Finding True North
Almost 20 years after Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, Nunavut’s small but mighty cast of producers and directors are telling the stories they want to tell. In the process, they’re building an industry that punches far above its weight
“You just can’t imagine anybody naked out there”
In 1981, there was no television in Igloolik.
“There was nothing in our language on TV,” explains Zacharias Kunuk, who was born on Baffin Island in 1957 to a nomadic family, then sent to Igloolik to learn English at the age of nine. “The elders thought that television was going to have too much impact, so TV was voted out.”
But in 1981, Kunuk had some made money selling soapstone carvings out of a Montreal art gallery, and had learned that anybody could own a video camera. He knew what he wanted. So, while in Montreal with his carving colleague, Natar Ungalaaq, he went into a Black’s Photography on Sherbrooke Street “and bought a whole set: portable camera, Portapak, VCR, 26-inch TV, floor TV, tripod. And I bought some tapes.”
There was no TV in Igloolik. But there were stories.
“I always listened to my old man after a hunt, talking about how it went,” says Kunuk. “He would tell his hunting stories of the day, drinking tea with his buddies, and I thought: What if I could capture it on camera?”
So Kunuk began documenting Inuit hunting methods and other aspects of Arctic life. “I wanted to record these things, because I was so afraid that one day my grandchildren were going to start asking me all these things about Inuit culture,” he says. “What would I know? I wanted to learn about the culture, the stories, the singing. How do you keep warm travelling out there in the cold? How do you build an igloo? I wanted to put all of this on TV, for the neighbourhood kids to watch through my window. That was my first instinct.”
There were older stories, too: like a centuries-old bedtime story he’d been told about a man named Atanarjuat, who ran naked, barefoot, across the frozen Arctic landscape to escape a rival with murder on his mind. “That story stuck in our minds—probably in every child’s mind,” says Kunuk, chuckling. “You just can’t imagine anybody naked out there!”
By the late ’80s, Kunuk was running the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation, but the IBC “never had any money for drama, and that was what I wanted to do.” With the help of Norman Cohn, a New Yorker who’d travelled to Igloolik to work with Kunuk, he began to learn the foreign language of video production grants, funding agencies, fiscal years and deadline applications. He also learned that you needed a script for funding proposals, but in Nunavut, TV series were always improvised. According to Kunuk, “We were trying to crack the system. We ran into brick walls and we made a lot of noise. But we finally got our budget.” Persuaded by Kunuk that the feature would function as a documentary in recording Inuit mythology, the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) agreed to support the film.
With the help of eight elders, the story of Atanarjuat was ironed out and filled in. The script was set. The budget was set, to the tune of $1.96 million. The cast was set–Ungalaaq, Kunuk’s carving buddy, was cast in the title role. And the stage was set for the filming of the first Inuktitut-language feature film.
Over the six-month shoot, Kunuk (who had assumed the director’s role after the scriptwriter and original director, Paul Apak Angilirq, passed away) put his community to work. “We had hunters making props, making sleds, making our food,” he relates. “And we were very lucky because we also had local women who used to live on the land, and they still knew how to stitch the traditional coats and boots and everything. The women were on the floor sewing caribou skins. They were making mitts, socks, anything that we needed.”
Fast-forward to the Cannes Film Festival on the French Riviera in May 2001. Kunuk’s film is in the first-time filmmakers’ category, and he could not feel more out of place. “There were, like, seven of us, and I’m the only Inuk standing there. And I’ve seen their films, and they’re a lot better than mine,” recalls Kunuk. Thinking his film doesn’t stand a chance, he takes a day off, walks around the nearby island. Upon his return, “all of a sudden, they’re inviting us to the awards ceremony. All of a sudden, you’re in your monkey suit, you’re walking the red carpet. We had bodyguards.” He clarifies: “You only get invited if you win.”
Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner took home the prestigious Caméra d’Or, or best first film at the festival—still the only Canadian film to have done so—and heaps of critical acclaim. It grossed more than US$5 million worldwide at the box office. In 2015, a Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) poll of filmmakers and critics named Atanarjuat the greatest Canadian film of all time.
And for almost 20 years now, the image of a man running naked, barefoot, across the frozen Arctic landscape has stuck in audiences’ minds throughout the territory of Nunavut, across Canada, and around the world.
“When we do our own culture, that’s as close as it gets”
“Zach Kunuk really created the Nunavut film scene,” says Nyla Innuksuk, an Igloolik-born, Iqaluit-raised, Toronto-based writer, director, producer and virtual-reality creator. “He got the Caméra d’Or and made the best Canadian film of all time—on his first shot. So he was huge, but that was less than 20 years ago. It’s still a really young community.”
The filmmaking community includes Innuksuk herself, who’s behind a number of short films shot in Nunavut. She co-wrote and produced Kajutaijuq (2015), about a modern Inuk man who tries to survive in the wilderness on his grandfather’s teachings, and wrote and directed Breaths (2016), a short documentary featuring Inuk singer-songwriter Susan Aglukark. She’s also working on her first feature-length film, Slash/Back, a sci-fi movie with an intriguing premise: a misfit gang of teenage girls from Pangnirtung, Nunavut, wander the streets, ride their bikes, and battle invading aliens.
Another compelling creator, this time from Iqaluit, is Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, whose documentary Angry Inuk (2016) challenged the anti-sealing rhetoric and activism that has hobbled Nunavut’s economy for decades. Angry Inuk was showered with awards from the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival and the Montreal International Documentary Festival. It was also named to TIFF’s annual Canada’s Top 10 list in 2016 (one of two Inuit films that made the list that year—the other was Kunuk’s latest feature, Maliglutit).
Huw Eirug is CEO of the Nunavut Film Development Corporation, a nongovernmental organization that acts as a film commission for the territory— promoting Nunavut as a production centre and supporting productions that come to shoot there—as well as a provider of funding and training for local filmmakers. He says, “Atanarjuat put Nunavut film on the map. But if you’re looking for landmarks, in the documentary field you’d have to come to Angry Inuk. It’s resonated around the world.”
If Innuksuk and Arnaquq-Baril are exciting young talents to watch—Innuksuk works in VR, which is about as cutting-edge as it gets—Kunuk is the elder statesman. But he’s by no means slowing down. Since Atanarjuat, he’s made handfuls of documentaries, as well as two more features: The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (2006), a co-production with Denmark, and Maliglutit (2016), an adaptation of John Ford’s classic 1956 western The Searchers, co-directed with Ungalaaq. (With its long takes illustrating Inuit rituals and rhythms, a straight remake this is not.) As with Atanarjuat, community members and elders were critical to the film’s completion, helping to develop the story, sewing the costumes and creating objects for the film. And again, the cast was 100 per cent Inuit.
Through his production company, Igloolik Isuma Productions, Kunuk also supports other northern filmmakers and artists. Isuma produced Before Tomorrow (2008), directed by Marie-Hélène Cousineau and Madeline Ivalu of Arnait, a Nunavut women’s video collective, and Uvanga (2013), also directed by the pair. The company also launched IsumaTV, a sort of YouTube for Indigenous communities, which hosts over 6,000 films and videos in over 80 languages.
For such a small, scattered population—there are just over 35,000 people living in Nunavut, roughly equivalent to Penticton, BC—the amount of high-quality content being produced is staggering. And production in the Arctic Circle is hardly a walk in the park. Kunuk had to wrap his cameras in sheepskin to combat the -48˚C degree weather while filming Maliglutit. Cast suffered frostbite. Travel and accommodations are expensive and tricky to coordinate, to say nothing of transporting equipment. Says Innuksuk: “Bringing equipment to shoot up there was going to cost $6,000 one way. We ended up just bringing it all as luggage.”
