|"You look different."|
"So do you."
"No, you look beautiful right now. Really."
There is a House Here (2017)
Dir. Alan Zweig
Starring: Tatanniq (Lucie) Idlout
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Great. Another fucking masterpiece of filmmaking. When will Canadian filmmaker Alan (When Jews Were Funny, Hurt) Zweig do wrong? When will the runner stumble? Or will he continue to feed the soul of the world with one great picture after another? Well, if his new feature There is a House Here is any indication, the dude just keeps grinding them out and there's no stopping him.
The picture wears its heart, theme and narrative on its sleeve, right from the get-go. We follow a burly dude in a grey toque, red parka and baggy jeans from behind as he descends from an airplane onto the frozen tarmac of an airport in Iqualit, Nunavut. Inside, a young, raven-haired babe in a white animal-fur coat waits patiently with a smile of expectation upon her face. Soon the pair are striding towards an awaiting vehicle and a title card announces that it's "winter". Yeah, I buy that. It's winter alright. The breath forming in clouds announces this in spades, but that's okay, it's the seasons that count. They change and shift and just like in life, they prove to be major cornerstones.
Once in the car, the beautiful woman gently chides the burly figure in the backseat over his choice of parka colour. "You look like such a fuckin' tourist," she declares.
Oh, and it's dark outside. It's only 3:00 PM and we learn that it's going to get darker. Well, it's not just the light in the sky that's going to get darker. But no matter, it's an Alan Zweig picture and darkness is a prerequisite to find the light.
The hidden figure remarks how odd it is that after five years of being pals long distance via phone and email, he and the woman aren't having a decent face-to-face reunion and are already driving from the airport to a nearby destination to begin shooting the picture proper. They're going to meet the woman's uncle in his home. Many years ago he "found Jesus" and became the first Inuk Bishop in the Anglican Church - ever.
As they enter the old Bishop's home, the woman asks the hidden figure to explain what the film is about to her uncle. "Really?" he asks, almost incredulous. "I just got here. I don't even know what the film's going to be about yet."
It's this delectable, if not indelicate truth that proves to be the thing that drives the picture - a filmmaker who has no idea what his film is going to be. What we learn on the journey about the film's subjects is that first and foremost, this is a film about seeking answers, about learning something its filmmaker wants to know, and in so doing, casting the glow of illumination upon us all - forcing us to confront how little we know about anything and how life (and filmmaking/art), should indeed always be about exploration.
And yes, no matter what the movie's about, great pictures ultimately reflect the filmmaker.
The hidden figure isn't hidden for long. Sitting in the home of the Old Uncle, director Alan Zweig doffs his ugly red tourist parka and adorned in a gray plaid hoser sweater, he attempts to explain what his movie is about. The gorgeous, impossibly-stylishly dressed woman, the retired Bishop's niece who insists Alan explain, is none other than Zweig's friend Tatanniq Idlout (Inuk rock star Lucie Idlout).
"After all the shit you told me over the years, I had to come see for myself," Zweig blurts out in his gravel-tinged Eeyore-like voice. He looks to the Old Uncle. "So one time I was talking to your niece on the phone and she said, 'It's the Third World up here, motherfucker.' And I thought, why is it the third world in my country, why is part of my country the third world?"
If anything, Zweig knows all too well what his movie is going to be about, even if he didn't know it at the time, or at least couldn't articulate it. For someone who went into this film purportedly not knowing what it was about, the footage has been expertly assembled into a stirring, moving and provocative story.
That all said, it does indeed turn out that Tatanniq's Uncle is not comfortable about being interviewed by Zweig, and so, they leave.
"He didn't like me," says Zweig. "I think he's anti-Semitic."
Tatanniq fires back: "You fucking jerk."
Their quips are tinged with mordant wit. If this wasn't a Canadian documentary, you'd think you were watching a Howard Hawks romantic comedy with a jowly schlubby Cary Grant and a wiseacre Rosalind Russell in Nunavut garb. Yeah, and if on the surface the movie is about a filmmaker's exploration of a world he wants to know more about, it is, if anything - deep down - the story of a friendship; one that deepens and grows as he makes his film.
Zweig's the searcher. Tatanniq's the guide. Hell, if it was a western, one might even mistake their partnership in the colonial trappings of a genre that so often found itself mired in cultural stereotypes. We're not talking The Lone Ranger and Tonto here, but the thought can't help cross our minds. (Zweig is no Armie Hammer and, thank God, Idlout is no Johnny Depp.)
After Zweig's turfed from the Old Uncle's house, the bantering pair are driving to another interview prospect. "So these next people that are gonna fucking kick me out," he inquires, "What's their names?"
As Zweig blows into the house, the new subject asks: "Why are you here? What do you want to learn?"
"How can we make things better for you up here?" says Zweig.
"Do you believe in Satan? Do you believe in God? If you don't, then there's no way you can save us or help us," is the response.
Zweig admits he believes in neither.
He's kicked out.
But it doesn't stay this way. As Zweig spends more time in this world, as he discovers his film, the doors, a seeming eternity above the tree-line, keep opening. He slowly finds his sea legs. Not that the doors wouldn't open. As one of the subjects states: "You never refuse anyone entry into your house in the Arctic. They could be frozen. Even if they have a knife in their hand, you let them in."
Having Zweig in the film is a welcome treat. In his first few documentary features (Vinyl, I, Curmudgeon, Lovable) he always put himself front and centre, but as his evolution as a filmmaker continued, we'd see less and less of him on-camera, though his distinctive voice and line of questioning was always present. In There is a House Here, Zweig allows - nay, demands - that the lens be on him as well as his subjects.
