________________ CM . . . . Volume XIV Number 11 . . . . January 25, 2008


Silent Messengers.

William D. MacGillivray (Writer & Director). Terry Greenlaw (Picture Plant Producer). Annette Clarke (NFB Producer).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2005.
93 min., VHS or DVD, $99.95.
Order Number: C9105 184.

Subject Headings:
Arctic regions.

Grades 6 and up / Ages 11 and up.

Review by Julie Chychota.

*** /4

“A Road Movie. Without a Road.”  As the fragmented tagline on its cover suggests, this documentary privileges the journey as much as the destination. Silent Messengers purports to explore inuksuit, those careful and deliberate arrangements of rock and stone, near the two Inuit communities of Igloolik and Cape Dorset in Nunavut. Yet equally important is the film’s disclosure of the richness of Inuit culture and tradition along the way. In customary road movie fashion, it effects change, but, in this case, more so in its viewing audience than in the individuals at the centre of the action being filmed.

     As for the manner in which it treats its subject matter, Silent Messengers is a far cry from the documentaries about the Arctic shown in elementary Social Studies classrooms in the late 1970s. The on-screen imagery is not dissimilar for the sweeping landscape still dominates and the Inuit go about their routines much the same as they did 30 years ago. The film even indulges in depicting a staple Arctic scenario, the walrus kill, albeit with guns and not harpoons. Of course, technology has insinuated itself into the milieu, such that snowmobiles, ATVs, motorboats, digital cameras, power tools (for sculpting), and houses with siding have displaced the dog sleds, instruments of stone and bone, and igloos that once prevailed. Nevertheless, the most noticeable changes are found in the tone and attitude used to portray this environment and its inhabitants.

     Gone are the smoothly scripted, well-modulated, Disneyesque “outsider” voices of documentaries past which imposed identity and meaning upon the filmed images in detached, patronizing tones.  Instead, director William D. MacGillivray privileges multiple insider voices, the foremost of which belong to ethnographer Norman Hallendy, who has spent 40 years immersing himself in the culture and traditions of the Canadian Arctic, and Inuit actor, sculptor, and filmmaker Natar Ungalaq, who played the title character in Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. The dialogue, in general, seems unhurried and uncontrived; participants appear to savor alike the compatible silences and the spoken word.   

     Yet, there is no mistaking that buoying up the intimate and easy tone is an attitude of deep respect for Inuit culture and tradition. This respect has provided and still provides motivation for participants in this documentary but is most clearly seen in their reverence for the “stone figures venerated by the Inuit elders,” as Hallendy describes the inuksuit. The film intimates that without “art” (for which no Inuit word exists), that is, without the tangible symbols (inuksuit) and stories that shape and reinforce Inuit identity, Inuit culture will be subsumed by the dominant white culture advancing from farther south. Already, viewers learn, attempts have been made to remove stones and artifacts, based on the rationale that the objects need to be stored at “room temperature” in the interest of preserving them. (The irony, as the film points out, is that these objects have survived for thousands of years despite their exposure to the elements.) 

     Furthermore, as Hallendy notes, “with the death of each elder, a vital piece of information is lost” to the Inuit population. To staunch that loss of communal lifeblood, Hallendy counsels his Inuit viewers “to capture the thoughts” of their grandparents in order to transmit the oral history, legends, and locations of mysterious, mythical, and meaningful places to successive generations.

     Complementing the timeless aesthetic of the inuksuit are the film’s visual and auditory techniques. MacGillivray’s use of light and shadow accentuates the beauty and mystery of the North. The camera work also dispels a common stereotype: the landscape is not empty, but full—-full of sky, clouds, water, snow, ice, rock, wildlife, and, in select locales, inuksuit. In addition, footage from multiple locations (Igloolik, Cape Dorset, a house, a church, an elementary school, a community centre) depicts the contemporary influences that exist alongside the ancient. Likewise, the soundtrack comprises selections that range from throat singing to rock. The documentary subtly employs this blend of old and new to evoke a spectrum of emotions, from the exhilaration of the snowmobilers in the opening sequence, to Hallendy’s meditativeness upon visiting a graveyard. Finally, the film’s remarkable attentiveness to silence allows the audience a number of moments that seem to transcend time altogether with their spiritual significance. The last of such sublime instances occurs when, at the very end, the camera frames inuksuit against the indigo twilit sky.

     Silent Messengers advocates for the transformative power of art, and its own composition models that ideal. In embracing Emersonian counsel to “go where there is no path and leave a trail,” the film broadens viewers’ awareness of the Arctic and deepens their appreciation and respect for Inuit peoples. This documentary will attract armchair travelers, ethnographers, Arctic enthusiasts, storytellers, and teachers whose pupils are studying the North. All Canadians stand to benefit from watching it, and it would make a fine addition to APTN programming. Silent Messengers is as memorable an “off-road” experience for its viewers as for its participants.


Julie Chychota is once again living and working in Ottawa. ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.