One of the more iconic images we get from The Searchers, features John Wayne standing in the doorway of a home, the majestic landscape of Monument valley behind him. It’s a recurrent motif in The Searchers, looking out through a doorway; it makes a great metaphor through which to view the content of a western. Those of us watching in the present look out into the wilderness beyond, almost as if we were viewing the frontier from the shelter of civilization itself. Men like John Wayne move back and forth across that threshold, but we don’t. We view the mythic American frontier from the safety of the hearth while dangerous men, real men, like John Wayne transform the world beyond into the safe environments we now call home. After standing in the doorway a bit in the final scene, Wayne saunters off back out onto that wilderness. He may be an agent of civilization, but he’s never quite at home in it. Wayne belongs out there, in the desert with all kinds of wild men. It’s about as powerful a statement as anyone ever made in the western genre.
This image returns to us in Malaglutit, a remake of The Searchers by Zacharias Kunuk and Natar Angalaaq featuring an all-Inuit cast. This time what passes for an entrance is a hole torn into an igloo by men for the explicit purpose of taking women by force. Just as in the John Wayne/John Ford version of this story, the raiders have carried women off to parts unknown. The effort to reclaim these women will of course provide the substance of the story itself, but that moment when the men in either film return to find carnage in what should be a home is one of the more powerful scenes in the story. In The Searchers, Wayne enters the wrecked home and pauses in a small doorway, clearly distraught by what he sees. In Malaglutit, the porthole isn’t even a doorway it’s a gaping wound. This porthole isn’t about frontier mythology; its symbolism is more direct, far more graphic, and it speaks far more directly to the violence that has occurred inside, the violence still occurring somewhere out there.
This film has been on the festival circuit for a couple years now, but it’s still rather hard to come by. I finally got a chance to watch it when we showed Malaglutit at the Motif Film Festival in Fairbanks last month. Zacharias Kunuk may not be that well known south of the arctic circle and outside of indigenous circles, but he probably should be. His movie, Atanarjuat (Fast Runner), is perhaps the most well known of his creations. Now THAT film you can get ahold of. It’s well worth the watch. Angalaaq is best known for playing the lead role in Atanarjuat, though he was also excellent in The Necessities of Life. And it’s one of the reasons I have been looking forward to Malaglutit. The Searchers is easily one of the greatest westerns ever made. To see it remade as an indigenous production raises all manner of interesting prospects. To see it done by people as talented as Kunuk and Angalaaq makes them all that much more interesting.
Oh yeah; Spoiler alert!
It’s difficult to make a sustained comparison between the two films, though that seems to be where I am going with this. Kunuk’s cast is all Inuit. The villains, the heroes, the heroines; all of them are Inuit. So, the many racial themes present in the original Searchers just don’t enter into this version of the story. Along with the absence of race, I think you’d have to say the essential themes of an American western are largely missing here (though at least one critic has referred to it as a Northern). It seems that some of the landscape Kunuk filmed might echo the rock formations of Monument Valley, but if so, the resemblance is slight. Most significantly, the central protagonist here is doesn’t carry the moral complexity of John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards. At least, we don’t have to wonder if Kuanana (the hero in Malaglutit) will kill his wife and daughter instead of rescuing them. That was a big part of the original Searchers, and it’s not present in this story.
What is present here, what is new to the basic-story-line, is an extraordinarily frank meditation on rape. In the original Searchers, violence between men is all over the screen, but the rape and torture of women takes place off-screen. We are invited to imagine its horrors, but what we see are men shooting at each other in a plot-line shaped by those horrors. In Malaglutit, we see much (though not all) of the sexual violence. From the moment of capture to the actual rape of the women in this film the camera lingers; we are forced to watch this play out slowly on screen. I wouldn’t say that the scenes are all that sexually explicit, but I would say that they are emotionally explicit. What we see isn’t body parts; people struggling with one another. Perhaps the most disturbing scene in the whole film, at least for me, occurs shortly after the initial capture when the kidnappers pause for a break in their travel, their captives still tied to the sleds. Ostensibly a chance to eat and rest, it is also the first time they and their victims are alone together with enough time to contemplate the prospects ahead of them. It is a moment of calm, and yet one thoroughly saturated with violence.
There is something about the stripped down nature of this story line that helps us focus on the violence against the women here. Yes, there men struggling to save these women, but the epic battle between good men and evil men doesn’t eclipse the struggle between the captors and their captives in this story. We are never afforded the luxury of thinking about this as a story about men. The unimagined horrors of The Searchers have been put right there in front of us in Malaglutit. In the original, John Wayne’s character is driven made at the thought that his niece might have gone native so to speak, that she had been sullied by a Comanche and (worse) that she might have grown to accept it. Racial themes play a big part of the horror through which Wayne’s character views the events in question. In Malaglutit, racial differences are non-existent, and the violent process by which a captive might be made to give up hope unfold right there on the screen in front us us.
But do they?
Do they give up hope?
That was the question that occupied my attention throughout this story. Of course I also wanted Kuanana to rescue them, and I wanted the bastards who committed these terrible acts to be punished. But more than anything else, I wanted the women, Ailla and her daughter, to come through themselves. I wanted to see them hold on, not because Kuanana would have wanted them to, but because I saw enough of their story to care about their own struggle, their own part in this story-line.
At the end of the day, this really is its own film
(Kunuk on Malaglutit)