But the stories. There are so many to tell, and movies are an ideal medium for passing on the legends of a traditionally oral culture, as well as new perspectives from a culture that continues to modernize. Says Kunuk, “Since we got colonized, we lost a lot of our culture, but we have to think back to old stories: revenge stories, happy stories, sad stories, starvation stories. Just to get that story and turn it into a film—it’s getting better and easier.”
Over at Nunavut Film, referencing the work of Jesse Wente at the Indigenous Screen Office, Eirug says: “Indigenous people, for the first time, are being given the opportunity to tell their own stories. This is the time for Inuit to tell theirs.”
Says Kunuk: “When we do our own culture, that’s as close as it gets.”
“You can’t just parachute in and hope for the best”
Inuit filming stories from their own culture may be the local industry’s high-water mark, but the fact remains that a substantial portion of investment comes from producers in other jurisdictions— “southern” producers—who film up north.
When asked about the economic impact of the Nunavut production sector, Eirug responds that the numbers need updating. The latest figures are from a 2009 Nordicity study, but they’re still instructive: local producers received $1.1 million through Nunavut Film’s funding programs and spent approximately $6.7 million on production activity, while producers from other jurisdictions spent approximately $6 million. “If in 2009 it was a $12-million industry, I think it’s safe to say that it’s much more by now,” Eirug says.
Filmmakers’ interest in Canada’s northernmost regions is nothing new (see “Northern Lights, Camera, Action!”). But after Atanarjuat, that interest exploded. In the last few years, Nunavut has hosted a raft of feature films and documentaries, including Two Lovers and a Bear (2016), Iqaluit (2016), Heaven’s Floor (2016), Two Soft Things, Two Hard Things (2016), and There Is a House Here (2017). Even the 10-year-old figures demonstrate that incoming production is a valuable economic engine for the territory.
Val Creighton, president and CEO of the Canada Media Fund (CMF), is pleased to see the North playing the North. She recognizes that “unfortunately, in the past our country has overlooked the North, from a number of perspectives, and production was among them.” (Remember North of 60, the ’90s show about an Indigenous community in the Northwest Territories? It was actually filmed south of Calgary.) But everyone agrees that visiting producers need to assume a posture of respect.
“If you’re from the South and want to do a film in the North, you can’t just parachute in and hope for the best,” says Eirug, who provides visiting producers with a code of conduct, which they must read and carry at all times. “You have to first appreciate that you’re coming to a territory that has its own unique culture, language and traditions.” Collaboration is key here: after all, who’s going to help visiting producers overcome the challenges of filming in a remote location—obtaining equipment, feeding cast and crew—but the people who actually live in the communities?
An example of fruitful North–South collaboration is The Grizzlies, a 2018 feature film about a group of young Inuit in the town of Kugluktuk―which has one of the highest youth suicide rates in North America—finding pride and purpose through the sport of lacrosse. The production team, which includes Inuit producers Arnaquq-Baril and Stacey Aglok MacDonald, was nominated for an Indiescreen Award in 2018. Director Miranda de Pencier met Aglok MacDonald while visiting Nunavut for the first time. She was already working on The Grizzlies, and wanted to make it “authentic and honest and real. And I had to find partners in the North to help me do that.” She was drawn to Aglok MacDonald (who is from Kugluktuk), and later Arnaquq-Baril, immediately: “I kept flying back up north, and had many, many, many conversations with both Stacey and Alethea. I asked them a zillion questions.
Eventually, Aglok MacDonald and de Pencier ran a week-long workshop for Inuit youth, in which participants learned to act and had an opportunity to audition for the film. Says de Pencier, “I knew we couldn’t make The Grizzlies properly if we couldn’t find actors for those pivotal roles.” But Aglok MacDonald didn’t want the youth to learn a skill that would serve no purpose if they weren’t chosen for the film. So the workshop’s Inuit teachers also taught throat singing, drum dancing, Inuit mask work, filmmaking and photography. And when the funding wasn’t in place in time to make the feature film that year, the pair instead collaborated on Throat Song, a short film about a young Inuk woman in an abusive relationship who begins to find healing by helping other victims.
