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The Telescope, the Rifle, and the Camera: Maliglutit’s Unfaithful Remake of The Searchers and the Singularity of Inuit Cinema

The Telescope, the Rifle, and the Camera: Maliglutit’s Unfaithful Remake of The Searchers and the Singularity of Inuit Cinema

Alois Sieben   |   May 2020

I. Introduction

At the end of an article addressing the political potential of Inuit director Zacharias Kunuk’s first two major films, the Caméra d’Or winner Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001) and The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (2006), Russell J. A. Kilbourn ponders whether this work will ever escape being merely absorbed into the Western history of film. In Kilbourn’s estimation, Kunuk’s first two films attempt a reconstitution of traditional Inuit storytelling in “highly cinematic” fashion, therefore necessarily running alongside the much larger “story of cinema itself, whether as technical-ideological apparatus, as entertainment industry, as mechanism for documentation and preservation, or as art form.”1 In sum, Kilbourn speculates whether a uniquely Inuit art form can potentially emerge through a historically Western medium. Perhaps sensing the specter of this question himself, Kunuk’s third major film ceases to merely run alongside the story of cinema, and instead crosses directly into its path. While Kunuk’s first two films adapt the historical materials of Inuit oral folk tale or ethnographic journals, Kunuk’s Maliglutit (Searchers) (2016) adapts a selection from the Western canon: John Ford’s classic The Searchers (1956). Rather than simply constituting an addendum to cinema’s story, Maliglutit offers a revision of one of its important chapters.

This revision is far from straightforward. The plot is similar in both movies: the protagonists’ family members are kidnapped or murdered, and an ensuing desperate pursuit takes place after the perpetrators, on horseback in The Searchers, and by dog sled in Maliglutit. The fidelity to the source material largely ends here though. In Ford’s film, the aforementioned plot structure is driven by a violent racial dynamic between Indigenous peoples (Comanche) and settlers. By contrast, Kunuk’s film contains only Inuit characters, divided somewhat haphazardly into good guys and bad guys. This isn’t to say that settler colonialism is absent within the movie. When it comes to its presentation of settler colonialism, Maliglutit sits somewhere in between its predecessors; like Atanarjuat, European characters are absent, but at the same time, like The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, the film takes place during the first stages of European contact. However, the only gesture toward this contact in the film is through the representation of a diverse collection of objects acquired off screen through trade with Europeans, which often appear only in the background of shots, such as the characters’ constant drinking of tea or cooking in pots.

Through this much more subtle evocation of contact, Maliglutit leaves many reviewers of the film in a state of confusion as to the exact nature of its political commentary on Ford’s film. Despite being an Indigenous remake of a problematic Western, reviewer Cian Cruise notes how it curiously removes “the racial conflict at the core of Ford’s film”;2 Jay Kuehner similarly states that Maliglutit is “conspicuous for its absence of an Other, the axis upon which Ford’s (ambiguous) moral tale is hinged”;3 Chris Knight echoes these thoughts with his description of Kunuk’s film as being “strictly about the Inuit” and not “tensions between the First Nations and European settlers.”4 According to such reviews, the subtraction of explicit racial conflict appears to weaken the film’s political message, which presumably might have been stronger if Maliglutit had simply reversed the conceit of The Searchers, by featuring Inuit good guys pursuing European bad guys. Instead, it becomes viewed as a simple action film, though one that is shot beautifully. This take on Maliglutit often emerges through an omission of the European presence in the film that appears in the form of the trade objects. In some reviews, these trade objects are ignored, producing sentiments like Norman Wilner’s that the film “could just as easily be [taking place] 1000” years ago.5 Yet at key points in the film, some of these trade objects assume prominent positions in the film’s plot. At the centre of the action, the theft of the family members is instigated by the overheard sound of the protagonist Kuanana’s rifle shot by the villains, this relatively new sound carrying for kilometres across the snowy landscape. Subsequently, Kuanana (Benjamin Kunuk) and his son Siku (Joseph Uttak) track and kill the band of villains with both the rifle—containing only three bullets—and a telescope playing integral roles in the pursuit. Clearly, none of these events would have transpired in the same way a thousand years ago.

