12 October 2012

Inuit Community-Based Filmmaking

While residing in one of the most challenging environments on Earth, with a total population of only about 2,500, the Inuit of the village of Igloolik have produced three feature films, Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, and Before Tomorrow. This community's ways of working may prove inspirational to other Indigenous communities seeking to make feature films while using their own traditional cultural practices. Zacharias Kunuk, the Inuit director of both Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner and The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, first became interested in making videos out of a desire to record his father's hunting stories. He began moving away from his successful work as a soapstone carver to become an employee and eventually a manager of the Canadian-government-operated Inuit Broadcasting Corporation (IBC) station in his home village of Igloolik.

The IBC was charged with providing Inuit programming across the Nunavut Territory, a vast area that makes up about 20 percent of all Canadian land while containing a population of about 30,000 mostly Indigenous people. Kunuk discovered this government-controlled organization had little interest in producing and broadcasting the sorts of visual version of traditional stories that had drawn Kunuk to video production in the first place. On his own time, then, Kunuk began making such videos, and one of his first works, Qaggiq/Gathering Place (1989), earned considerable critical praise. Kunuk also sense that the IBC's organizational structures were harmful to Inuit community life. 'I saw IBC as a dogteam,' Kunuk later recalled, with 'Inuit producers as dogs, the sled as the Ottawa office and the people who sit in the sled as the board of governors.' Kunuk concluded that this hierarchical bureaucracy, managed by people living almost 2,000 miles away, would likely never support productions useful to Inuit communities living by very different rules.

So, in 1990, Kunuk left his job at IBC to form Igloolik Isuma Productions with two other Inuit, Pauloosie Qulitalik and Paul Apak Angilirq, as well as with the non-Indigenous filmmaker Norman Cohn, with whom Kunuk had been working since the mid-1980s. These four provided the company with most of the necessary technical knowledge, but, from the outset, Igloolik Isuma simultaneously relied on Inuit traditions of how people should world together. As Cohn explains, 'For four millennia Inuit have refined co-operation as a medium of production and survival, valuing consensus and continuity over individuality and conflict.' This collective process guides Igloolik Isuma Productions, which uses as its motto, 'Young and old work together to keep our ancestors' knowledge alive.' Collaboration takes much longer than traditional film production methods, Cohn says in the film's presskit, 'but people feel more natural and relaxed and the result is visible on the screen.'

Igloolik Isuma determined to find ways to adapt Inuit oral traditions and cultural practices for film. 'We started to recreate the past,' Kunuk explains,' that 'was our goal.' In 1994, only four years after they began, Igloolik Isuma produced the ambitious Nunavut: Our Land (1999), a six-and-one-half-hour documentary broken up into thirteen separate narratives. Nunavut: Our Land 'dramatizes true stories of today's Elders,' the film's official website explains, to reenact 'a nomadic lifestyle that no longer exists today.' Nunavut: Our Land focuses on Inuit life stretching across twelve months in 1945-1946, allowing the filmmakers to recreate many of the different activities that occurred in each Arctic season. The mid-1940s was a crucial time, as soon after the Canadian government initiated policies of forced settlement that seriously undermined the Inuit's millennium-old nomadic lifestyle. Kunuk explains, 'A lot of our cultural ways that survived for thousands of years have been interrupted and completely changed in the last fifty years. Doesn't make sense, it doesn't make sense. So, just trying to prove that it doesn't make sense. That's my job.'

While making Nunuvut: Our Land, Igloolik Isuma initiated a practice it would increasingly emphasize: using each new production as an opportunity to bring in experienced non-Indigenous crew members to act as teachers of Inuit apprentices. In this way, Igloolik Isuma has created such a large and proficient pool of local talent that its need to import technical expertise is becoming less and less. Indeed, the small community of Igloolik has even become home to other video makers and companies, some with, and some without, connections to Igloolik Isuma, as noted by the Association for the Study of American Indian Literatures.

Despite the clear artistic and cultural success of Nunavut: Our Land, Igloolike Isuma struggled for five years to accumulate the relatively modest 1.7 millions dollars (U.S.) to produce Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. Thought Canadian authorities were at first unimpressed with the film, once Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner wowed international audiences and won prestigious film festival awards (e.g., the Camera d'Or Award at Cannes), Igloolik Isuma found it much easier to raise new production funds. The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, released five years after Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, was supported by combined Canadian and Danish funds and a robust six-million-dollar budget. A third feature, Before Tomorrow, with a mostly female Inuit production crew and a three-million-dollar budget, began shooting even as The Journals of Knud Rasmussen was being released.

Much of the costs for these productions have been spent in Igloolik, producing a major economic boost for the cash-poor region. While encouraging a reinvigorating on Inuit history, culture, and language, then, Igloolik Isuma has simultaneously created a new, relatively clean, community-enhancing business in one of the world's most remote areas. Thought its precise strategies may not be applicable for all native peoples, Igloolik Isuma's success demonstrates that feature filmmaking can enhance the lives of contemporary Indigenous peoples while simultaneously  reinvigorating older, traditional cultural practices. True to Igloolik Isuma's motto, both their final films and the company's ways of working produce films that show young and old can 'work together to keep our ancestor's knowledge alive.'

[This essay was written by Houston Wood and extracted from chapter five of his book Native Features: Indigenous Films from Around the World (New York, London: Continuum, 2008, pp. 74-77. It has been slightly edited for inclusion on TV Multiversity.]

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