Slash/Back is the kind of film that gets me excited about filmmaking. Adopting a traditional alien invasion storyline to a particular location, a tiny community on Baffin Island in Nunavut, director Nyla Innuksuk manages to say a great deal about the people living in Pangnirtung as well as the history of colonialism that, in this region, cannot be shaken it off like loose snowflakes. With little from the rest of the world reaching them, the girls of Pang –as they call it -– have two sources for stories, the horror and sci-fi epics from Hollywood on their phones, and the legendary tales from their grandparents. However, with part of the Inuit way of life being a firm tradition of hunting, the girls are more ready than most to face a small scale alien invasion just outside of town.
Set on solstice, a night which brings the story both endless daylight and an excuse for all the adults in town to be gathered together at the Community Center for a dance, Slash/Back has lots of room for the four teenage girls to stand out from each other and suggest the issues facing their town. One of them embraces the stories handed down from their ancestors, another criticizes Inuit arts and life at any chance she gets. There is the conflict between what they refer to as country food versus one of the girls’ favorite restaurants, KFC. [By the way a quick search of Google Maps reveals that there is indeed a KFC in Pangnirtung it’s crazy as that sounds.] There are the common issues of relationships with older and younger brothers and sisters that plague us all, as well as parents who don’t live up to our desired pictures of success. There’s the new found interest in the boys in the town and the competition between the girls for their attention.
I am a sucker for good structure and Slash/Back is a master class in pacing and storytelling. There’s the classic horror movie cold open, followed by exactly 10 minutes of set up for the characters and location, the pinpoint inciting incident of the first view of the alien, and 10 minutes of debate on what just happened.
The appearance of the alien is especially commendable because, unlike many body snatcher type stories, Slash/Back first places its invaders inside the local predator, the polar bear. In this way the girls can be afraid of the creature while still noticing that there is something strange about it. They end up referring to the aliens as “skins” because they take on the skin of another creature so that they can approach, but when they take on the skin of humans, they are pretty terrible at getting our walk down. They look more like ghosts in Japanese horror films than humans.
Act two starts as the aliens reach Pang, following the scent of their own black blood. The midpoint finds all of the young girls trapped together in the same storage shed, at their lowest point. Instead of losing focus or intensity at the halfway point, the audience is treated to set piece after set piece of the girls facing down the aliens and protecting their town, paying off all the bits of character set up and town knowledge that the first half of the film head left like breadcrumbs.
With a beautiful location like Nunavut, it would be hard for the cinematographer to not make a beautiful film but with a landscape of so much white and the blandness of black blood, much is made of the flashes of color the girls and the town provide. The design of the aliens is both original and conjures up the long history of stalk-like creatures which offer no opportunity for interaction. If the CGI is not as great as the latest marvel movie, that hardly seems less important than the real fear it invokes in the girls.
All of these would be great things to praise for any film, but for this one it cannot be forgotten that this is a community of 1500, thousands of miles away from the safety of a filmmaking hub. The film is almost entirely locally cast, and there is no weak link. And that doesn’t even begin to give credit for the logistics of bringing in a crew of 50 or so to a place that probably has less than 25 hotel rooms.
I hope this film does not suffer the fate of many at South by Southwest, getting an early pick up and then disappearing onto some sort of streaming platform. This is a film that needs a long festival cycle to celebrate the joy of filmmaking on exhibit.
Slash/Back world premiered at SXSW 2022.
– Bears Rebecca Fonté (@BearsFonte)
SXSW 2022; Nyla Innuksuk; Slash/Back movie review