I’ve had a passion for the Arctic from a young age, which has been enriched by travels north over the years. A particularly memorable voyage was in 2006 reaching the High Arctic to Grise Fjord on Ellesmere Island and across to Qaanaaq in Greenland’s far north — the world’s northernmost community along with Longyearben on Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, which I visited last summer. Unlike the latter, Qaanaaq is a mostly indigenous Inuit community with a museum that celebrates the work of Danish/Greenlandic explorer and anthropologist Knud Rasmussen, who made it his mission to record Inuit life across their vast Arctic homelands.
Accompanying that 2006 trip was the remarkable Inuit activist, lawyer, culturalist and designer Aaju Peter who figures prominently in Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s Angry Inuk (http://www.unikkaat.com/projects/angry-inuk/), an eight-year labour of love devoted to the Inuit perspective on sustainable livelihoods, notably their continuing uphill fight to earn income from a traditional seal hunt that has been severely affected by anti-sealing campaigns aimed at the European market. The original protests against seal hunting were in non-Arctic waters off Newfoundland and Labrador that targeted “inhumane” methods in the annual slaughter of white-coated Harp seal pups (anthropomorphized as cute “baby” seals). The images of infant seal blood on the snow were especially effective. But although that hunt ended decades ago, dated images intended to shock — and useful for emotional fundraising purposes — are still used in misleading propaganda by groups like Greenpeace and the International Fund for Animal Welfare. The result has greatly reduced trade in all seal products.
Angry Inuk exposes the falsehoods behind such tactics while mounting a passionate defence of Inuit hunters who take only adult seals from a population that is in no way endangered. The seal has long been an essential resource used both for food and for warm waterproof clothing. European Union regulations, a focus of anti-sealing efforts, supposedly exempt traditional Inuit practices from seal trade bans. But the actual effect has not spared them, resulting in a devastating loss of income for Inuit communities, many of which suffer from high levels of unemployment and food insecurity.
Among Aaju Peter’s many talents are as an expert seamstress of seal hides and fur. The film follows her as she accompanies Arnaquq and other Inuit spokespersons to the European Parliament to argue their case. Their fact-based arguments have limited success up against the well-funded affective appeals of the anti-sealing lobby. Part of the Inuit anger arises from the patronizing attitudes of non-indigenous southerners who may claim to be sympathetic to their traditions but whose position of dominance allows them to ignore actual Inuit voices. As Pat Mullen observes in a review for Point of View magazine: “Implicit within the seal hunt debate is the imposition of one culture upon another within the history of colonising Inuit and Indigenous communities.”
The films of Igloolik-based Zacharias Kunuk are a reminder of the rich storied past of Inuit life. He earned international attention in 2001 when Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner took the best first feature prize at Cannes. That was followed by The Journals of Knud Rasmussen in 2006. Maliglutit (Searchers), his third feature co-directed by Natar Ungalaaq, premiered at the 2016 Toronto Film Festival. Like Atanarjuat it involves crimes of passion, and an element of abduction and revenge that draws allusion to the 1956 John Ford classic western The Searchers, albeit in a very different all-Inuit context spoken in Inuktitut from a screenplay co-written with longtime collaborator Norman Cohen.
The tale begins when two women from an Inuit family group are kidnapped during a violent attack by a band of male invaders. Vowing revenge, the husband of one of the women, Kuanana (Benjamin Kunuk), heads off with his son and other maliglutit (followers) in pursuit of the marauders.
These are the avenging searchers who traverse an immense frozen landscape by dogsled, guided by the spiritual calling of the loon. Their mission takes on a haunting mythic quality within the timeless power of a vast unforgiving world. The journey suggests it must end in another violent confrontation in the snow. At the same time these human struggles are almost dwarfed by the Arctic environment evoked through stunning cinematography.
Filmed by Inuit in the land of their ancestors, and featuring a traditional musical score including throat singing, Maliglutit’s authenticity derives from its blend of realism and naturalism taking us back into this world of pre-modern existence, a world that survives in the form of legend and historical imagination.
Kunuk and Cohen have also produced a 2014 documentary, My Father’s Land, that situates in generational terms the challenges of an Inuit present that is sometimes pulled between preserving the legacy of the past and the lure of a future that includes 21st century technologies and potential jobs from economic development. The film (viewable online at http://www.isuma.tv/myfathersland/film) opens with an Inuit observation from The Journals of Knud Rasmussen and presents a number of striking sequences showing aspects of Inuit life on the land in decades past up to recent times. These vignettes include moving scenes of the Kunuk family’s own ancestral heritage in a region that could be affected by major resource projects. The contrast is underscored by alternating these passages with clips from 2012 public hearings in Igloolik by the Nunavut Impact Assessment Review Board examining Baffinland Iron Mines’ proposed $6 billion Mary River open-pit operation, with a rail line to tidewater from which huge ships would transport the ore.
A different dynamic is at play. The Inuit are promised a share of the benefits from resource extraction, but will that be at a cost to the land and wildlife which sustained them for millennia? Kunuk and an associate make a presentation that stresses respecting indigenous peoples’ human rights and meeting their needs. Inuit voices are heard in this process; still, the agenda is powerfully driven by the interests of state and corporate actors. A positive note is suggested by the development of new tools, such as a “digital indigenous democracy” network (see http://www.isuma.tv/did), to bring to bear Inuit perspectives based on their priorities.
The Arctic of today has attracted plenty of non-native residents too, sometimes migrants from the south seeking escape or a new life. Another Toronto festival selection, Montreal-based director Kim Nguyen’s Two Lovers and a Bear, tells the story of two of them set against the surrounding frozen immensity of Nunavut. It’s a radical departure from his previous Oscar-nominated film Rebelle (War Witch), set in equatorial Africa, about the harrowing escape of a teenage girl who has been forced to become a child soldier.
The young lovers of this northern story, Lucy (Tatiana Maslany) and Roman (Dane DeHaan), are carrying a great deal of emotionally disturbed baggage — rehab from substance abuse and the effects of violent parental abuse among the scars. In the remote fictional village of Apex, they find and cling to each other until this passion, with its unstable co-dependency, crashes after Lucy, offered a student scholarship down south, decides to leave. Roman cannot go back. Facing a separation he sinks into despondency, drowning his sorrows to the point of becoming suicidal. That drives Lucy to make a passionate return to his side.
Into this star-crossed scenario Nguyen introduces an unusual element of magic realism in the form of a talking polar bear who appears to Roman dispensing rather sarcastic philosophical quips. Perhaps it is his own inner voice speaking in the form of this iconic Arctic creature. The bear is voiced in deep resonant tones by veteran octogenarian actor Gordon Pinsent, a documentary about whose life and career — River of My Dreams — played in another section of the Toronto festival.
In any event, Lucy and Roman are moved to embark on a last snowmobile trip into the Arctic wilderness, tempting fate as a blizzard bears down. Their race into dangers is set to a propulsive musical score. She pulls him out when his machine goes through an icy crevasse. They take shelter in an abandoned DEW (Distant Early Warning) facility (actually filmed in the “Diefenbunker” near Ottawa, another Cold War relic). It adds an eerie sense of doomsday as the storm rages and the bear spirit abides like an ominous shamanistic presence. The two lovers have only each other as they lock in an embrace against the elements.
For most Canadians the Arctic remains an alien little-known landscape. It’s good to see movies that give voice to the people who live in a special place that continues to fire the storytelling imagination.