The camera also trains itself poetically, often with the underlay of a gorgeous, soulful heartbreaking score, focusing upon astonishing vistas and life as it unfolds in the cities of the Arctic. Kids play hockey in the streets, ATVs, snowmobiles and half-tons blast along the snow-packed roads, even Bingo is played (albeit via radio broadcast into peoples' homes).
And most of all, there's Alan and Tatanniq, this "odd couple" wending their way through a world Zweig wants to learn about and one in which Idlout, through the process of the film, might also be seeing in a whole new light. Though he's come to know his friend via years of correspondence, he trains his camera upon her to speak about herself, if only "for the record" and to place her participation within the film in "context".
After flying to Iglulik, he asks her point blank why she's given up on being a rock star. Ah, directly indelicate as always. It's what friends are for, right? Tatanniq let's him know that she hasn't really given it up even though she's moved back up north. After recording several albums, writing a whole whack of singles and composing film soundtracks, she found herself drawn away from what she calls "a rock 'n' roll lifestyle" that she led living in Toronto. She declares: "It was not fulfilling to me. I had an active social life and a beautiful apartment I loved very much, but there was something missing." She also admits she just didn't like "the touring life of a rockstar".
Once back up north, darkness reared its head. At least that's how Zweig perceives it, as do we. He makes the observation that her return was to a world of violence. She wryly yanks his chain: "I can show you some violence if you like."
She does reveal, however, the very real violence that she faced. "I don't have any kids living in my house and I don't have a man living in my house, so people just come because it's an easy place for them to do their misbehavings and I let them in."
Still, she boils it down to two words: "Shit happens." Indeed it does. She elaborates: "Even the worst experiences up here seem matter of fact. I got raped, I got beat up, the RCMP abused me… I'm certainly not saying it's no big deal, but it happens and people up here are more honest about what they're willing to talk about."
Honesty, of course, runs rampant throughout the film. At times it feels like a litany of stories involving alcohol abuse and horrendous reminiscences of residential schools in which the Government of Canada uprooted thousands upon thousands of Aboriginal children from their homes to strip them of their culture and assimilate them into "White" society. And, of course, most of these schools were presided over by sadistic perverts of the cloth. Nuns and priests alike took delight in wielding their power over these children, physically, psychologically and sexually abusing them. When children are caught speaking in their own language (and not English), they're shoved into corners and forced to wear dunce caps. These children and their children's children face poverty and neglect of a magnitude that's as appalling as any apartheid in any country at any time.
If there's a "third-world" in Canada, we learn quickly and heartbreakingly that it was created by the colonialist evil, but that its clutches continue even today. The housing crisis in these northern communities is appalling. Often 10 or more people are crammed into tiny houses while huge residences created for Government of Canada employees stand empty. Young people seek out remote garbage dumps to booze it up in peace. Kids are constantly orphaned and/or snatched from their biological parents by overzealous "liberal" social workers - adoption amongst the Northern residents is as common as breathing air.
Yes, many of us know this or have at least heard about it, but Zweig's film is an important window upon this as he, as a filmmaker, is our surrogate explorer. As he discovers things first-hand, so too do we.
And most horrific of all are the seemingly endless tales of suicide - people living for no other reason than to die, and in many cases, to die by their own hand. Tatanniq's grandfather drove his truck off a cliff. He was a good driver. He knew the land. He knew there was a cliff there. This was no "accident", no matter how much the government bean-counters might prefer it to be. And even Idlout experienced something akin to residential schools when she was separated from her mother and shoved into foster homes where she wasn't allowed to speak on the telephone to her mother in their native tongue. It always had to be in English. And most idiotic of all is when she describes how her foster parents would never allow her to place her hands beneath the dinner table for fear that it would look like she was trying to masturbate.
Uh, who the fuck is going to be diddling themselves with a plate of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding before them? (Well, I suppose I can think of a few reprobates who might harbour this fetish, but none of them are orphan girls in foster care.)
But throughout the darkness, Zweig's film discovers plenty of light. A young boy talks about bagging a polar bear at the age of 13 - a feat not even his grandfather, an expert hunter has ever done. An elder, still an avid hunter, displays the implements of his trade in a living room and demonstrates the art of stalking a seal. And there is, yes, a glorious seal hunt out on the ice of the great North and under the big sky. During this sequence there's a dazzlingly beautiful, almost wildly romantic moment when Tatanniq saunters towards the camera and the off-camera Zweig notes how beautiful she looks. As she gazes across the vista before her, he adds, "Your eyes look clearer." She nods and declares: "My mind feels clearer."
And then there's the culture, the heritage, the tradition. Zweig admits to one of his subjects that "The culture I live in doesn't mean that much to me, but I'm very affected by listening to you talk about your culture."
Finally, through the darkness and light, what remains, so delicately and compellingly is the friendship between the filmmaker and his guide. It takes your breath away. There are moments, especially towards the end, of such tenderness, but there's also a moment where the curmudgeonly Zweig hits one lollapalooza of a wrong button. Idlout's response is perfectly appropriate - both emotionally and yes, culturally. As Zweig's film proves: What good is friendship when those we love and respect can't tell us to fuck right off and we, in turn, accept it. And understand.
Ultimately, it's the alternately dolorous and hopeful humanity of this film that winds us and if anything, There is a House Here is a journey, an exploration of deep understanding. The world will be a better place because of it.
When Tatanniq looks to the ice, snow and sky, she admits: "I wanna go be a part of the beauty."
Who in their right mind wouldn't?
THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***** 5-Stars
There is a House Here plays at TIFF 2017.