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Tragedy at the top of the world

GAYLE MacDONALD travels to the Arctic to see Zacharias Kunuk’s newest film, exploring how zealous missionaries force-fed Christianity to the Inuit in the 1920s. ‘They killed our spirit,’ the acclaimed director tells her. ‘No wonder people are killing themselves’

GAYLE MACDONALD, The Globe and Mail, 18.3.06

IGLOOLIK, NUNAVUT — It is not yet 4:30 in the afternoon, and the moon hangs high in a seamless, blue Arctic sky. But already they are arriving at Ataguttaaluk High School in Igloolik. Women with chubby, red-cheeked babies bundled into amautiks, the traditional Inuit baby pouch, on their backs. Older kids pulled along in plastic toboggans. Men and their spouses or offspring crammed onto snowmobiles, some of whom have made the trek from Hall Beach, a community 75 kilometres south of this town, population 1,600, located at the top of the world.

By 5 p.m., the gym is packed with 500 or so friends and neighbours of Zacharias Kunuk, who is hosting the first of three “family screenings” for his new feature film, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, which in September will have a starkly different gala: its official world premier, when it opens the Toronto International Film Festival.

But this preview for his home community, held last Saturday night, is what matters most to the weathered 53-year-old Inuit director. And it’s in keeping with a tradition Kunuk set with his first feature film, the internationally acclaimed Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, which had its inaugural screening in this same gym in December, 2000. Within six months, that film went on to scoop up the prestigious Camera d’Or at Cannes, and wowed critics enough that both The Times of London and The Daily Telegraph sent reporters to the set of Knud Rasmussen.

The frigid temperature (30 C below) does not faze these people, who came in droves — some by prop plane from as far away as Qaanaaq, Greenland; and Nunavut’s capital, Iqaluit — to watch Kunuk’s latest cinematic creation, which explores the controversial impact of Christianity, force-fed to the Inuit by zealous missionaries in the 1920s, forever altering (Kunuk would say crippling) his people’s once-proud way of life.

“We’re doing it for the people,” says Kunuk, a soft-spoken man whose English is halting, and who is far more comfortable conversing in Inuktitut. “Otherwise, they will be the last people to see the film. One of my friends left the seal hunt early so that he could get here before the show starts,” Kunuk, himself an avid hunter, adds proudly.Before the lights go down, Kunuk and his audience will share a feast. Rachel Uyarsuk, a 101-year-old Igloolik elder, who plays a shaman spirit in Journals (she was 20 when the actual Danish ethnographer/ explorer visited her hometown), blesses the food. Then the crowd, grabbing makeshift plates made of ripped cardboard boxes, lines up for raw caribou and Arctic char.

Families eat together on the gym floor, using ulus (knives used to slice fat from seal skin) to carve the meat into bite-sized portions for elderly parents and tots. They alternate the main course with large bags of Humpty Dumpty chips, for sale in the school’s main hall, and Freezies, which cost $2. (The community’s most needy fill plastic grocery bags with the leftovers. One woman, six children in tow, neatly tucks her remaining caribou into her white purse.)

When it is time to show the movie, a fuse blows, delaying things slightly. Then, at 7:20, the lights go down (and up again three times during the performance thanks to mischievous kids). Kunuk — joined by his five children, as well as his parents, Enuki and Vivi — sits silently watching the crowd’s faces. When the credits roll less than two hours later, there is rousing applause.

Some say they liked Atanarjuat, based on an Inuit legend, better. Others attest to being equally touched by this film, about the last great Inuit shaman, Avva. But all say they were glad Kunuk took on a taboo topic: shamanism, which the early missionaries dubbed devil worship, and which still sits uneasily with some of the town’s most religious Anglican, Roman Catholic and evangelical residents.

Like Atanarjuat, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen was filmed entirely in Inuktitut (without subtitles), which made it tough for an outsider to follow. But the startling images of the people living on this unforgiving land in the early twenties — shot with traditional costumes and tools made painstakingly authentic to the time — make it abundantly clear that Kunuk has once again tried hard to make a movie that reconnects a displaced people with their traditional values. With their endangered past.

