“It’s really a very small handful of peoples on this planet that still have that ancient perspective on life.”
Experimental Eskimos was a film that screened at Hot Docs last year. It told the story of three young men who, in the 1960’s, were removed from their Inuit families to live and be raised by white families in Ottawa. Alethea Arnaquq-Baril was a part of the production team on Experimental Eskimos and this year returns to the festival as the Director of an exquisitely shot short, Inuit High Kick. We wanted to know more about her conviction to share Inuit stories and the pros and cons of being a filmmaker residing in the remote city of Iqaluit, Nunavut. Further, we are also fascinated with what life looks like in the north and Arnaquq-Baril’s insight makes us that much more curious to consider the costly venture.
What are the toughest aspects about being a filmmaker based in Iqaluit?
We are such a small population, so far away from everyone else and expensive to get to. This means access to broadcasters and distributors, and networking with other filmmakers is really hard, because it costs $5000 to get even from one end of the territory to the other!
We only pay federal tax; there is no provincial tax because Nunavut is a territory instead of a province. This means we can’t get provincial tax credits. Since most producers really depend on both federal and provincial tax credits to finance their projects, up here we’re at a real disadvantage from the start.
Bandwidth is a real problem. We’re about 10 years behind the rest of the country in terms of bandwidth, so it’s kind of hard to compete with southern content producers on the digital/interactive media front. We also only have cell networks in a handful of the communities, so mobile content is not really an option yet either. I have to admit though, I’m amazed by how many iPod’s I see around here. I love seeing Inuit walking along in sealskin boots, heading out hunting, rocking out to their tunes on an iPod touch.
What are the positive aspects?
It’s funny, the reasons it’s great to be a northern filmmaker are the same as the reasons it can be so hard. We are such a small population and we are so far away and expensive to get to, it means our stories are unique and untold almost by default. Our language and culture is so different and unknown and mysterious to most southerners, and this is a real advantage for me as a filmmaker. We kind of have a gold mine of intriguing, untold stories and a unique sense of storytelling. I’m always amazed by how fascinated outsiders are by the most mundane details of life in the arctic. I try to remember that it’s like how curious my grandmother would be to know how people survive in the hottest jungles of Africa. Many Canadians know a bit out how Inuit lived traditionally, but most people have no idea how we live today. To their surprise, although most Inuit still speak our own language, still hunt and eat wildlife, and still practice our own culture, we’ve continued to evolve and modernize just like everyone else.
Many people want to move to larger cities, what has kept you there?
Iqaluit is the big city in Nunavut. Seriously though, I did go to college in Ontario, I’ve lived and worked in downtown Toronto, and although I loved the adventure and access to education, by the time I graduated from school I was dying to get back home. Many people are surprised to learn that the majority of Inuit that leave home to get an education return home when they are finished. We miss home, we miss our families, and we miss our country food. It’s exciting to learn about other cultures, but after several years I longed to get back to a place where I can relax and not have to constantly explain myself and my cultural quirks to others. Not that I mind doing that at all, I quite enjoy sharing my culture with others, which is probably why I’m a filmmaker. It’s just exhausting sometimes when you’ve had to do it every day for years.
You know, I was in Ontario for school for several years, and I didn’t learn until after I left that you are expected to bring wine or bread or dessert to someone’s house when they’ve invited you for dinner. Nobody ever told me that, and I had a good laugh at how many dinner hosts must have thought I’m not a very thoughtful guest. Also, Inuit are apparently much more blunt than southerners, and I would always wonder whether I’ve unknowingly done or said something offensive. For example, if you ask an Inuk woman what she thinks of your outfit, she will tell you. I didn’t know for the longest time that southern women are supposed to ooh and aah even if the clothes are hideous, and that only the best of friends are actually expected to be honest with each other. As you can imagine, I didn’t have too many female friends, and the few female friends I did make were also from other cultures. I tended to get along better with men, who didn’t mind the bluntness, and appreciated that Inuit don’t think it’s rude to burp at the dinner table.
What made you to decide to become a documentary filmmaker?
I guess I started out feeling a kind of sense of duty, though now it’s more of an addiction – I can’t stop even though I know it’s bad for my health.
Inuit didn’t have a writing system before European contact, and to this day, most Inuktitut reading materials are children’s books. The only Inuktitut books people actually read are the bible, and children’s books. We are an oral culture, and so that means our culture and history, up until recently, has mostly been undocumented, or documented by outsiders. This is changing slowly, but unfortunately there is an enormous amount of knowledge and history that needs to be documented in a short period of time, while the last elders that live traditionally out on the land are still alive. It’s kind of daunting, and choosing which projects to take on is really difficult because there is so much important stuff that needs to be preserved and understood. That sounds sort of heavy, and serious, but I love my job and was surprised at how much fun it actually is, even when you’re discussing tough subjects.