Through an analysis of the role of these trade objects in the film, specifically the telescope and rifle, this essay draws out a formal commentary from Kunuk on a different trade object, its presence mostly invisible within the film: the camera. A grounds for formal comparison of The Searchers and Maliglutit is established on the basis of how each film deploys its camera in relation to the desire for visual mastery, particularly in a progression of scenes leading up to each film’s climactic scene, in which the truth of the relation is revealed. Visual mastery in this essay is understood as the capacity to repress what psychoanalytic film theorist Todd McGowan describes as the point of impossibility within a film’s visual field—what it cannot bear to see—a repression whose effort often ends up bending and distorting the total field.6 As McGowan elaborates, this aesthetic repression is often ideological, meaning it aids in propping up social fantasies inflicting the visual sphere outside the cinema. This essay argues that while the camera of The Searchers ultimately acquiesces in its climactic scene to a fantasy of visual mastery, with ideological implications, the camera of Maliglutit puts forward a compelling challenge to the desire for visual mastery in its own climactic scene. In doing so, Maliglutit processes the historical relationship between the Inuit and the camera in order to establish the singularity of Inuit cinema.


II. Theoretical Background: Visual Unconscious Versus Visual Mastery

In The Real Gaze: Film Theory After Lacan, Todd McGowan argues for a categorical difference between films which embody the “potentially radical dimension of the filmic experience” and films which merely “provide a fantasmic support for ideology.”7 For McGowan, film’s radical dimension involves pushing an encounter with the visual unconscious upon the spectator: what he calls, following the theory of Jacques Lacan, the gaze of the real. This gaze of the real is conceptually distinct from the gaze written about by figures like Nietzsche or Foucault. McGowan explains the latter two’s theory of the gaze as involving the scopic desire for “mastery over the other or the object… to possess the alien object and make it a part of ourselves.”8 McGowan looks to reintroduce into such framings of the gaze—as active, as mastering—a fundamental passivity identified in Lacan’s writing on the gaze. In the Lacanian visual field, the gaze of the real appears only as the blank spot in “the subject’s seemingly omnipotent look…mark[ing] the point at which our desire manifests itself in what we see.”9 Thus, this gaze of the real implicates the viewing subject in what it sees, despite the latter’s attempts at making the visible appear neutral in order to sustain a sense of mastery and visual coherence. Pertinently, in Lacan’s eleventh seminar The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, this visual unconscious is analogized initially as “an Indian reserve.” In the Canadian context, an “Indian reserve” represents land set aside by the nation-state for Indigenous peoples to live within. What Lacan argues via this analogy is that there is something repressed from “the social network,” akin to the spatial exclusion of the Indian reserve, which returns to it in the unwelcomed form of the gaze of the real.10 It is along these lines McGowan argues that in contrast to the power-oriented gazes of Foucault and Nietzsche, the Lacanian gaze, adapted to the cinema, “marks a disturbance in the functioning of ideology rather than its expression.”11

As the gesture to the Indian reserve suggests, the topic of settler-colonialism doesn’t need to be grafted onto Lacan’s theory, for Lacan frequently grafts it on himself. The primary cultural object by which Lacan develops his concept of the gaze is The Ambassadors (1533) painted by Hans Holbein, which McGowan also explicates.

The painting depicts a pair of world travellers standing in front of the riches they have collected from abroad. It is set in the time period of a world system increasingly organized by the forces of imperialism and colonialism. A globe with a world-map circa 1530 sits among various visual instruments prominent in the picture. During this time period, instruments like the quadrant placed between the two figures enable people to better orientate themselves in relation to their surroundings through measurements of the horizon and stars. As Hito Steyerl argues, this newfound sense of orientation bore a specific boon for the navigational issues of Western seafarers, thus “enabling colonialism and the spread of a capitalist global market.”12 But the boon wasn’t merely technological. The perspective granted by such instruments had both aesthetic and subjective resonances, contributing to optical paradigms developed in painting, as well as a new subject position: the viewer. As Steyerl explains, the optical paradigm produced by these instruments “converges in one of the viewer’s eyes” and therefore “the viewer becomes central to the worldview established by it.” Expanding on her point, Steyerl contends that “this reinvention of the subject, time, and space was an additional tool kit for enabling Western dominance, and the dominance of its [representational] concepts.”13 The visual coherency of the social depended upon a specifically Western viewing subject. As Jacques Lacan notes in his tenth seminar, such instruments of perspective generate the “belong to me aspect of representation, so reminiscent of property.14 In other words, the imperialist travellers’ riches and the scientific instruments are metonymically linked.

