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Throat singer Tanya Tagaq, featured in the documentary Ever Deadly, performs concerts that are all improvisational in nature, giving the audience a once in a lifetime experience that will never be replicated.Courtesy of The National Film Board of Canada

Ever Deadly

Written and directed by Tanya Tagaq and Chelsea McMullan

Classification: G; 90 minutes

Opens in select theatres Jan. 20, including the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto

Critic’s Pick

Late in the mesmerizing concert doc Ever Deadly, musician and author Tanya Tagaq gives her camera crew an interview among flat rocks cascading near a shore in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. She talks about wanting to be buried there, at home, so the permafrost can preserve her flesh. The visual she narrates should sound morbid but from Tagaq’s tongue it’s comforting: “I want to rot very slowly, the way my home intended me to rot.”

There’s something in that near-elemental image that feels entirely at home with her songs and writing, where Tagaq lingers on those aspects in Inuk life that defy time and colonialism’s ravages. When the person behind the camera – presumably co-director Chelsea McMullan – prods Tagaq to tell us where exactly this place she wants to be buried is, the singer refuses to share. Why give settlers a map? “I don’t want people to visit my grave,” she says laughing. “I hate people.”

Tagaq is a disarmingly funny, unsurprisingly eloquent and playfully coy presence throughout Ever Deadly. The documentary, which she co-directs alongside McMullan, is partly self-portraiture, but one in which Tagaq stays light on personal details and regularly turns the lens away from herself.

Tanya and Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory throat singing.Courtesy of The National Film Board of Canada

Sure, you meet Tagaq’s mother and her kids, see some old photos preserved behind cellophane and glimpse her grandfather hunting narwhal in 1952′s Land of the Long Day from the National Film Board. Those are brief albeit potent moments. But Ever Deadly is not the concert doc to inundate with hagiography and patronizing talking heads who illustrate why Tagaq’s art is significant.

Instead, the tight doc collects fragments; some from Tagaq’s life, music and prose, others from her Inuk community, their history and the current issues affecting Indigenous people across Turtle Island. In that way, the doc is a lot like the outfit Tagaq is wearing at the live concert it repeatedly returns to. It’s a dress covered in glass scales, catching in its reflections the world surrounding Tagaq. And these reflective fragments come together as something beautiful, cohesive and significant all on their own.

Ever Deadly opens with a seven-minute-long take that could stand as a short film. Tagaq and fellow multidisciplinary artist Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory are outdoors in Nunavut, throat singing in each other’s faces, which as the former explains is the traditional way – unlike the more contemporary spin she gives it on albums like Retribution or Tongues. Tagaq and Laakkuluk’s mouths heave close together as they send notes back and forth, appearing as though they’re seeking warmth in their breaths and are ready to inhale each other. It’s a sensual and exhilarating duet, capturing their incredible musical range. In a beat, Tagaq’s throat singing can switch from high-pitched howls to deep raging growls.

Tanya and her mother, Mary, whose family was forcefully relocated to Cambridge Bay in the 1950s.Courtesy of The National Film Board of Canada

The film then cuts to the first of many excerpts from the concert shot by Maya Bankovic in one beautifully improvised and cohesive movement, where the camera is mostly capturing Tagaq in close-ups (because we can’t handle all of her in a single frame). Bankovic dances around Tagaq, who is bathed in blue and fuchsia light, slowly revealing both the artist and what’s around her as she gives a rapturous performance flanked by the Element Choir.

At one point, Bankovic captures Tagaq’s hands while a violin is in the background, as if she’s the one stroking its strings. That’s just one poetic touch in a film that has so many: syncing Tagaq’s moans to the sounds of sirens; cutting between her performance and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girl demonstrations; and pairing vivid excerpts from her 2018 book Split Tooth with striking illustrations by fellow Inuk artist Shuvinai Ashoona. It is a fitting cinematic expansion to Tagaq’s art.

Also fitting: Ever Deadly premiered this past fall at the Toronto International Film Festival, just after Nanook of the North’s 100-year anniversary. Robert Flaherty’s film preserved a misrepresentation of Tagaq’s community. Tagaq’s film demands to be preserved even longer; just not in the permafrost.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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