This profile of Inuit film-making legend Zacharias Kunuk was originally published in Canadian Art
Edited by Richard Rhodes
Final descent into Igloolik and I’m feeling the cold already. It’s seeping into the plane, into the soles of my feet, stiffening my knuckles and knees. It seems to be reaching out toward me, and I find myself thinking about the story a man told me an hour ago in Iqaluit, just prior to departure. Joseph Palluq was sitting beside me on the shuttle from the terminal to the plane. He turned to me, spotting a first-time visitor to the Arctic, and decided I needed to hear his story about hypothermia.
Perfect timing. I’d just been telling him I was up there with the photographer Donald Weber to visit the Inuit filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk. “You guys know Zach?” Palluq asked. I said no, but that we were interviewing him about his new film, Qapirangajuq: Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change.
“Huh,” Palluq said, impressed. It meant something that two “southerners” would travel all that way to talk to a man he’s known since grade school, a man who may now be Nunavut’s most famous citizen. Then, apropos of climate change, along came the story about hypothermia.
Palluq had been a teenager when it happened. The weather had been mild that day, so he’d dressed only in a light jacket when he went out with the dog team. A few hours later, far off on the land, the weather radically worsened. The wind picked up. The snow started. The dogs lay down in the mounting drifts and refused to move. He was stranded. And by the time 12 hours had gone by, he knew what was happening to him. He knew the symptoms: first you shiver, then you start stumbling. Pretty soon you can’t walk.
Palluq scratched late-day silver stubble, reaching this point in the story. He lives in Ottawa now, he‘d told me. He was going back to Igloolik for his father’s funeral. I wondered if this sad journey had reminded him that the man he was about to bury once saved his life.
“Then, they found me,” Palluq said.
“Where?” I asked. “How far from Igloolik had you wandered?”
Palluq tried to explain. He said, “You know the ridge above town? You know the rock outcropping past that? You know…” He stopped, looking at me again. “But you’ve never been to Igloolik before.”
“No. I haven’t.”
He shrugged. He smiled. “Ah, well.” Then he drifted away.
I’m thinking about this last comment as the landing gear drops, as the ground nears in a blur of white and blue, as we thump down to the tarmac, as the Igloolik Airport hurtles by in a rainbow spray of ice crystals. I’m minutes from finding out my luggage is still in Iqaluit—a separate matter. Looking out of the window, I’m thinking about what Joseph Palluq told me, and I think I know what he meant. He wasn’t being dismissive. He was only saying: if you’ve never been to Igloolik, if you don’t know the ridges and the outcroppings, the line of the shore and the way the tongue drifts form in the winter season, how could I possibly explain where exactly I was when my father found me, half-dead and about to slip permanently into the very heart of this cold?
Posted: Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011 12:06pm