More significantly, below these instruments and worldly possessions, McGowan points out Holbein’s painting of an anamorphic skull, generative of a profound disjunction in the painting. The viewing subject can either see clearly the travellers and their property, or the skull. The painting in effect splits the viewing subject. From one viewing position, visible are the astronomical and cartographic instruments employed for visually mastering from afar things that are distant. From another, the gaze emanating from the eyeless sockets of the skull is met. McGowan ultimately contends that Holbein’s peculiar representation of this skull challenges the idea of neutral viewing emitted by the visual instruments, suggesting instead that what one views always bears a subjective stain: how our gaze necessarily alters what we see, constituting an act in Lacan’s estimation. McGowan contends that every film must adopt an aesthetic stance in relation to this visual unconscious. Some repress it in order to preserve a sense of visual mastery, often with ideological purposes. This he calls the cinema of fantasy. Or, like Holbein’s painting, it can push the spectator into an encounter with the visual unconscious by splitting the viewing subject: a cinema of the real.


III. The Searchers

The visual unconscious of The Searchers is mediated by its anti-hero protagonist Ethan Edwards, played by John Wayne. Ethan operates at the centre of the visual field of the film from beginning to end. The film opens with a shot of his sister-in-law, Martha (Dorothy Jordan), seeing him walking in from the desert, while gradually the rest of her family, including the dog, come out of the homestead to see him. With the wind blowing into the faces of Martha’s children, Ben (Robert Lyden) and Lucy (Pippa Scott), it’s almost as if seeing Ethan has physical effects.

Between the film’s end and its beginning, the visual results of the various violent acts committed by the Comanche upon the settlers are seen only by Ethan. Some of the characters implore him to tell them what he’s seen, or let them see as well, all of which he prohibits. “Did they…? Was she…?” Brad (Harry Carey Jr.) cries to Ethan, concerning his kidnapped, raped, and murdered fiancé Lucy, to the latter’s blazing response: “What I’ve got to do—draw you a picture? Spell it out? Don’t ever ask me! Long as you live don’t ever ask me more!” This refusal to grant vision leads Brad, who can now only imagine, into a suicidal frenzy. Others ask him to see for them. “I’d like you to see them all… it might help us identify them,” a military leader requests of Ethan, speaking of the dead bodies of settlers killed—accidentally or intentionally?—by the American military in a raid on a Native American camp. Meanwhile, at times, Ethan himself can’t be seen, specifically in a way that would place him within the events of American history. Instead, he exists merely as some rebellious outside, rebelling even against the rebellion. Capt. Rev. Samuel Clayton (Ward Bond) upon meeting Ethan says to him: “Haven’t seen you since the [Confederate] surrender… Come to think of it, I didn’t see you at the surrender.” Ethan replies: “Nothing for you to see.” That is because Ethan is more ahistorical than historical, a blot more than a character, one that soaks up the necessary visual absences of settler colonialism, while distorting the film’s visual field so that the others can continue to have eyes that don’t see.

