Unsettling Selfies ... Of the North
(Still from Dominic Gagnon's Of the North)
Last Friday night I attended a clandestine screening of Dominic Gagnon's collage-film, Of the North. Clandestine because of all the controversy it stirred up last November at the Montreal International Documentary Festival. The film was condemned for allegedly perpetuating cultural stereotypes of the Inuit. Even people who hadn't seen it added their voices to the mounting public outcry against it. The most vocal opponent was Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq, who called Gagnon a racist and threatened legal action over the unauthorized use of her music in the film.
The irony is that while Gagnon was taking the heat in Canada, the film was (and still is) getting the thumbs up at festivals around the world. It won a prize at a prestigious festival in Switzerland.
Friday’s free screening was organized by the Cine Club des Metallos, a group committed to providing venues for films that are having a tough time getting seen. About thirty of us, by invitation only, crowded into a tiny space on the 4th floor of the Belgo Building, a hotspot for contemporary art in Montreal, to watch it. Most sat on the floor or along the windowsill. They brought their own snacks and beverages. Gagnon was present but stood out in the hallway as his 74-minute experimental film was projected from a laptop onto the bare white wall.
Two days before the screening, Gagnon sent me an invitation. He told me he may or may not be there— tired of all the controversy, I assumed. We'd never met but we had been in email contact. After the media circus, I got curious about him. I surfed the web and found a bio that pegged him as an “inventor”, “director” and “installer”, an international artist who described cinema as “a technique for measuring the immeasurable.” I tracked him down and told him about my personal interest in the north, how I had lived there for three years and was writing a novel. I told him I wanted to see his film. He told me he wasn’t sure that he could get it screened again in the city.
Deep in my research, I came across an article published by APTN that described the images in the film as alternating between “snapshots of Arctic landscape, industrial machinery, military exercises, inebriated Inuit men vomiting, children playing and pornographic scenes of women, including that of a vagina that cuts into a video of someone trimming the hairs off a dog’s tail.” I began to wonder whether there might be some truth to all the criticism that had been levied against it.
Gagnon isn't a people-pleaser but he is definitely pragmatic. His decision to comply with a cease and desist order to remove Tagaq's music from the film resulted in an altered version of it, what he called “Version 3” with great chunks of the sound removed, and it became an even eerier nod to the film he was initially trying to evoke, Robert Flaherty’s 1922 silent classic, Nanook of the North. (In Gagnon’s film, of course, the excision of Nanook from the title is clearly suggestive of a vanishing culture.) Ironically, Flaherty was also raked over the coals for his film. We now know that in his zeal to portray and celebrate the traditional Inuit lifestyle, the filmmaker staged various sequences and manipulated the truth.
One of the criticisms against Gagnon is that despite a $32,000 Quebec grant to make the documentary, the man never stepped foot in the north, with or without a camera. Instead, he wove his film out of 500 hours of footage he found on the Internet, amateur video clips shot and posted on sites like YouTube by the Inuit themselves. In defense of his art, Gagnon argues that he “made it with love” and that he never intended to make a definitive film about the Inuit. What he was chiefly interested in, he says, is how the Inuit “appropriate social media, how they represent themselves.” He refers to them as a “defiant” people who are “not following the path that some people would like them to follow.” And that, he explains, is what he wanted to showcase: “Not only the politically correct idea or image of the Inuit, but the jackasses and the drunks and the whatever.” His hope is that viewers receive the work as a “free association of images”, like jazz.
I will admit that I had trouble with some of the film’s content – especially the repetitive drunken sequences – that painted an unflattering picture of the people. But in the context of Gagnon's artistic intent and considering the fact that the video clips he used were posted in a public space by the people themselves, nothing he did smacked of cultural appropriation or exploitation. He didn't steal his material from others, but rather, as Eric Hynes suggests in his article “Make It Real: The Artist Is Present in the Edit”, Gagnon “created the context.” He chose “when and how to cut from one clip to another.” According to Hynes, Gagnon made something “uniquely his own,” and stamped it with his own sensibility. He exercised his artistic freedom and created a mashup out of the raw footage he found.
Afterwards, during the Q & A, a viewer said she found the near absence of women in the film infuriating. Except for a couple of sequences showing naked women, most of the film depicted men or children. In response, Gagnon explained that virtually all the posts he found were of men and went so far as to suggest that women don't tend to film themselves with the same frequency. He added that while he could have incorporated touristy clips about the north, he felt they would have compromised his project. I agree. Gagnon’s film is about people who film themselves and then post their grainy, unmediated footage online. Including slick, promotional clips about the beauty of the land would have falsified the work and smeared it with a colonialist agenda. All the images Gagnon collaged into his film are the people’s images; the subjects are their subjects; Gagnon has respected their right to choose what to capture on film and make available to the anonymous public. He has not sought to balance it with romantic, “public relations” images of the north.
Another viewer commented that understanding the context of the film could make it more palatable. He might have a point, but how far does an artist have to go without spoon-feeding the audience? Is the artist responsible for a void in the viewer’s capacity to receive an image, or a series of images? Serious viewers of art are allowed to hate a work but they must always trust the artist. Respect is essential to the process— the kind that trumps knee-jerk, politically correct reactions.
Real art tends to disturb. Of the North seriously does.