Ce qu’il faut pour vivre (The Necessities of Life) Commentary

The travel story genre often focuses on the transformations experienced by the traveler, among them self-awareness, new skills, knowledge, or maturity. Alternatively, travel stories can focus on the destination itself. Whether the traveler has arrived at a place voluntarily or not, he is in effect, “a stranger in a strange land,” and therefore an observer. Writers who use this trope are less interested in the traveler than in contrasting two ways of life. This is what interests screenwriter, Bernard Émond in Ce qu’il faut pour vivre (The Necessities of Life, 2008), a film about a man who is essentially kidnapped for his own good by the government and transported thousands of miles of miles away to a TB sanatorium, where he will undergo treatment for two years. This premise allows Émond and director, Benoît Pilon, to personalize the effects of paternalistic government policies towards indigenous peoples after World War II in the North.

The film examines what the necessities of life are for someone who has been suddenly stripped of everything familiar. Natar Ungalaaq (Atanarjuat, Fast Runner) plays Tiivii, an Inuit man from Baffin Island who learns that he has tuberculosis after a medical examination aboard the hospital ship, C.D. Howe, in the summer of 1952. In the 1950s and 60s, there was a tuberculosis epidemic in Canada’s north; hundreds of people like Tiivii were peremptorily removed from their families and transported to sanatoria in the South, where they stayed for years waiting to be cured.

Tiivii is not given time to go home for his things; his wife (Miali Buscemi) and daughters are told to leave the ship. Tiivii is shocked. “Who will feed my family?” he asks. It takes another three months before Tiivii arrives in Québec City. He is overwhelmed by the strangeness of everything: the crowds of people, the size of the buildings, the trees. The surreal experience is reinforced by his first days at the TB sanatorium where his clothes, the only reminder of home, are removed and destroyed. He is made to sit in a bathtub; his hair is cut, and he is unceremoniously given a bed in a ward full of strangers. He doesn’t speak French and no one speaks his language. The other men laugh at his attempts to use a fork.

At first, Tiivii displays a mild interest in his surroundings. Self-contained and observant as a hunter needs to be, he begins to understand not only the routine at the hospital, but the personalities of the staff and patients. He is befriended by Joseph (Vincent-Guillaume Otis), the patient in the next bed, who communicates with Tiivii by sign language. His experiences in the sanatorium are made more bearable by the compassion of a nurse, Carole (Éveline Gélinas). But, her first message to him is that he will likely be in the hospital for two years. When Tiivii realizes what this might mean, that his wife and children will be reduced to begging for food, he loses heart and decides to die. He refuses to eat; the nurses resort to force feeding him. He tries to escape; he is caught and returned. He still refuses to eat; he is put on an I.V. drip, but it is clear that he is dying.

Carole arranges for an orphaned Inuit boy, Kaki (Paul-André Brasseur), to be transferred from his own TB hospital to the ward where Tiivii lies. Kaki has been in the South for two years; he can speak French, but has lost most of his cultural knowledge. Kaki translates for Tiivii and gradually the two patients develop a friendship. Tiivii teaches Kaki how to carve and tells him the stories of their culture. Kaki gives Tiivii a reason to live again. If he can’t be a hunter, he can at least be a father.

In part, director Benoît Pilon explores the theme through the juxtaposition of images. The Arctic tundra is presented as a gently contoured, natural landscape that nurtures Tiivii and his family. These white vistas are interpolated with the cold, blue-tinged, streets and buildings of Québec City.  The nurses and doctors at the sanatorium administer a sort of rough justice: patients either cooperate (and will probably live); or they resist (and will likely die). The doctor says in exasperation of Tiivii’s inability to understand his prognosis in French, “I’m not a missionary. I have no time to learn Eskimo.” Left on his own in this alien space, Tiivii will die of loneliness. His life has no meaning in a place where no one relies on what he has to offer. Clearly, family is central to Tiivii’s existence. His role as a hunter connects him to generations of men who pass on their skills and knowledge to their sons; his wife and children benefit from that tradition, as he hunts to keep them alive. In turn, they feed him and love him.

That the film resists the overly sentimental is in large part due to Natar Ungalaaq’s extraordinary performance as Tiivii. His careful gait registers the caution of the alert hunter. His expressive face can evoke the full range of emotion from a quiet determination to die, to admiration for a generous and beautiful woman.  He is at no point a victim, just a man trying to understand and make the best of the situation he is in. This contained, but powerfully emotive, performance is one of the techniques used to align the audience with Tiivii’s point of view. One of the conventions of this type of travel story is that the audience see the alien space through the eyes of the protagonist, yet with enough emotional distance to assess that point of view. Pilon does this by introducing the sympathetic nurse, Carole and the boy Kaki, who interpret white society to Tiivii, but each from a different cultural perspective.

Ce qu’il faut pour vivre (The Necessities of Life) won 14 awards and 7 additional nominations in Canada and the United States in 2009, including four Genies for Best Direction (Benoît Pilon), Best Editing (Richard Comeau), Best Actor in a Leading Role (Natar Ungalaaq), and Best Screenplay (Bernard Émond), as well as three Jutras for Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Film, and Best Screenplay.

Evelyn Ellerman