An encounter with the visual unconscious becomes possible only by inspecting the traces it leaves upon Ethan’s face, specifically in his look. Since he controls the film’s visual field, other characters constantly read this look in an effort to alleviate their lack of vision. In a pair of comments on the “look in [Ethan’s] eyes,” his brother Aaron (Walter Coy) questions why he stuck around the homestead (the hidden secret here is that Ethan is in love with his brother’s wife, Martha). Later, Ethan’s companion during the search, Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) questions him what will happen to Debbie when they do in fact find her (the hidden secret here is that Ethan plans to kill her). Yet Ethan’s look is often more defined by its illegibility than its legibility. In Gunfighter Nation, Richard Slotkin describes this “highly charged image” of Ethan’s look:

its hatefulness signals a total repudiation of ‘the horror’ and its perpetrators. Yet it also reproduces ‘the horror’: since the bodies are hidden, Ethan’s expression is our only way of knowing (or guessing) what is there. Moreover, as the narrative develops it becomes plain that the hatred in his face is the visible sign that he is himself a ‘horror’ and that his apparent immunity to ‘the horror’ is merely another form of the disease.15

In sum, Slotkin argues that Ethan comes to embody the horror of settler colonialism. But this is a fantasy, one that the film’s characters all participate in as well, particularly at the film’s close. With Ethan having fulfilled his purpose, they leave him behind, and in doing so, supposedly leave behind the horror of settler colonialism. What this equating of Ethan with the horror does is only occlude a more general, social horror. As the Comanche Chief Scar (Henry Brandon) informs Ethan and the viewer, the reason for his own violence was that he had “two sons—killed by white men.” The film’s fantasy structure attempts to conceal the largely unseen consequences of settler colonialism within Ethan’s look, even as the impossibility of fully absorbing them emanates from him in the form of an excessive rage.

Though fictional, there’s a historical background to Ford’s film that surfaces only in small details. At one point in their search, Ethan and Martin uncover from an informant that the Comanche Chief they are pursuing, Scar, is “heading north, to winter in at Fort Wingate, eating agency beef.” This is not merely a fictional fort but also a historical one, tying the plot of the film to actual events that transpired there. After the Navajo were offered the option of surrendering at Fort Wingate in 1863 in order to avoid the threat of “total war”, those who didn’t surrender were subjected to:

…a chastisement the likes of which [they] never dreamed. [Colonel] Carson’s troops pursued them night and day, week after week; over mesas and deserts,under boiling suns and through drifts of winter snows. The military pursuit included the ruthless destruction of planting fields, grain storages, the burning of hogans and orchards, and the wanton slaughter of sheep and cattle.

The Navajo were relentlessly pursued to the point of being in a desperate state, where they faced extermination from a multitude of forces: hunger, disease, violence, or exposure. Ultimately, this situation led to the “Long Walk” of 350 miles to the Rio Pecos, constituting a “ragged stream of humanity.”16 The scenes of the original pursuit undertaken by Colonel Carson through all seasons are echoed in The Searchers, including a scene in which Ethan begins shooting madly into a herd of buffalo in order to slaughter the Comanche’s food source. The actual horror of the violence that Ethan and Martin’s pursuit references, however, is largely absent from the film’s visual field.

Instead, The Searchers formally refracts this historical horror through Ethan’s shifting perspective on Debbie, the object of the film’s search which comes to stand in for the necessary interrelations between Indigenous peoples and the settlers. The lone survivor of the attack on the settler homestead, Debbie (Lana Wood and Natalie Wood) becomes a wife of the Comanche Chief Scar sometime during the long years that pass while Ethan and Martin scour the landscape for her. As various characters in the film argue, this means that she is no longer white and so deserves to get “a bullet in her brain” as put by her cousin Laurie (Vera Miles). Accordingly, Slotkin notes how Ethan’s pursuit of his niece—who could be his own daughter, given his close relationship with her mother, Martha—bears an “objective [which] gradually changes from ‘search and rescue’ to ‘search and destroy.’” Nevertheless, certain characters like Martin hold out hope for the return of Debbie “intact,” as Slotkin puts it, meaning still white.17 The search, in effect, holds out the possible reconciliation of the anxiety-producing interrelation of Indigenous peoples and settlers with the construction of Whiteness that secures the political project of settler colonialism. But this reconciliation is ultimately impossible, signaled by Ethan’s sudden reversal of intent toward Debbie—from search and destroy back to search and rescue in the film’s climax—and the film’s quickly executed denouement afterwards. The climactic scene involves Ethan chasing down and seizing Debbie seemingly with the intent of murdering her—as her terrified face reflects—only to lift her in the air as he once lifted her as a child.

