“I know my music tends to be polarizing”: A Q&A with Tanya Tagaq and co-director Chelsea McMullan on the making of Ever Deadly
The documentary begins its theatrical screening in Toronto at the Hot Docs Cinema today
Tanya Tagaq is an artistic force known for her haunting, guttural live performances. The Toronto-based Inuk singer’s blend of throat singing, rock, classical, and electronic has expanded into five genre-defying albums. Her music has racked up accolades including a Polaris Prize, a Juno Award and a Canadian Aboriginal Music Award. Now, she’s trying her hand at feature filmmaking with Ever Deadly, a documentary Tagaq co-directed with filmmaker Chelsea McMullan.
Ever Deadly takes us into Tagaq’s personal, artistic and activist world. With a powerful improvised live performance serving as a foundational arc, the film flips through time and space, featuring VHS footage of the singer as a child in Nunavut, an intimate interview with her mother about being forcibly displaced by the Canadian government, and protest footage from marches across Canada for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. These scenes are split up with displays of Tagaq’s artistic abilities—wails of sorrow and anger on a neon-washed stage as well as readings from her novel, Split Tooth. The result is a cinematic ode to her community and her art.
We spoke with Tagaq and McMullan about their collaboration and friendship, the real meaning behind Ever Deadly, and what they hope audiences can learn about Canadian and Inuit history.
Chelsea, you proposed the idea of this documentary to Tanya. What made you want to do it?
Chelsea: It started with me just being a huge fan of Tanya’s music. I’d seen her in concerts, and I wondered what it would be like to try to use cinema to document what she does or get close to that feeling of seeing her live while also giving context to her music. So we met, and I felt from the first meeting that we could make something awesome.
How did the two of you collaborate on the project?
Tanya: Chelsea really, really respected my boundaries. They would ask me certain questions, and if I said I was uncomfortable with something, they would back right off. It was like wading into cold water. The more we filmed, the more comfortable I got. And then we developed a really solid friendship over the filming period, to the point where we were sharing personal things with each other and leaning on each other as friends. In a way, it was almost like a documentation of our friendship. To have somebody come to Nunavut and spend time on the land with me in my favourite spots—that’s a very intimate thing to do.
In the film, you and your mother talk about the Canadian government’s forced relocation of her community from Inukjuak, on Hudson Bay, to Resolute Bay, in the High Arctic, and the trauma associated with it. What was it like to have that experience on camera?
Tanya: We were comfortable with Chelsea and the crew, so it didn’t feel any different than if I was having a regular conversation with my mom. And we had talked loosely about it before, but I had never asked her for any real details about what happened there. Inuit of my mother’s generation typically don’t dwell on the past. There’s this culture of keeping your eye to the future, to let go of past things as best as you possibly can. And that’s completely understandable given the very, very, very hard existence of scraping life out of the extreme environment. When you have to be so tough and there’s so much grief, even pre-colonization, surrounding loss due to the land and the environment, your culture learns to deal with it and look ahead. Quite often, things that people go through get left behind.
What do you want audiences to take away from this film?
Tanya: I hope that people get a good glimpse into their recent Canadian history as my mother unfolds the story of her relocation. I’d love for Canadians to be more aware of how recently residential schools and relocations have happened and the repercussions they still have today. But I also want people to enjoy the music. I know my music tends to be polarizing, but I’m hoping that people will enjoy the film as a whole. One of the challenges we had was capturing the dynamic live performance and the spark of improvisation. It’s very difficult to capture on film what it feels like to be in the room during these shows. On stage, I leave myself completely—or the idea of myself—to come to the music. In certain concerts, I even feel like I’m surrounded by silence, in a peaceful place, internally. Almost like blacking out.
In some shots, the camera keeps rolling as Tanya speaks to the crew behind the scenes. Why did you decide to keep these moments in the film?
Chelsea: Tanya said earlier that, in some ways, the film is also a documentation of our friendship and the evolution of us making this film together. And it felt like those moments showed another side of Tanya, how she related to myself and the crew. It had a lightness to it.
Tanya: How I am on stage—performing, singing—is very different from what I’m like day-to-day. I think about the lateral violence that I get, the hate mail and stuff like that, and I think, Gee, if they just knew what I was like. I’m pretty relaxed about things, and I can make light out of pretty intense situations, but you wouldn’t know that from my performances. I’m glad there was a little bit of that lightness in the film.
Lastly, where does the title, Ever Deadly, come from?
Tanya: I had to fight the powers that be for that title. It’s kind of an inside joke for Indigenous people. Like when you say something’s “deadly,” it means it’s super cool.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Every Deadly begins its theatrical screening in Toronto at the Hot Docs Cinema today.