Ever Deadly,Tanya Tagaq, Chelsea McMullan
Credit: National Film Board of Canada, 2022
Before We Vanish by Luke Gorham Featured Film

Ever Deadly — Tanya Tagaq & Chelsea McMullan

November 13, 2023

Ever Deadly opens with an unbroken seven-minute shot of katajjaq, or Inuit throat singing, featuring musician and writer Tanya Tagaq and performance artist Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory in face-to-face formation, and composed in a tight close-up that frames only the women’s heads. It’s a thrilling sequence, as the artform will be unfamiliar to most and unlike most general conceptions of music, guttural in form and feeling almost anarchic as you follow the duet through. The performers move to match the performance’s flow, their faces tilting and moving around each other — sometimes touching, sometimes breaking into smiles — in a kind of physical emulation of their shared sonic act. It’s a fittingly singular and thoughtful way to open a film about an artist as singular and thoughtful as Tagaq, and Ever Deadly proceeds according to this unpredictability, sliding between biography, essay film, and concert doc at any moment. 

Unfortunately, as co-directed by the artist herself and Chelsea McMullan, the film suffers from a lack of focus, despite its idiosyncratic tendencies. Following this opening sequence, Ever Deadly navigates Tagaq’s personal history, features several extended sequences of her riveting musical performances, and even indulges that familiar documentary favorite — animated sequences set to poetic voiceover (here, Tagaq reading excerpts from part auto-fiction, part poetry novel Split Tooth). The result is a messy assemblage of necessary rhetoric and personal excavation, but without the sense of any real throughline. Which, of course, isn’t to suggest that the documentary form need be saddled with such reductive constraints as a “narrative,” so to speak — indeed, by and large, such works are better for their absence — but there’s simply no organizing principle here to hold the disparate parts together. Various scenes hold immense power and conviction in isolation — particularly ones that recount a broader cultural history through personal experience — but too often these elements feel disconnected, as if Tagaq had a checklist of discursive waypoints to hit but no clear conception of how to make them speak to each other outside of pure personal portraiture — which is perhaps authentic to the way we all would narrativize our own lives given the opportunity, but which doesn’t result in a focused vision for viewers.

Even the segments that capture Tagaq’s live performances, which are the most viscerally thrilling moments in Ever Deadly, fail to translate adequately to the medium. Effectively communicated is the immersiveness that is part and parcel to a Tagaq performance, the haunting, enveloping atmosphere that her sonics are able to create and cast, but that experiential quality isn’t fully realized for film. There’s never the sense that the viewer is occupying the same space as the listeners at these performances, a tall order to be sure, but one that must necessarily be the primary objective of shooting something like this. Indeed, these sequences of the film would perhaps be stronger were viewers to close their eyes, which is both a testament to Tagaq’s singular skill and a death knell for a work of visual art, something of an inverse of those documentaries that would be better without the intrusive narrativizing of remarkable visual expression. There’s no real energy even to the way these scenes are rendered, but instead just an overreliance on close-up and a lot of revolving around a sweaty and admittedly mesmerizing Tagaq. But force of presence isn’t enough to compensate for how haphazardly all of this is cut together or how messily its various threads are woven. There’s a great film that could be made about Tagaq, one that more elegantly centers her and her artistry within a larger socio-political discourse and landscape, and leverages the alternately primal and sensual viscerality of her work to more impressively filmic ends. Ever Deadly is not that film, and despite often proving fascinating on a scene-by-scene basis, the lingering impression is that of co-directors flummoxed by how to successfully package their material.

DIRECTOR: Chelsea McMillan & Tanya Tagaq;  CAST: Tanya Tagaq;  DISTRIBUTOR: Kino Lorber;  IN THEATERS: November 15;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 30 min.

Originally published as part of TIFF 2022 — Dispatch 6.