funders. 

It was important for me and Carol that we never see the abusers on screen. Rather, we see it happen in a dream that is from my character, Uyarak’s, memory. So even though Saqpinak, my sister, says, “I saw your face was full of blood,” we didn't want to put a face full of blood on screen because there's enough trauma in people's homes already that people don't talk about. I thought, the person who sees the film can imagine it and feel it without having to visually see it.


Tautuktavuk (What We See)
(still) (2023)

AS: What was it like working with Carol Kunnuk as co-director? How did it compare to your previous experiences behind the camera?

LT: When I was given an opportunity to co-write, I asked Carol if she either wanted to co-direct or be my first supporting director, and she said co-direct. I accepted her wish, because I think her voice is as important as mine. From a woman's perspective, it was important that we both have an equal voice when filming. Carol was able to make decisions about filming while I was in Montreal and couldn’t travel to Nunavut. So she was able to shoot in a closed set, either in her home or outside. 

As long as the cast and crew were not inside somebody's home during filming, Carol was still able to direct, which was good because we still had to keep moving forward. Otherwise, we'd have to return all the funds that we received. We’ve always completed a film, so it was so important that this was specifically done because in Kingulliit history or Isuma history, there have never been two women directors on the same film. So we made sure that we finished and said, “A woman can direct, too.”

AS: You and Kunnuk recently were honoured with the Amplify Voices Award for Best BIPOC Canadian First Feature film at TIFF. What are you looking forward to working on in the future?

LT: This next project I'm currently working on is very different from Tautuktavuk. It's 40 per cent live and 60 per cent animation and it's about learning, self esteem, self care, traditional values of tattoos, traditional values of legends and beliefs that Inuit are least told from generation to generation. In my generation it sort of stopped—the storytelling of legends and spirituality. So I’m putting in what I used to imagine as a kid when my parents told me about these legends. 

AS: With the upcoming screenings of Tautuktavuk at ImagineNATIVE and in the North, what do you hope audiences will get out of the film when they watch it?

LT: I hope people take a moment to talk about family and how they feel. I hope that someone—hopefully a handful—will say it's okay to ask for help. We don't need to be ashamed of it. I see healthy families back home that I absolutely love who are trying to keep the tradition alive.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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