Ethan’s exact motivations for changing his mind remain ambiguous in the film, but his decision is perhaps less interesting in its personal dimension than in its insight into the settler collective. Despite conflicted attitudes toward Debbie being expressed by the settlers who remained at home, such as Laurie, when Ethan returns Debbie home, there is suddenly no decision for the settlers to make, as they universally welcome her. Debbie is in effect visually reborn and purified by Ethan’s redemptive look. This scene provides an example of what Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks calls the impossibility of visually encountering Whiteness—since it is nothing but a historical and cultural invention—and the accompanying fantasies that this impossibility generates.18 The finding of Debbie by Ethan is followed by a scene in which the settlers all happily re-enter the homestead—restoring to it a sense of wholeness—and completely ignoring Ethan, who is allowed to drift off into the desert as the screen fades to black. His mastery of the visual is no longer required; the fantasy has been completely secured.


IV. Maliglutit

While the visual field of The Searchers is manipulated in key scenes through Ethan’s look, the most noticeable manipulations of Maliglutit’s visual field take place through more technological means, primarily the trade object of the telescope. Much like Ethan’s look in The Searchers, the telescope noticeably alters the film’s vision in several key scenes. Typical of the film’s combinatory style of featuring traditional Inuit practices alongside practices influenced by contact, a hunt begins with a traditional, shamanistic locating of the prey in terms of its direction from Kuanana’s igloo. In the hunt which follows, however, it is Kuanana’s acquisition of Western technology—the telescope—which precisely locates the caribou. “There they are… do you see them?” Kuanana asks, handing his son the telescope. “Yes… there… I can see them now,” Siku replies, after some maneuvering of the telescope’s angle. Along similar lines, the use of a shamanistic loon totem—representing the Inuit god Kallulik—initially sets the direction for the protagonists’ pursuit of the villains, but the telescope once again provides the finishing touches. Initially, the main villain, Kupak (Joey Sarpinak), perceives a flashing light in the snow-scape: the reflection of sunlight off the lens of Kuanana’s telescope. Rubbing the lens of his own telescope in disbelief, Kupak looks again more closely. “He’s looking back at me,” he realizes, gazing through his own telescope at the telescope-gazing Kuanana, who himself, in a reverse-shot, says as if in a trance, “there they are… there’s my wife.” In each of these scenes, the film deploys the telescope in similar fashion to Ethan’s controlling look, by restricting its vision from the audience.

Curiously, the only two points at which the audience is allowed to see what the telescope sees involve death or at least impending death; human this time, not caribou. In the first of the telescope-framed shots, a villain is seen ambling haphazardly along before his imminent dispatching by Kuanana’s rifle. The metonymic connection of the telescope and the rifle here echo another film, The Rules of the Game (1939) directed by Jean Renoir. Stanley Cavell explains:

After the [rabbit-hunting] shoot, but still within the shoot’s locale, the action centers around a particular object, the small telescope or eye-piece. We are told or shown three main features of this object: it is fun, even fascinating; when you look through it, reality is suddenly revealed, or made accessible, in an otherwise unavailable manner; it is deadly, it penetrates to the inner life of living creatures. Omitting further detail, I will simply assert that the eye-piece is a sort of figure of speech, or synecdoche of sight, for both a gun and camera. (When the wife spies through it and sees her husband with his former mistress, this is already a kind of shooting accident.)19

In this quote, Cavell expands the metonymic connection between the visual mastery of the telescope to the camera, in addition to the rifle or gun. In other words, the telescope, rifle, and camera are placed by Cavell on the same plane in terms of their shared capacity of visual mastery, along with the danger this generates. The climactic scene of Maliglutit, by contrast, works against this merging of the telescope’s visual power and that of the camera, by clearly separating them in the second of the two telescope-framed shots in the film. In this shot, the visual mastery of the telescope is confronted by a traumatic blind spot, in which Kunuk situates his camera.

