As a Qallunaaq (White/non-Inuit) with a personal interest in the North, I try to see as many Inuit-themed films as I can. These days, there are many. Some are excellent. Others, well, not so much. My interest piqued after having taught in communities along the Hudson-Ungava coast in the 1980s. I've stayed in the loop through my ongoing creative projects with students up north and current work as an academic counsellor to those attending college down south. I don't pretend to have a comprehensive understanding of the culture, but I do have Inuit friends and colleagues who share their insights with me from time to time. I know a little. Enough to recognize that I am still an outsider.
Recently I had the opportunity to attend a screening of the 78-minute film Chez les Géants (Living with Giants) by Sébastien Rist and Aude Leroux-Lévesque. The film was included in the 2016 edition of the RIDM (Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal/Montreal International Documentary Festival). A follow-up panel discussion, ”Challenges Facing Inuit Youth,” included the filmmakers as well as Anne Pélouas (journalist and Canadian correspondent for Le Monde) and two young Inuit women, Beatrice Arnatuinnaq Deer and Deseray Cumberbatch.
Filmed on location in the remote, fly-in community of Inukjuak in Northern Quebec, it documents a troubled romance between two teenagers whose dreams for the future are cut short after alcohol is smuggled into their dry community for a graduation party. In a jealous rage, the young male protagonist commits an error that forever alters the course of their lives. The story is dramatized with the help of mythic creatures, which appear intermittently throughout.
The film was initiated by the subject himself, 18-year-old Paulusie Kasudluak, who, during the course of another project charmed Rist and Leroux-Lévesque with his charisma, imagination and sensitivity. They took him up on his invitation to his hometown to make a film about him and his family. Things, however, took a dramatic turn after Paulusie unexpectedly killed himself in real life. The film’s original storyboard, focusing on the subject’s hopes and dreams for the future, had to change.
I wanted to like it. At times, the cinematography was stunning. The subjects – the boy and his elderly parents, his girlfriend – were engaging. But without any context for how to read the film – the backstory about the real life suicide and the necessary shift of focus – his death came across as a sensational plot-twist. What began as a documentary about a young man facing challenges on the eve of adulthood awkwardly veered into a quasi-fictional account of a guilt-ridden “main character” that commits suicide following a bad decision.
In the discussion afterwards, the filmmakers were appropriately solemn, suggesting they were sensitive in the way they dealt with the unpredictable unfolding of events. But it felt more to me as though now that they were well into the project, they had to salvage it. During the screening, I couldn't tell anymore whether it was documentary or fiction. I found myself wondering what the filmmakers were actually up to: Was it the portrait of a resilient community in crisis? Or was it intended to educate audiences about the underlying causes of suicide in the north? And why did the synopsis avoid the mention of suicide? Why was the audience not privy to this information going in? This muddled message results in a film that does not educate. Nor does it propose a call to action.
In a published interview with HotDocs, Leroux-Lévesque explains they “wanted to get into his mind and dreams and poetry, and get away from the stereotypes of what we hear about the Inuit” but also admits that after his death, they “couldn’t, and didn’t want to, wash over the realities we saw, like alcohol and suicide.” In a CBC interview, Rist spoke about Paulusie’s arrest and the fact that he was flown to a southern community prison. “When this happened we were forced to integrate what happened into our story,” said Leroux-Lévesque. This is akin to saying that Paulusie’s real-life actions, including drunkenness and suicide, gave them license to devolve into the stereotypes.
What we are left with, in fact, is a film by non-Inuit filmmakers about the social afflictions of the north, one that we are already too familiar with and one that naive audiences will applaud, mainly because they are blindsided by its arresting imagery. The pull of the onscreen landscape – its stark, exotic beauty – interferes with their capacity for critical judgment. Add to the mix an artistic earnestness and a dash of Inuit legend and myth, and you have the makings for a film that Lynne Fernie (for Toronto’s Hot Docs International Documentary Film Festival) called “visionary, immersive and poetically powerful.” As a writer, I do not like to disparage artists for the stories they tell unless they are exploitive. And this one is. Arguing that they used Paulusie’s own writings to provide “a very intimate immersion into his life” (from the CLG website) does not give their film legitimacy. Nor does it erase the fact that they are still the middlemen delivering a story that does not belong to them. Perhaps the more honest story would have been the story of filmmakers scrambling to re-route, questioning the integrity of their artistic choices.
The Inuit themselves are in the best position to tell their own stories. But the current structures prevent this. Recently I learned that the directors of this film received funding from SODEC and that SODEC hasn’t funded a single Inuk artist from 2010 to 2016. Chez les Géants is currently on the festival circuit and has already garnered two awards. Meanwhile the filmmakers are parroting the politically correct rhetoric - pointing to the suicide crisis in Attawapiskat and elsewhere as examples of the dire need for action, offering their film as an alternative to seeing people as statistics. Perhaps a more concrete gesture would be to lobby SODEC and other arts organizations for an ongoing, funded program that teaches the Inuit how to use technology to tell their stories.