I always loved stories about remote communities, especially if they were in the science fiction genre, like The Thing or Alien. Today, they are the most popular cult movies, but it was not like that with The Thing when it premiered. “Invoking a direct comparison with E.T., Linda Gross of The Los Angeles Times declared, “Instead of providing us with love, wonder, and delight, The Thing is bereft, despairing, and nihilistic,’ ” Heather Addison wrote in her analysis, “Cinema’s Darkest Vision: Looking into the Void in John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982).” Imagine that! After many years, things for The Thing changed, as they did for Indigenous filmmaking in Canada.
Aliens are coming (Slash/Back)
“Up until about 2000, funding agencies such as Telefilm Canada limited most of the financial support for Indigenous filmmaking to documentaries. Indigenous filmmakers made documentaries because this was the mode most readily available to them”, Darrell Varga wrote in “Screen Zombies, Alien Settlers, and Colonial Legacies.” The change began with Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner in 2001. This was the first feature film ever made entirely in the Inuktitut language, and it won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes. It was also the first time a Canadian film won this honour.
In the last couple of years, we have seen some quite interesting Indigenous films, and I am especially happy that they – like me – love the sci-fi horror genre. Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum (2019) “locate the alien monster in the history of European civilization,” Varga wrote about it and concluded, “Think of the historical record as the plot of an alien invasion movie: strange people arrive on large but rickety floating structures from over the ocean, seemingly unconstrained by the known limits of science.” There is also Night Raiders film, a sci-fi dystopian movie from 2021, which is about Niska, a Cree woman who joins a resistance movement against a military government to save her daughter. The director, Danis Gaulet, said for CBC, “I think we’re on the precipice of a golden age of Indigenous cinema.” Slash/Back is also a genre movie – sci-fi horror.
Horror adventure in Pangnirtung, Nunavut
Unlike Drylanders, NFB’s first feature film from 1963, Slash/Back from 2022 directed by Nyla Innuksuk, does not open with an empty space. Drylanders, a film about settlers, “deleted” First Nations from landscape, as the Group of Seven (Canadian landscape painters 1920-1933) did. Slash/Back opens with Maika and her father in the boat, speaking on Inuktitut about hunting and survival. Survival is what this horror adventure sci-fi movie is about. In many things, it is similar to other alien invasion movies. In some way, it reminded me of The Thing, as in both movies, aliens invade people and animals, and both are set in remote locations. The Thing is set in a research station in Antarctica, while Slash/Back happens in Pangnirtung, a fly-in community 45 km from the Artic Circle in Nunavut’s Baffin Island. Population: 1504.
The movie opens with a nice, classic horror situation – an alien kills a researcher – and blood paints the snow. The main characters of the movie are a couple of teen girls who live in this remote small town (“Yeah, welcome to Crap Hole. Population, who cares?” one of them would say, adding, “I like watching it get smaller. If we drove far enough, it would just disappear.”), having classic teen problems with some unclassic ones – aliens. They dream about Winnipeg and love Instagram – the phone and the data are currency for them. In some scenes, they could be in any suburbia, talking about love and riding their bicycles. But they are not.
One of my favourite scenes from Slash/Back
And their adventure would not be as ordinary as they will fight aliens with plenty of jump scare scenes. I loved it when the movie gave kudos to Exorcist with the spider walk scene. One of the conflicts, other than with aliens or “bad” cops, is between Maika and Uki. Maika does not cherishes her Inuit identity – “I hate how every home has stupid Inuit art,” – she will say or comment on the Inuit stories. “Just stupid old people stories made up because they didn’t have internet yet.” Uki, on the other hand, enjoys traditional stories end embraces her identity, and she will say to Maika that she is “…like an Inuk pretending not to be an Inuk.”
The Halluci Nation made the soundtrack and they collaborated with Tanya Tagaq
Many horrors use night as an element in the formula for fear, but here, that is not the case. It is the day throughout the movie, as they are in summertime and midnight sun time. Slash/Back cleverly uses the surrounding and Inuit stories, weapons, and face tattoos. The main characters use traditional knives to fight the aliens, and they paint their faces for the final fight.
The Slash/Back is specific because it was filmed in Pangnirtung, and the actors were locals. The casting was set up as the acting workshop, and it was community filmmaking, which is complex relationship between many as Sarita Malik, Caroline Chapain and Roberta Comunian wrote in “Embracing the Complexity of Community Filmmaking and Diversity:” “…we can see community filmmaking itself as a spatial and temporal practice of the work and interactions of a dynamic network of agents (the filmmaker, the communities involved, the funders and the audiences, for example) who are moved by both individual interests (for example, generating visibility, aesthetic expression, career goals) and collective interests for example, civic agency, local place-making, community representation).”
“It was totally crazy — crazy way to make a movie. But that’s kind the only way that it would have been possible, is to be given that space and have everyone in the community help out and help us make it.”Nyla Innuksuk, director
Unlike The Thing, the movie ends on a more positive note, which I like in horror. To make a movie is a complicated process, and to make it in Pangnirtung was even harder.
You can read quite an interesting interview with Tasiana Shirleym (Maika) and Nalajoss Ellsworth (Uki) here.