At the level of plot, this second telescope-framed shot involves Kuanana first seeing that his igloo has been broken into. Given the seriousness of the situation, the telescope’s gaze, controlled by Kuanana, is unusual in that it doesn’t frantically scan what it sees. Instead, the shot bears an unnatural steadiness, lingering extensively on the scene as if transfixed by the dark hole torn into the igloo. Within its enhanced field of vision, there is still something the telescope cannot see. As the camera shifts out of the frame of the telescope, Kuanana assumes a more naturally frantic state, one interrupted only by the very careful putting away of his telescope. The next shot reveals why the telescope was transfixed, as coming from the dark, impenetrable blot in its vision was an impossible gaze, the gaze of the camera.

It is the most still shot of the film, perhaps due to being established from inside the relatively camera-friendly confines of the igloo’s warmth. This rare stillness in a film whose camera essentially endeavours to capture one long chase sequence emphasizes the technological apparatus of the shot, and sets it apart from the rest of the film. Unmoved and unmoving, the camera watches with deathly stillness the now approaching Kuanana as he enters the igloo and finds his loved ones dead, dying or kidnapped. This gap between the telescope’s gaze and the camera’s is traumatic as the protagonist describes his “world [being] torn apart” following the revelation of what lies in the igloo. The protagonist’s murdered and kidnapped family members represent the primary loss here at the narrative level, but there is also a strong sense of visual loss in the telescope’s sudden failure, and the protagonist’s subsequent subjection to the camera’s gaze. The desperate search of Maliglutit commences in the wake of this visual trauma, just as the search of its source material, The Searchers, commences with the bodies of the settlers whose viewing Ethan prohibits. Yet, while the visual trauma of The Searchers is mastered and ultimately repressed by Ethan’s look, Maliglutit locates its visual trauma in the gaze of the real through the splitting of its viewing subject. Accordingly, while the finding of the lost object in The Searchers is framed as a triumphant climax, the finding of the lost object in Maliglutit is a comparatively desolate affair. In the film’s closing shot, the gaze of Kuanana’s retrieved wife (Karen Ivalu) is downcast, the daughter and son are absent, and the protagonist himself is shaken to the point of tears. What has been lost is not recoverable.

This trauma is represented in Maliglutit as a personal one, but its initial pinning in between the visual instruments of the telescope and the camera gives it a historical resonance. When it comes to the historical interaction between the Inuit and the apparatus of the camera, the latter has in the past worked to visually capture the Inuit in a manner linked to the telescope’s tendency toward visual mastery. In the film immediately preceding Maliglutit, Kunuk more directly addresses the historical legacy of Danish ethnographer Knud Rasmussen’s documenting of the languages, cultures and ways of life of the residents of the Arctic, including the Inuit, from 1921 to 1924. Nevertheless, Maliglutit still appears to be processing scenes from Rasmussen’s Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition. Therein, just as the fateful encounter between the protagonist and the villains in Maliglutit begins with an overheard rifle shot, so too does Rasmussen’s first encounter with the Inuit. After some turning and looking around for the source of the sound, Rasmussen observes “a line of black objects [standing] out against the ice of the fjord. [He] got out [his] glass; it might, after all, be only a reef of rock. But the glass showed plainly: a whole line of sledges with their teams halted to watch the traveller approaching from the South.”20 This historic meeting appears as a realization of Rasmussen’s desire. He becomes the first to “penetrate into unknown regions” through the overcoming of “natural obstacles [that] have hitherto proved an effective barrier” and encounters “the tribes of Eskimos, [that he] intended to visit uncontaminated by white civilization.”21 But its structure is in fact one of ruined desire, as a contaminated sound ultimately leads Rasmussen to his object. Far from an isolated incident, this disappointed sense of desire haunts Rasmussen’s collected journals, as what he is looking for with his glass is not the actually existing Inuit, but an intact primitivity, which he alone can record.