De Pencier describes the workshop as a powerful experience for all involved. One participant admitted he had tried to take his own life just the week before, but afterwards felt pride in his culture and reconnected to himself. Says de Pencier: “I’ve learned so much from the North: make sure that whatever you introduce can be lasting and meaningful; make sure that everyone is protected and respected in the process.”
Although de Pencier faced pressure, for logistical and financial reasons, to shoot The Grizzlies in Churchill, Manitoba, the producers were determined to cast from the North, use crew from the North, spend their money in the North, and ultimately “capture the spirit and energy of the North on screen,” says de Pencier.
Aglok MacDonald concurs: “We needed to feel like the story belongs to us. You can’t fake the Arctic.”
“We don’t have a huge industry; we’re trying to build it”
Aglok MacDonald had no intention of going into filmmaking. But while in university, she took a program in Ottawa called Nunavut Sivuniksavut, and while there, was chosen by a production company to appear on camera for a film called Staking the Claim: Dreams, Democracy, and Canadian Inuit. She also worked as the film’s production and post-production assistant. When the experience was over, there was no looking back: she’d found her passion.
When she returned to Nunavut in 2006, there was no work in film or television: “I quickly learned that I would have to be creating the work. So that’s how I evolved into a producer very, very early on in my career.”
Coming off of her short film Throat Song in 2011, Aglok MacDonald had fallen in love with scripted drama, but the project’s weighty subject matter had been taxing. “I remember very specifically saying out loud, ‘I want to make a comedy now,’” says Aglok MacDonald. That comedy was Qanurli?, an Inuktitut-language show that was the answer to her wish as well as the wishes of a generation of Inuit youth. Through consultations with young viewers across the North, she heard the same thing over and over: “They didn’t want any more documentaries about Inuit youth. They didn’t want any more talking heads. They wanted something that was fun, that was funny, that was entertaining. But something that was also in their language, our language.”
Through its seven seasons, Qanurli? (which airs on APTN), has been a boon for Nunavut’s TV scene. “It’s immensely popular and it’s really great. It’s been groundbreaking in that sense,” says Eirug. The show, written by Aglok MacDonald, Vinnie Karetak and Joshua Qaumariaq, centres on two Inuit friends who create the first Inuktitut comedy ever; the show within a show includes satirical commercials—one Old Spice spoof has a burly model using a bottle of women’s body wash as a harpoon. The creators have used the series as a training ground for themselves: over time, the show has become more narrative and less skit-based, with seasonal arcs. “APTN’s really given us the room to play and do different things and use Qanurli? as a way to learn,” says Aglok MacDonald.
Aglok MacDonald and her partners aren’t the only ones learning. Qanurli? is also, almost by accident, boosting the production capacity of Nunavut. Aglok MacDonald and her partners recruit friends from Facebook as actors: “A lot of people had never acted or expressed any interest in acting, but they’d be in town, and we’d ask, ‘Do you want to do this?’ And some of those people have become regulars on our show.” The same method was used to uncover interns: “We found someone on Facebook who’d worked on a couple of stage productions. She interned on season six, and by season seven, we made her manager of the whole wardrobe and set department.” In the same way, amateur photographers might be given work in the camera department. Aglok MacDonald says flexibility is born of necessity: “We don’t have a huge industry up here; we’re trying to build it.”
On-the-job training is also how the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation creates camera operators, sound people, lighting experts and producers out of nonprofessionals. The IBC, where Zach Kunuk started his career in the 1980s, currently produces a cooking show, a how-to show and a live show, all in Inuktitut. Says Malakie Kilabuk, Director of Operations: “Most of the independent producers in Nunavut receive their training within IBC. Then they move on and start doing their own projects, provide their own training.” Success, after all, is catching. Kilabuk is also optimistic that a proposed television service, TV Nunavut, will hit the airwaves soon, sparking a new wave of Inuktitut content and a new generation of TV producers and crew.
