Renowned throat singer and author Tanya Tagaq had often been approached to appear in a documentary about her life.
But the 47-year-old Inuk – who was born in Nunavut, attended high school in Yellowknife and now primarily lives in Toronto – turned down every offer.
That was until her friend Chelsea McMullan asked Tagaq whether she would be interested in making a film together.
Tagaq agreed, in large part because she had seen and loved McMullan’s previous work.
The end result is Ever Deadly, a 90-minute documentary that had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last week.
“I knew of their work through a documentary called My Prairie Home that they did with Rae Spoon,” Tagaq said of McMullan’s back catalogue.
“And I also knew of them through Rae. I decided when I was approached that we could have a meeting. I always like to have a meeting in person with people, to make sure that we’re going to be compatible, because when you start a project this large you want to make sure that you get along with everybody.
“We met and right away we got along really well, and we’ve developed a really lovely friendship throughout the process of making the film.”
McMullan said they were instantly blown away by Tagaq when they first saw her perform live in Toronto.
“I approached her with the idea of collaborating together on a film,” they said. “I’m not sure if that’s how other people approached her, but I think she was also really interested in making a film together. And she is a great filmmaker and has amazing film instincts, so it was amazing to collaborate with her on it.”
Ever Deadly combines concert footage of Tagaq with scenes filmed on location in Nunavut. McMullan said Tagaq insisted on it.
“She had such a clear vision for what the film should be and that was one of the very first things she brought up,” said McMullan, a Toronto resident, who travelled to Nunavut for a handful of summers to shoot with Tagaq.
“She said: ‘We have to go to my home and we have to film these places. This is where the music comes from. These are my influences.’ So it was a complete non-negotiable, right from the beginning, which I was obviously excited about.”
Tagaq’s stories and songs throughout Ever Deadly feature a mix of pain, anger and triumph. Tagaq felt it was vital to make Ever Deadly so people could have a better understanding of her career and herself.
“One of the main reasons the documentary was important was to try to encapsulate the feeling in the concerts,” she said. “They’re all improvised, so I noticed people would take photos or take small snippets of the show. I’d get frustrated, because it would appear very out of context to what happens throughout the whole narration of the improvisation.”
Giving viewers glimpses of her personal background was also key.
“For step one, we wanted to get concert footage – but as the film progressed, I thought it would be very important to include the land,” Tagaq said. “First and foremost, it was the land of where I’m from. I’m from Nunavut, an isolated place where you can’t take a highway to another town.”
Tagaq’s family members – including her mother, who is interviewed in her Indigenous language – offer their thoughts in the film.
“We were very happy with how that turned out,” Tagaq said. “My family opened up to Chelsea and the team.”
Tagaq spends most summers in Nunavut. This year she returned to Toronto days before Ever Deadly’s world premiere, having spent six weeks in the territory.
“We were here [in Toronto] for a long time because of Covid, so I didn’t get to go home for maybe two and a half years,” she said. “That was way too long. It was a great visit at home. I feel much better now. I can handle the city again.”
Though Ever Deadly took several years to complete, Tagaq was pleased with the final product.
“I’ll release an album and then listen to it and go, ‘Oh, I would have changed that and I would have changed that.’ As you progress and time goes by, you change as a person and as an artist,” she said.
“So you could work indefinitely, or I could work indefinitely, on one project that would just keep morphing. But I am happy with what [the documentary] was for its time, and I’m already excited to do something else.”
So far, Ever Deadly is also booked to appear at the Cinefest Sudbury International Film Festival, Calgary International Film Festival, Lunenberg Doc Festival in Nova Scotia and Vancouver International Film Festival.
The Yellowknife International Film Festival, set to take place in early November, has yet to announce its lineup.