Igloolik is on an island 2,800 kilometres north of Toronto, near the northeastern corner of Melville Peninsula, accessible this time of year only by plane. My descent into Igloolik feels like falling into a white tunnel. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, is a smattering of box-shaped wooden homes, built on stilts because the frozen ground prevents the digging of foundations. The wind leaves a pattern, like crocheted lace, on the snow. It’s a place of crisp blues, greys, whites, dark faces and pink skies.

With over four millennia of history, Igloolik (with a population of just under 1,300 people) ranks as one of the most traditional of Inuit communities, and is a cultural hub of the Arctic. But for all its historical richness, the people, by and large, are poor. Suicide (especially among those under 20), alcoholism, drug use and spousal abuse are rampant. The people live largely off of government subsidies, and the town’s lack of private enterprise means there’s little incentive to find work.

For centuries, the frozen land demanded the Inuit people learn how to adapt and survive. And yet the march of modernism (ATMs, cable TV, snowmobiles, phones, electric heat, organized religion) means they are now floundering in this ice-capped wilderness.

Kunuk’s 16-year-old production company, Igloolik Isuma Productions (Isuma means “to think” in Inuktitut), located in a ramshackle office on the island’s shore, is one of the few success stories here, periodically employing hundreds of local people as actors and film crew while injecting several million dollars into the economy. In these parts, Kunuk is a reluctant hero.

But he’s a hero with a mission: His goal, he says, is to shake the Inuit, especially the young people, out of their colonial complacency. His film, like the society he lives in, is a paradox of resiliency and despair.

“Mind the smell of caribou,” says Paul Irngaut, an employee of Isuma Productions, which is sandwiched, ironically, between the Anglican church and the Catholic St. Stephen and Our Lady of the Apostles. Knud Rasmussen’s costume coordinator, Michilene Ammaq, is just inside the steel doors, laying out the film’s traditional clothes, painstakingly made from animal fur, on the wooden floor. She’s trying to air them out before they go up to the high school for the first screening, where they will be displayed on either side of the giant screen. Her son, Todd, 8, shot his first polar bear yesterday, she tells me proudly.

Upstairs, Kunuk is hunched over a kitchen table at his computer, checking e-mails. Around him, prominently displayed, are posters from his various features and documentaries, as well as a wolf jaw and Isuma’s sexual-harassment policy.

The shy filmmaker explains that his new film, shot in the relatively balmy months of April and May last year, is the story of explorer Rasmussen, who travelled through this area in the 1920s, chronicling the conversion to Christianity of the great shaman Avva (played by local resident Pakak Innukshuk) and his willful daughter Apak (Leah Angutimarik). Like Atanarjuat, the actors in Knud Rasmussen are largely people who live down the road from Kunuk, with six Greenlanders and half a dozen Danes thrown in.

Kunuk says he still remembers the first time he saw a white man — it was a priest in the 1960s — who came to give him a vaccine. “My parents still remember a world before the ‘men in the dresses,’ the missionaries,” says Kunuk, who did not live in a house until he was 9, and dropped out of school after Grade 8. “Our film tries to answer two questions that have haunted me my whole life: Who were we? And what happened to us?”

Born in a sod hut in 1957, and raised Anglican, Kunuk says he blames the missionaries for upsetting the natural balance and rhythm of Inuit life. “When the whalers came, nothing changed,” says Kunuk, who is an officer of the Order of Canada, and who co-directed Knud Rasmussen with his long-time friend and business partner, Norman Cohn, a New York-born videographer.

“The missionaries brought their beliefs, and laid the law on the land,” Kunuk continues. “They killed our spirit. No wonder people are killing themselves. They feel hopeless, they feel lost. If you meet an Inuit on the land, he is not at all what he is like in town. They are two different people. Taima!” he sighs: It’s done.

The island of Igloolik is flat tundra. There is one hill, on the edge of town, that serves as the cemetery and the toboggan run for Igloolik’s teeming mass of children. (Fully 60 per cent of the population is under 25). Scores of makeshift crosses have been pounded into the frozen ground. The most recent inscriptions, carved by knife into wood, are names like Lorenzo, Jamie, Mary, Joey and Caitlin. In one straight line, there are a dozen graves, kids aged 12 to 19 — all deceased in the past two years.