While Rasmussen’s expedition was in process, Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, considered the first documentary film, premieres in New York in 1922. Like Rasmussen, Flaherty expressed a desire to show “the former majesty and character of [the Inuit], while it is still possible—before the white man has destroyed not only their character, but the people as well.” If Rasmussen’s telescope offered the opportunity to spy out an ideal, pre-contact Inuit, Flaherty’s camera offered the opportunity to reproduce such an idealized vision. If his Inuit subjects didn’t match his desired level of authenticity—i.e. “the shot didn’t work”—Flaherty was in the habit of asking them “to repeat what they were doing until he was satisfied.” Endeavouring to film a walrus hunt in order to show how Inuit people traditionally gathered food, Flaherty was faced with only one problem: the Inuit being filmed no longer hunted walruses. The result was Nanook and his family “struggling to drag a harpooned walrus out of the Arctic surf and begging Flaherty to shoot it with his rifle [though he] pretended not to hear them and kept filming.”22 Clearly, Flaherty preferred to shoot it with a different kind of weapon. In Fatimah Rony’s words, such ethnographic film practices amounted to an effort “to make that which is dead look as if it were still living.”23 A modification of Cavell’s evocation of the rifle, telescope, and camera as linked conveyors of death, the (ethnographic) camera is here elevated over the other two instruments in its dangerous capacity to confer a living death. By splitting the camera and the telescope’s gazes, Maliglutit’s camera breaks its link to the historical imposition of visual mastery onto the Inuit.


V. Conclusion

To conclude, it’s appropriate to return to the concluding scenes of both films, specifically in terms of how each film implicates the spectator in relation to settler colonialism’s point of visual impossibility. As McGowan writes, how each film structures its spectator’s “relationship [with] the gaze is central to the political and existential dimension of film” as “ideology constantly works to obscure the traumatic real of the gaze because this real threatens the stability of the social order that ideology protects.”24 The famous closing scene of The Searchers involves a door-framed shot of Ethan stepping aside to allow the settlers to enter the homestead. He gazes somewhat forlornly into the darkness of the home, before eventually wandering back off into the desert.

In this scene, the spectator is inserted into the film as the impossible gaze that watches Ethan from the settler homestead, since the settlers themselves clearly don’t look back to see him, and thus stop him from leaving. Specifically, the spectator is implicated into the film at its closing as the mediating link in the relationship between Ethan and the settlers. Ethan has encountered too much settler-colonial violence in order to reenter the fantasy of the settler homestead, and so he leaves. But he also comes back. The film’s structure loops with Ethan vanishing into the desert, and also emerging from the desert. It repeats because the ideology of settler-colonialism requires both figures—Ethan and the settler society—to be held together permanently in a contradictory relationship. Settler colonialism as a social structure requires the sense of social wholeness gestured to by the settler community being restored through the fantasy of Debbie’s return intact. But it also requires the exception to this social whole in the outsider form of someone like Ethan, who can manage the real violence underpinning the social structure. As displayed by Ethan’s frequent annoyance with the law in the film, embodied by characters like Clayton and various American military leaders, he must paradoxically operate beyond the means of the law in order to ultimately reinstate the law; he must deploy violence in order to repress violence. Thus, The Searchers in its concluding scene implicates the spectator’s gaze as holding the figure of Ethan and the settlers together in a contradictory relationship. The contradiction of this relationship is the trauma that The Searchers compels its spectator to acknowledge by resoundingly shutting the door to the homestead in its final moment before the credits roll.

The Searchers’s closing scene implicates the spectator’s gaze in its mediatory role within the visual field of settler colonialism, but Maliglutit’s closing scene relocates this mediation elsewhere. Rather than emphasizing the spectator’s necessary involvement in what they see, Maliglutit emphasizes its spectator’s potential separation from what they see. This separation is encapsulated in the film’s concluding voiceover: “even though you go through hard times, never give up.” The “you” of this moral lesson is ambiguous. Is it a universal “you”? Or is it a historicized “you,” meaning one specifically attuned to the material conditions of the Inuit living under settler colonialism, representing “hard times” indeed? This ambiguity slows down any implication of a generalized spectator figure into the film itself. It necessitates the spectator step back at least for a moment and sort out their own positioning within the social structure of settler colonialism. Along these lines, while a major formal element of The Searchers involves doorway and window-framed shots, suggesting a certain visual transparency between inside and outside worlds, a major formal element of Maliglutit involves interlude scenes foregrounding instead the opaqueness of a screen. In these scenes containing narrative voice-overs, a pair of Inuit throat singers are visible only as shadows dancing across an animal skin.

