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TIFF 2023 Reviews: Tautuktavuk (What We See) and Boil Alert

Tautuktavuk (What We See), Courtesy of TIFF

Two films highlighting different social and political issues affecting the Indigenous peoples of North America are amongst those having their world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this year.

The first, Tautuktavuk (What We See) is a documentary/narrative hybrid following the stories of Uyarak (Lucy Tulugarjuk) and her older sister Saqpinak (Carol Kunnuk).  After experiencing trauma in her community in Igloolik, Nunavut, Uyarak sets out to live in Montreal, leaving her sister and the rest of her family behind.  Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hits and her isolation is magnified.  Through calls with her sister, the siblings piece together the trauma that Uyarak has repressed and starts on a road to healing.

As well as starring in the film, Tulugarjuk and Kunnuk are also co-directing here.  They interestingly blur the lines between fact and fiction, telling a story of their characters, while letting us into their actual lives as well.  Sometimes it is difficult to tell, or remember, that this isn’t in fact a documentary in the way we follow the two women through their daily lives.

While Tautuktavuk and its characters is mainly here to cultivate discussion on sexual and domestic abuse within the northern community, there are plenty of social issues mentioned that could have full films of their own.   Issues such as general health care needs, COVID-19 relief and vaccine programs, support from social workers and police.  The historical oppression of the Indigenous Peoples of Northern Canada is horrific and reclamation of their cultural ways is also discussed.

With all these different, and no less important, issues filling Tautauktavuk‘s swift 82 minute run time however, the overall impact feels a bit diluted.  The journeys of Uyarak and Saqpinak, and indeed their eventual reunion, lacked the emotional depth to make this film a true standout yet I appreciate the unique way the filmmakers went about telling their story.

Layla Staats in BOIL ALERT. Courtesy of TIFF

The more compelling feature here is documentary Boil Alert, co-directed by James Burns and Stevie Salas which emphasizes the horrible plight of Indigenous People both in Canada and the United States to get a basic human right – clean drinking water.  They do so through the journey of Layla, a woman reconnecting with her Mohawk heritage after having grown up feeling lost and disconnected in Brantford, Ontario.  Upon returning to the land of her grandfather on Six Nations of Grand River reserve she walks her own red road, a way to reclaim her language and culture.

For Layla, the her red road journey takes her to an isolated community in the north of Ontario that has been on a 27 year boil advisory, the longest in Canada’s history.  They have to get water flown in for consumption, some on the reserve getting rashes from the water that they bathe in.

Layla’s travels go from bad to worse as she heads to Church Rock New Mexico to see how radioactive waste from the uranium mines on the Navajo land have created disease amongst its people, and to Grassy Narrows, Ontario where mercury dumped into the community’s river in the 1960’s and 70’s has now created three generations of people with mercury poisoning.

Boil Alert is a largely informative documentary, shocking in its statistics and discoveries.  Yet it makes strides to connect with the people who live on these lands, whose ancestors have lived there.  Putting faces to the injustices they’ve faced in just wanting to exist, to be seen, to be heard can only results in more empathy.  The filmmakers do take short breaks from Layla to insert vignettes that mostly highlight her own personal journey, however they are largely unnecessary and I found myself just wanting to return back to Layla herself who is compelling without the attempts at artistry.

It’s so incredibly disheartening and disgusting to see how these communities have been treated.  As Layla reconnects with her Indigenous heritage, she sees this fight for water as her calling, for water is indeed survival.  And after watching this documentary you might be encouraged to join the fight as well.

Tautuktavuk (What We See)



Boil Alert



Tautuktavuk (What We See) premiered Sunday, September 10th and Boil Alert Friday, September 15th with second screenings to follow.  For information please head to

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