Charley Qulitalik, a 29-year-old cook at the Tujurmivik Inn (one of his specialties is Arctic-char pizza), says his cousin hung himself at his workplace two weeks ago. Qulitalik is not sure why the man, just 20, took his life. “It’s weird,” he says, “but suicides seem to go up after suicide-prevention seminars come into town.”

Dave Kisilewich, a math and science teacher at the high school, who moved to Igloolik from Edmonton in 1989, figures he’s “got a whole classroom of kids up on the hill.

“Kids hang out in the street at night,” he says. “They hang out at the Northern [grocery] store until it closes at 9. They go to the community hall, but it closes then, too. The siren goes off every night at 10 to remind the kids to go home. School’s really the only game in town, but the dropout rate is high. There’s nothing for them to do.”

Kunuk is both perplexed and saddened by the high suicide rate among young adults. “My movies are about hope, and we’re going really slow, very slow, in trying to reach them. Our elders always tell us, ‘Your time will come, you don’t have to kill yourself.’ But clearly, many have lost their ability to listen.”

Kunuk’s films, he says, have a message: “Take a look around. Appreciate where you come from. Go out on the land, in the different seasons. You walk out there in the middle of nowhere, and you know someone has been there before. A long time ago. They leave traces. Maybe an inukshuk, too,” he says, referring to the man-shaped piles of stones used as landmarks. “There is beauty in how the wind carves the snow, how the animals feed. With The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, we want to see how much imagination people have.”

Igloolik is ridiculously expensive. Milk sells for $14 a bag. Chips are $7. Dried caribou in a bag is $60, and is located in the freezer next to Breyers French-vanilla ice cream, which sells for $11.59 for a small tub. A solitary, sorry-looking pineapple at the Northern store is $15. After the three weekend screenings at the high school, the floor is littered with candy wrappers, pop cans, Joe Louis cakes and pudding cups. It’s hardly surprising that diabetes is on the rise here.

Cohn and Kunuk know that Atanarjuat, the highest-grossing Canadian film of 2002, is going to be a hard act to follow. With the new film, whose budget of $6.3-million was roughly three times that of its predecessor, and which is now on a 56-community tour across the Arctic, Cohn says they wanted to deal head-on with the modern-day challenges of the Inuit.

“Our first film was a classic love and revenge story set in the mythic, apolitical past,” he says. “Our second film is about how people were colonized by Christianity and dragged into the 20th century.” One of Kunuk’s own sons, he adds, is apathetic about the traditional ways of living on the land. “I ask him to come caribou hunting with me,” says Kunuk. “I invite him, but he wants to watch TV.”

Cohn travelled to Paris earlier this year to submit The Journals of Knud Rasmussen for consideration at Cannes. Last week, after TIFF announced it would be the Canadian festival’s opening feature, Cohn says he withdrew the Cannes submission. “We made a decision to do the opening night in Toronto as a statement of how we see ourselves,” he asserts, “as a new world, new film industry, as opposed to an old world, old guard. The decision not to go to Cannes was ours. Not theirs.”

To make The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, Isuma Productions set up the Siuraajuk base camp 75 kilometres east of Igloolik. The crew survived blizzards, meagre meals (local hunters were hired to shoot lunch and dinner), and the departure of the French-Canadian cooks halfway through production. The interior scenes were shot 10 minutes outside of Igloolik, at a sod house.

A trip to that site lands me with frostbite on my face. After we return to the Tujurmivik Inn, the hotel’s oil runs out. Inside the hotel, the temperature quickly plummets to below zero. Everyone walks around in boots and parkas until the oil man — an in-demand guy who works 24/7 — shows up 90 minutes later.

The hardship, despair and routine desolation of life in this community seems a world away as I prepare to leave under an indigo sky on Monday morning. A final glimpse through a window of the tiny plane shows the snow-encrusted town bathed in a golden sun, the light so bright on this blank white canvas, you have to shield your eyes.

In Kunuk’s world, time has marched on, but this morning, from the sky above Igloolik, somehow manages to seem like it’s standing still.


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