Filmmaking is such a natural way for Inuit to retain our culture and to reflect our culture back to our own people. However, documentary filmmaking is also a powerful tool for communicating with the outside world. I come from a part of the world that is under attack in so many ways (western cultural domination, international disputes over arctic sovereignty for access to subsurface riches, and the effects of climate change on Inuit and our wildlife, etc). Probably the most powerful thing I could do for myself and my fellow Inuit is to be a documentary filmmaker, because I don’t know how else to make sure our voices can be heard on the world stage, on issues that are critical to us.
Last year in Hot Docs you had a film called Experimental Eskimos that you helped make – how do you feel about the response to this film, was their a political response?
Yes, I had the opportunity to work with White Pine Pictures, and director Barry Greenwald, which was a wonderful experience.
I haven’t been back to the communities where the three “experimental Eskimos” are from because the cost of travel is so high. I don’t really know how their families and communities responded to the film, but I’m very curious. For example, many people from Zebedee Nunngak’s hometown had never forgiven him for his role in the northern Quebec land claims negotiations because they feel they got screwed. I wonder if some of those people saw the film and maybe had a better understanding of the duress he was under, and that he was really just a kid with the weight of the country on his shoulders. Growing up in the arctic, I knew of these men, and the role they played in Inuit land rights, and the creation of Nunavut. However, in making this film, it hit me just how young they were when they did it – they were kids! People their age are usually at frosh parties, or cramming for their mid-term exams, and stressing about how they’re going to pay rent for their very first apartment. These guys were having gloves-off debates with Trudeau and Mulroney, and redrawing the map of Canada!
I can tell you that the reaction to the film in Iqaluit was phenomenal. It still brings a smile to my face to remember the Inuit audience whistling and cheering with tears in their eyes when they watched the scene where the young Zebedee Nunngak is in the House of Commons with his son standing behind him, staring down Mulroney. When he said that if we do not succeed “my son is standing behind me, and he will take up the fight with your sons, and your son’s sons, until it is done.” They were trailblazers for aboriginal rights in Canada.
Inuit High Kick was featured at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics – can you share with us how you feel about being included in this international event?
It was really exciting, and perfect because it’s all about sport, and how amazing the human body really is. I guess that’s what the Olympics is all about, so it was cool to have our version of the games be shown to an international audience.
What do you want audiences to take away from this film?
I guess it’s just a reminder that cultures are all different, but that in the end we’re all the same. Johnny (Johnny Issaluk, athlete profiled) jumps as high as he can to kick a sealskin target, and he has to land on the same foot he kicked with. Another Inuit game is to jump as far forward as you can, starting on your knees. When non-Inuit see our games, they often think they’re kind of weird, or random. But in fact, all sports are. Track and field is just as random. Why is the triple jump not a quadruple jump? No matter where you come from, sports are all a way to keep healthy, and to challenge yourself, and to have fun with your community.
What upcoming projects are you working on?
I’m just wrapping up a one-hour doc for APTN called “Tunniit: Retracing the Lines of Inuit Tattoos.” Tunniit is about the Inuit tradition of face tattooing, which has been forbidden for a century, and almost forgotten. The film follows my journey to learn all about the tattoos, before getting my own. I’ve met serious resistance from the younger and middle generations. However, a number of brave elders were willing to talk about the tattoos, and the massive and sudden cultural changes that caused their decline.
My next project is called “Angry Inuk,” and it’s about how Inuit are affected by the animal rights activists and the anti-sealing movement.
What is your ultimate goal as a filmmaker?
You have to understand that Inuit today are still scarred from the colonial period, and I guess I’m the product of a people that’s still sort of recovering from that. I am keenly aware that until just a few decades ago, the powers that be thought of us as amoral savages that needed to be “saved,” with no useful wisdom or knowledge to share. I don’t think southern Canada really understands how recent this was. We were colonized much later than the other aboriginal peoples of Canada, there are still people alive today that grew up living a semi-nomadic life out on the land, and remember the first time they ever saw a white man.
As a filmmaker, I feel the need to show people that we had our own moral structures, our own education, and our own spirituality. I want to show the world that we have stories worth telling, and that other cultures could learn valuable lessons from seeing the world through Inuit eyes. There is wisdom in the customs and practices of Inuit culture, a universal and ancient wisdom. The generation of Inuit elders hold this incredible knowledge and perspective that needs to be documented and shared. In these times of ecological disaster, of global economic meltdowns, of large-scale corporate corruption, of endless wars – it seems there is a hunger, a need to get back to reality, back to reason, back to the common decency that comes with small communities that haven’t been overly exposed to capitalism and globalization. It’s really a very small handful of peoples on this planet that still have that ancient perspective on life.
Inuit High Kick screens on Sunday, May 9th, at 4:30 pm at The Royal Cinema.