As for Qanurli?, Nyla Innuksuk wants to see the show go on indefinitely, like an SNL for the North. “I actually think that show should exist forever, even if the current producers want to move on and do other things,” she says. “Get another team in. Sketch comedy is something that anybody can make, and you’ll be producing things. It’s like going to school, except you’re getting paid.”
Eirug agrees that series like Qanurli? and the new preschool series Anaana’s Tent, which teaches children about Inuit culture and the Inuktitut language, are invaluable for Nunavut’s burgeoning production community: “One-offs like short films and documentaries are great, but series give you a longer security in work, as well as the opportunity to nurture people who are interested in making a career in the industry.”
“It’s not only a culture that exists in the past”
Kunuk laughs when he recalls being the only Inuk in the room at industry receptions: “Everybody’s talking and you can’t make anything out of it. It felt like when I’d go see the walrus herds—everyone mumbling and mumbling. Now there are at least three or four or five Aboriginal people in the room. That’s great! You feel more down to earth.”
Indeed, momentum appears to be building for Indigenous production in general, and Inuit production in particular. New international initiatives like the Arctic Indigenous Film Fund (learn more below) are promising, as is a territory-wide workshop training plan that aims to reach 15 communities within three years.
Says Creighton at the CMF, “I’m very optimistic. As we see more productions come out of the North, we see more opportunities for the next generation, and this continues to build on itself. I have no doubt we will see some truly impressive work.”
Eirug points out that many skills that are important in film, television and digital media are transferable, and in abundant supply in Nunavut. An excellent seamstress who can make mukluks can be an excellent costume designer. Outfitters can be location scouts or location managers. By leveraging these skills, the Nunavut Film Development Corporation hopes to help “make Nunavut filmmaking self-sustaining, so that it’s not always necessary to bring someone up from the South, for example, to fulfil a role.”
There’s something paradoxical about one of the world’s oldest cultures boasting one of its youngest production industries. But that paradox, too, is ripe for storytelling.
“Inuit art exhibits, even movies from the Arctic, can tend to feel like they’re from a culture that existed a long time ago,” says Innuksuk, then references Slash/Back, her upcoming sci-fi girls-versus-aliens film. “So I just wanted to do something to show that it’s not only a culture that exists in the past and present, but it will continue to exist into the future.”
If the rest of the world doesn’t recognize that yet, one suspects it won’t be long now.
The CMF’s Big Chill
“It’s a very exciting time for production from the north, and for Canada,” says Valerie Creighton, president and CEO of the Canada Media Fund (CMF). In recent years, the CMF has spearheaded or collaborated on a number of exciting initiatives to support film, TV and digital media production in Canada’s Arctic.
Here’s a quick look at two of them:
Northern Incentive Program
WHAT IT IS
A program to ensure that CMF funding extends to northern projects
Since 2010, $4.1 million has been invested in 42 productions, including Qanurli?
Arctic Indigenous Film Fund
WHAT IT IS
A four-year partnership between the CMF, the Nunavut Film Development Corporation, the International Sami Film Institute (Norway), Sundance Film Institute (US), Archy – Promotion & Filmmaking in Yakutia (Russia) and FILM.GL (Greenland) to strengthen Arctic Indigenous film and media production across participating countries
THE INITIATIVE COMPRISES THREE MAIN PROJECTS
Arctic Chills: a horror series presenting ancient Indigenous myths, designed to connect talented filmmakers and encourage co-production
Tundra Film Camps: youth workshops, out of which the best projects will seek distribution at festivals and markets
Digital Talent Hubs: small post-production facilities with digital software for editing/VFX/VR in remote Arctic villages (in the planning phase)
The CMF is contributing $100,000 each year for a total of $400,000. Four Canadian Arctic Chills projects are slated for pre-production. The first Tundra Film Camp was held in Russia; Canada and Greenland are next.