As the tall man behind the desk at the BBC might say, “and now for something completely different.” “Before Tomorrow” is not the sort of film you routinely run across, even amongst the cognoscenti of the film-fest circuit. It’s an all-Inuit (“Eskimo” in American) cast, shot in Nunavut, using native language (subtitled in English or French) and a full-on tragedy (which is distressingly rare these days). It’s a historical slice of life that not even most Canadians get to see, never mind the rest of the world, yet the tale is told more with emotion than words, and the language barrier melts away like the snow in spring.
The story is set in 1840, when the Inuit were still extremely limited in their contact with the white settlers further south. Their world was incredibly small, from a tiny village off to nearby islands to hunt. The small society works well thanks to the values of shared work and reward; everyone, even the kids, have jobs to do. We join the tribe in summer, at the end of a hunt. They are in a celebratory mood, having recently acquired some needles and cups from white traders they encountered (in exchange for allowing the women to sleep with them) as well as having abundant food for the winter. They decide to dry their catches on a remote island, away from predatory animals. Ningiuq, an old woman in the village, volunteers for the duty, which means being alone for several months. Her dying friend Kutuguk wishes to come along as a last request, knowing she will die there, and her young grandson Maniq also insists on going, hoping to learn from his beloved grandmother more of the skills to become a man, as well as to look out for the two women.
Shortly after their isolation begins, Kutuguk dies, foretelling the tragedies to come. The months pass and Maniq is learning much, but Ningiuq cannot help but wonder on their seriously overdue reunion with the tribe. As the first snows threaten, she decides to make the trip back herself, and discovers a horrible scene: the entire village has been wiped out by disease, brought to them by the white traders. Ningiuq and her grandson are alone in the world. From there, the story turns to the struggle to survive, overcoming the adversity of winter and Ningiuq’s struggle with her own dark thoughts. She can protect the boy for now, but what future is there for them without the support of their community?
When she senses her own death approaching, she knows she must act boldly to save them in a world where help is never coming. She calls out to her (long dead) husband to guide her in an impossible situation.
The slow pace of the film, reflective of the speed of life in that era, may bore the more cynical in the audience, but if you can get into their world and their mindset, every movement, every facial expression, every story Ningiuq relates to her grandson takes on deep meaning. The acting is so effortlessly authentic, in perfect harmony with the remote locations and passing seasons, that putting yourself in their mukluks is easy if you wish it. If you’ve ever wondered on the survival of people in such remote and inhospitable locations as these, “Before Tomorrow” brings their struggle to life and reveals the strength in such a fragile society. It’s a remarkable bit of First Nations filmmaking that should be seen far more widely in the world than the mostly-Canadian distribution it will get.