Inuk filmmaker gathers online clips for his version of the North

“Filmmakers have so much power in how stories are told”


Montreal artist Stephen Agluvak Puskas has made his own documentary film Ukiuktaqtumi in response to Dominic Gagnon's controversial 2015 film of the North. (FILE PHOTO)

Montreal artist Stephen Agluvak Puskas has made his own documentary film Ukiuktaqtumi in response to Dominic Gagnon’s controversial 2015 film of the North. (FILE PHOTO)

The skilled hand of an elder scrapes fat off sealskin. A young bill walrus sunbathes on an Arctic beach.

In the next scene, a young father laments his $300 grocery bill at the local Northern store, while his baby smiles and gurgles for the camera. Kelly Fraser’s track Fight for the Right plays in the background.

Cut to a clip of throat-boxer Nelson Tagoona, being interviewed in Iqaluit. “If I could give one gift to the youth, it would be to let the youth love themselves,” he said.

These are just a few of these scenes from daily life across the Inuit Nunangat compiled in a new short documentary film called Ukiuktaqtumi or “In The North.”

The film’s creator, Stephen Agluvak Puskas, a Yellowknife-raised, Montreal-based Inuk researcher and filmmaker, made the film in response to another one with a similar name.

Quebec filmmaker Dominic Gagnon’s controversial film of the North was released last year—a 74-minute long compilation of YouTube videos from across the Arctic.

But the film was heavily criticized for what some called a disparaging account of Inuit life and the unauthorized use of video footage posted to YouTube as well as music of Inuit performers such as Tanya Tagaq and Kelly Fraser.

The original film has now gone “black”—it’s been replaced with 74 minutes of black silence.

Puskas, one of the film’s most vocal critics, decided to make his own compilation, Ukiuktaqtumi, on a $300 budget, securing permission to use each film clip or music sample featured.

Ukiuktaqtumi premiered at the Inuit Studies Conference in St. John’s, NL, last month, where Nunatsiaq News viewed the film and spoke to Puskas:

Nunatsiaq News: Why did you make Ukiuktaqtumi?

Stephen Agluvak Puskas: Ukiuktaqtumi means ‘in the North.’ It’s a short film about Inuit from our own perspective gathered from videos that Inuit have uploaded online. This is how “Of the North” should have been made.

While criticizing “Of the North,” I heard many people in the South say that the film wasn’t for Inuit audiences. Saying that a film about Inuit is not meant to be seen by Inuit is racist; it’s saying we’re not smart enough to critically view ourselves. If “Of the North” wasn’t intended for Inuit, then I wanted to make a film for Inuit. There’s a lot of personal videos in there, showing sides of Inuit culture that outsiders may not recognize or understand.

NN: Based on the selection of clips you compiled, what message do you hope to send with this film?

SAP: I wanted to show other parts of Inuit life and representation. I was thinking about how our environment help shape our identity so I wanted to return to the land throughout the film.

NN: You contacted everyone who posted these clips to get permission to re-use the footage. What were those conversations like and how did they react to your request?

SAP: I contacted every one who uploaded a video to Facebook or Youtube. Some of the people I contacted for permission had videos of theirs stolen and used in “Of the North.” They told me that I could use anything they have as long as it’s going towards a good cause.

I had to describe what I was doing with others who didn’t know me but most agreed to let me use their videos. I’ve sent a copy of a rough edit to almost everyone so far and I’ve been getting great feedback. One person said that they cried with joy while watching the film.

NN: Ukiuktaqtumi features a number of beautiful, heartwarming scenes of life in Inuit communities. How do you think filmmakers should approach some of the more difficult social issues facing those communities?

SAP: I think filmmakers need to work with communities, and the communities should decide if an outsider can make a film about them. Filmmakers have so much power in how stories are told and how people are portrayed, they need to share some of this power if they’re going to respect the people they use to make their films.

I’m not saying that non-Inuit can’t make films about Inuit, or that we can’t talk about difficult issues; I’m saying that artists need to consult with knowledgeable representatives of our community to ensure that our best intentions are met.

NN: We see a growing number of Inuit filmmakers, but so much film portraying the North is still made by non-Inuit southerners. What are those artists’ rights and responsibilities? And how can Inuit ensure those artists adhere to them?

SAP: Non-Inuit filmmakers have just as many rights as other filmmakers, but they have more responsibility because they are telling other peoples’ stories. Films have the power to shape the way people see each other, and these films by non-Inuit contribute to how the rest of the world sees us. Many of these filmmakers don’t have to deal with the outcomes of the portrayals in their films, but us Inuit have to every day.

The long history of non-Inuit misrepresenting Inuit is still happening today, not just in film, but in photography, journalism, advertising, and literature—all contributing to one narrative of who Inuit are, and this narrative doesn’t come from us. This narrative can create stereotypes about us and encourage discrimination against us.

The Government of Canada created the Igloo tag as a trademark to identify authentic Inuit artwork and to stop non-Inuit making knock-off carvings that took money away from Inuit artists. Maybe we need a system like this to ensure that Inuit films do not exploit Inuit.

We would need cultural organizations to work with government funders to create this. Government funders already have ethical guidelines to protect the artist but they do not have ethical guidelines to protect the subject.

NN: What kind of support do Canadian Inuit filmmakers need to pursue their craft?

SAP:We need more funding for Inuit artists. I cannot speak for all of Inuit Nunangat, but Indigenous artists are underfunded in Quebec. Inuit and Cree in Northern Quebec get .007% of the yearly $137.5 million from Quebec Arts Council’s (CALQ) and Société de développement des entreprises culturelles (SODEC). This is almost a billion dollars in arts and culture funding in Quebec in the past six years and we received almost nothing.

Film organizations also need to be more inclusive of Indigenous artists. Arts organizations like RIDM, RVCQ, Cinematheque Quebecoise, PRIM, CALQ and SODEC have no visible indigenous artists on staff.

Inuit are excluded from these arts organizations in the South while Inuit artists are underfunded in the North. Better arts education is also needed to give Inuit an opportunity to enter this industry.

You can watch a trailer for Ukiuktaqtumi here.

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