Sundance Film Festival 2019 Review

Having spent my life in tropical climates, I’m inclined to readily connect with warm, sepia-toned, “fair weather” movies. For instance: the dusty Hindi, Spanish, Mexican or Israeli palettes. Stories about places where the sun is as much a character as the people under it. The reel-real divide is negligible in such cases; they feel more like home and less like cinema. Conversely, the cold, stark, grey palettes of Russian, Korean, East European or even Iranian cinema are hypnotic but intimidating; my reverential perception of these films is mainly derived from the toll their bleak visual tones take on my summery mind.

Which is why there’s something to be said about my reaction to a native Arctic-land film – a 3.5-minute short documentary – in context of the weather I’ve watched it in. It is currently snowy and four below in Park City, Utah, the venue of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, which is nothing less than brutal Arctic-level temperature for an ill-dressed South Asian film critic. It’s no wonder I feel a profound, almost meditative, link with Throat Singing in Kangirsuk, a simple little film that shows two teen-aged Inuit filmmakers practice the local art of throat singing in their own environment. For once, it’s not intimidation but a strange sync of mental landscapes that allows me to “feel” the frozen Tundra air of the remote Canadian village.

The hypnotic sounds they emit – which serves as both, a soundtrack and a soundscape – make for a form of song that veers between being a playful exchange of emotion and a sonic imitation of their natural surroundings. To untrained ears like mine, it also sounds as if a melody were made out of my inner, ice-induced tremblings. The harmony is at once comforting and curious. Aningaaq, the Greenlandic Inuit fisherman that Sandra Bullock’s character mistakenly contacts from outer space in Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, immediately comes to mind – his “howling,” though a tribute to his fallen dog in the film, acquires a sense of context now. Throat Singing, after all, is also employed as an exchange of emotion: of sadness, hunger, stress and even loneliness. I suspect Dr. Ryan Stone, stuck in the vast vacuum of nothingness, understood this and felt similarly calmed by his sounds.

Each of the four seasons in this short merits a different pitch, a different theme, over sweeping aerial drone shots of Kangirsuk. The images are briefly expressive of a culture so many of us generically bracket under “Eskimo” category. This also reflects in the innocence of its filmmaking. 18-year-old Eva Kaukai and 17-year-old Manon Chamberland allow the swooping drone camera to be a character, noticed and grasped at by curious children on the ground, as if they were urging us to forget, and aim beyond, the formal boundaries of communication. The final result is therapeutic, with the screen changing colour – and rhythm – every minute.

The romantic in me might attribute this heightened reaction to another mild connection I share with this film: Inclusivity. Throat Singing in Kangirsuk is one of eight indigenous-made films premiering at Sundance this year. I am here as part of a new and unprecedented Press Inclusion initiative, which encourages diversity by choosing 50 lesser represented film-writing voices from around the world. How else would one have imagined an Indian film critic writing about an intimate, wintry film at the peak of the unforgiving North American winter? For this reason, Kaukai and Chamberland’s voices will remain with me. Beyond this week. Come snow or sunshine. Through hot and cold.

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