For the settler spectator, the traumatic element here is not the death and violence of settler colonialism that Ethan represses in The Searchers, but rather the life and art that settler colonialism has equally repressed, such as the banning of Inuit throat singing. While the settler spectator can be largely implicated in the visual mediation of the former as displayed by The Searchers, they have a much smaller role to play in the visual mediation of the latter. The gaze of the real in The Searchers emanates from the death and violence that must remain visually foreclosed from settler society; the gaze of the real in Maliglutit emanates from the life and art that must remain visually foreclosed by settler society. In an interview with POV Magazine, Kunuk recounts how after his family was forced to relocate to Igloolik by the government in 1966 so that he could attend a Canadian residential school, he and his friends “loved to see the movies” so much that they “used to cry for quarters” in order to go see them. Yet, he says that “at that time, we didn’t know about how the system worked… everything felt like [it was] god-sent.”25 Working through the system of settler colonialism’s production of the visible, Kunuk manages to return some of that effect of its images being god-sent. But now, assuredly, from different gods.

Russell J.A. Kilbourn, “If this is your land, where is your camera?: Atanarjuat, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen and post-cinematic adaptation,” Journal of Adaptation in Film & Performance 7.2 (2014): 207.


Cian Cruise. “Maliglutit Remakes the Western in its Own Image,” TIFF, January 13, 2017; tiff.net/the-review/maliglutit-remakes-the-western-in-its-own-image


Jay Kuehner, “Maliglutit (Searchers),” Cinema Scope, 2016; cinema-scope.com/cinema-scope-online/maliglutit-searchers-zacharias-kunuk-canada-platform


Chris Knight, “If The Searchers Was a Western, Inuit Film Maliglutit is a Northern,” National Post, January 12, 2017, nationalpost.com/entertainment/movies/if-the-searchers-was-a-western-inuit-film-maliglutit-is-a-northern


Norman Wilner. “Searchers (Maliglutit) Has Mythic Intensity,” Now, January 18, 2018, nowtoronto.com/movies/reviews/searchers-maliglutit-has-mythic-intensity


Todd McGowan, The Real Gaze: Film Theory After Lacan,” (Albany: State University of New York, 2007).


McGowan, 20.


McGowan, 8.


McGowan, 6.


10 Jacques Lacan, Book XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998), 68.


11 McGowan, 7.


12 Hito Steyerl, Wretched of the Screen, (Stenberg), 15.


13 Steyerl, 19.


14 Lacan, 81.


15 Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America, (New York: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998), 466.


16 Harold L. James, “The History of Fort Wingate”, nmgs.nmt.edu/publications/guidebooks/downloads/18/18_p0151_p0158.pdf


17 Slotkin, 467.


18 Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks, Desiring Whiteness: A Lacanian Analysis of Race, (London: Routledge, 2000).


19 Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979), 222.


20 Rasmussen, Knud, Across Arctic America: Narrative of the Fifth Thule Expedition, (New York: Greenwood Publishers, 1969), 3.


21 Rasmussen, 19.


22 Louis Menand, “Nanook and Me,” The New Yorker, August 9, 2004, newyorker.com/magazine/2004/08/09/nanook-and-me


23 Fatimah Rony, The Third Eye: Race, Cinema, and Ethnographic Spectacle, (Durham: Duke University Press), 101.


24 McGowan, 16.


25 Marc Glassman and Judy Wolfe, “Zacharias Kunuk and Natar Ungalaaq Talk ‘Maliglutit’”, October 19, 2016, povmagazine.com/articles/view/the-pov-interview-zacharias-kunuk-and-natar-ungalaaq-talk-maliglutit

Alois Sieben

Contributing Writer

Alois Sieben is a PhD candidate in Simon Fraser University’s Department of English. His SSHRC-funded dissertation examines the act of searching, both before and after the Internet. He has an essay on Inuit throat singing forthcoming in Lacan and the Environment (Palgrave, 2020). He is on Twitter @obliveyondnight.

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