The tiny Inuk community of Inukjuak sits along the eastern shore of Hudson Bay, north of the timberline and not too far from the arctic circle. The second largest village in Nunavik, the vast, sparsely populated territory comprising the northern third of the Canadian province of Quebec, the small houses of Inukjuak huddle together against a minimalist, almost lunar landscape of ocean, sky and tundra. It is a landscape that manages to feel both intimate and lonely, drab and haunting, as if the vast empty spaces drive home the importance of human connection.
Living with Giants, a new documentary from Quebecois directors Sébastien Rist and Aude Leroux-Lévesque, takes its cue from this landscape as it takes us inside the world of Paulusie Kasudluak, an Inuk youth standing on the threshold of adulthood. The film is at once both a familiar exploration of adolescence and a darker meditation on the challenges facing indigenous youth in many of Canada’s remote northern communities, and the filmmakers explore Paulusie’s life with a mix of empathy and ethereal detachment that renders the film and its subjects by turns intimate and inscrutable. The results are unusual and hard to categorize; while a few of the narrative and stylistic devices fall short of the mark, Paulusie’s story — and the dreamlike emotional timbre of the film — stick with you long after the credits have rolled.
Paulusie, who is 17 years old when the film opens, lives in Inukjuak with his elderly adoptive parents. Expository information is thin on the ground. There are no inter-titles here, and not even the central characters are formally introduced. But we slowly get our bearings. As the camera follows Paulusie through the series of moments that make up his life — chatting quietly with his parents, working on a 4×4 with his best friend and “bro,” snapping selfies in bed with his girlfriend Nikuusi — we are presented with the familiar routines of adolescence, albeit an adolescence played out against a singular backdrop.
These quiet, pleasantly dull scenes start to give way to something darker and more surreal about 20 minutes into the film. After witnessing Paulusie drinking and arguing with his girlfriend at a post-graduation bonfire (a scene skillfully shot by the directors themselves), a brief, surreal interlude is followed by shots of the young man in cuffs, waiting on the sunlit tarmac for a prop-plane that will carry him to a prison “down south,” where he’ll await trial on assault charges. Though the precipitating event is never fully explained, the audience gradually pieces together that Paulusie attacked another young man in a bout of jealous, drunken rage.
From here the film continues to slowly meander its way into more disquieting territory. While we don’t see Paulusie down south, his time in jail is represented by a series of close-ups of his prison journal, a sequence that, in addition to conveying the bleakness of prison life, imparts a haunting, almost poetic quality to the film. Upon his return to Inukjuak, Paulusie’s life continues to gently unravel as apprehension about jail gives way to a more general despair. This dark narrative is broken by moments of occasional levity — some beautiful shots of Paulusie’s elderly mother and a friend working on a jigsaw puzzle as they puzzle out her adopted son’s fate; an unusual sequence of Paulusie and his girlfriend escaping the claustrophobia of their community as they hunt seal from a boat in Hudson Bay. But ultimately these moments of sweetness somehow add to the film’s ultimate impact, at once foreshadowing and easing us into its grim finale.
In the hands of many directors, Living with Giants would be an explicitly political film. Here in Canada, we continue to grapple with a series of crises in many northern indigenous communities, where suicide rates among youth are 11 times the national average and people often despair in the face of the narrowing of prospects, isolation and lack of social support that constitute the colonial legacy. But while the film brushes the edges of the political, Rist and Leroux-Lévesque avoid taking the plunge — their film presents little analysis and provides no context in which to situate the particular story it tells. Yet it is perhaps this refusal to make the film about anything more than itself that makes its impact all the more devastating.