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Interview: Before Tomorrow’s Marie-Helene Cousineau

Being with Inuit who are experts in living in that environment and learning from them, adapting to their pace and their rhythm, letting the work be influenced by that, accepting that and finding the aesthetic of that relationship to nature, is a great pleasure, a challenge, a learning experience and it is very rewarding.

Before Tomorrow is a stunning and powerful drama set in an Inuit community in 1840 in the Arctic circle, a time when many Inuit had yet to meet white people, and thus maintained their traditional way of life. Based on the novel For Morgendagen by Danish writer Jørn Riel, Ninguiq (co-director Madeline Piujuq Ivalu) and her young grandson Maniq (Paul-Dylan Ivalu) set out to brave the harsh Arctic wilderness to hunt and save food for the upcoming winter. But contact with the outside world brings irrevocable damage to the community, and jeopardizes the future of Ningiuq, a brave, tender old soul, and Maniq, a plucky and resilient young boy.

The filmmakers Marie-Helene Cousineau and Ivalu suspend the audience in a sense of warmth during the loving scenes of family preparing a freshly-killed seal for dinner and exchanging funny stories around the campfire, and fear as winter gradually creeps in before the pair’s journey is completed. Ninguiq represents the many generations of strong and incredible women whose lives are full of amazing stories, living in times and periods that many could not imagine surviving in, and she radiates this rare quality of courage and wisdom.

Before Tomorrow is the third film in a trilogy of Inuit dramas from Igloolik Isuma Productions, following Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001) and The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (2006). It premieres at NYC’s Film Forum on December 2nd, and I was lucky enough to interview Cousineau via email about working in the Arctic, showing audiences a view of Inuit life, and bringing striking performances out of her actors.

Before Tomorrow's Marie-Hélène Cousineau Interview

Melissa Silvestri: The cinematography of Before Tomorrow was absolutely gorgeous to behold, with the large white scenes filling up the movie theater. Who did the cinematography, and how did you go about scouting a region that fit the narrative, free of any twentieth-century clues?
Marie-Hélène Cousineau: Norman Cohn is the DOP on the film, along with Felix Lajeunesse. Norman and Felix had the experience of working together previously on The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (where Felix was assistant to Norman) and had talked a lot about the cinematography. Felix is the one who came to the shoot and actually frame the scenes. We had some scenes that I filmed, like the scene of the friend dying and the final scene of the camp as a dream. The scouting was done in collaboration with the people of the region who brought us to their favorite places and to the places that fit the description of what we needed. Working in the North for years made things easier for us as we knew the landscape to expect. We also went to the town and the region before the shoot a couple of times. To be away from any 20th century clues is still possible in the Arctic but for that reason we also put the shooting camp far from the town where we camped for 3 of our 4 shooting periods.

Before Tomorrow's Marie-Hélène Cousineau Interview

MS: Madeline Piujuq Ivalu did an incredible job capturing the sense of dread and worry during her journey with her grandson, yet was heartbreakingly sweet when she tells him stories to teach him lessons or entertain him. How did she go about playing that role?
MH.C: Madeline would say that she got a lot of help from the other elders on the team who helped her think out her role, who helped her get in the skin of that elderly woman. We were all carried by the strength of our team. Everyone was helping as much as they could. It was a great experience that helped every one of us give their best. She probably used her memories of her own mother and grandmother too. We prepared the film a long time before shooting—at least 1 year of discussions—so she had lots of time to prepare.

MS: As a filmmaker, were you influenced by specific narrative styles, or more from the pace of the novel For Morgendagen?
MH.C: I was influenced by the pace of the book but mostly by the pace of Inuit life and by the pace the land in the North gave us. The land and the nature there is something you have to accept and go with. You just cannot go against it, it is too strong, and there is a lot of pleasure in surrounding and playing with it. Being with Inuit who are experts in living in that environment and learning from them, adapting to their pace and their rhythm, letting the work be influenced by that, accepting that and finding the aesthetic of that relationship to nature, is a great pleasure, a challenge, a learning experience and it is very rewarding. Trying to share this experience through the medium of film is very exciting.

Before Tomorrow's Marie-Hélène Cousineau Interview

MS: How did it go working with Paul-Dylan Ivalu (Maniq)? As it was his first leading role, did he have any nervousness or hesitation about partly carrying the story?
MH.C: Paul Dylan was around other filmmaking processes, with his parents and grandparents acting in many other films from the same production company. He was really well coached by his grandmother, Madeline Ivalu, the co-director and main lead. We also hired an experienced actor, Peter Henry Arnatsiaq, as a coach. Paul was not nervous though sometimes tired, sometimes hungry! He was very curious and very willing to get into difficult emotions, very mature.

MS: What was production like, weatherwise, while working through the Arctic for several months?
MH.C: We went through summer, fall and winter. We had very good guides and a great team—a local team that made us feel very comfortable and safe. Also basically for Inuit this was all very normal, and the Southerners on the team all had Northern experience. Inuit laugh and joke around, we never felt scared or in danger. You just have to do like them, do the same, don’t try to reinvent the wheel!

MS: What was your mission in telling this particular story? Was it a way of introducing wide audiences to a traditional form of Inuit life?
MH.C: My mission was to tell the story of this amazing woman, who is in many regards any of the elder women I work with in Igloolik. It could be their mothers or their grandmothers also. It could be women elsewhere too but that story brings the particularities of traditional Inuit culture. Showing the universality and the lesson of love and dignity coming from her. Those women don’t have their voices heard very loud in a culture where Lady Gaga is a success story. And they have a lot more to teach and share. The book from Jorn Riel made me cry many times when I read it. It was beautiful and very touching. I was hoping to share some of the same beauty and emotions with audiences, using film to reach them. I felt very honored to be able to make this woman’s voice heard again.

BEFORE TOMORROW will have a 2-week engagement, December 2nd to the 15th, at Film Forum.

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