Nunavut filmmaker screens climate change doc in Berlin
Award-winning director Zacharias Kunuk hobnobs with the stars
It seemed fitting that when Zacharias Kunuk was in Berlin last week to screen a film about elders’ knowledge and climate change, the capital city of Germany was experiencing particularly warm winter weather.
The people who came to see his documentary were apparently keen to hear what he had to say.
Kunuk was in Berlin with Ian Mauro, the Winnipeg-based researcher and filmmaker with whom Kunuk made the climate change documentary. Mauro joined Kunuk on stage after the screening.
“Ian was talking really loud, but people just kept applauding. They asked a lot of questions,” said Kunuk, who runs Kinguliit Productions out of his hometown, Igloolik.
“The Berlin film festival is one of the oldest festivals and it’s a big competition. We were in the native category, small fish,” he added, to ensure he didn’t sound boastful.
Kunuk, who won the Camera d’Or prize at the prestigious Cannes film festival for Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, was screening his 2010 documentary Qapirangajuq: Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change, at Berlinale, Berlin’s annual film festival.
He spent a week in the city, screening his own film, attending other screenings, getting lost, playing tourist and attending a few fancy functions.
At an invitation-only dinner, Kunuk rubbed elbows with a couple of A-list movie stars including John Cusack and Emma Thompson.
Last summer, Thompson, a climate change activist, brought star power to Greenpeace’s fight against seismic testing off the coast of the Nunavut community of Clyde River.
Dinner began with a cocktail party but Kunuk said he only drank water because events like that tend to get loud, with everyone trying to talk over everyone else.
“I was the only Inuk, as usual,” Kunuk said.
“Everyone’s talking and the room sounds like walruses, a herd of walrus. You can’t make out what anybody’s saying,” he said, laughing. “That’s how it felt, like I’d heard it before. All the mumbling.”
At one point, a festival host asked if he wanted to chat with Thompson, the Oscar-winning star of many Hollywood films including the popular Harry Potter series.
“We had a quick chat,” Kunuk said, adding that she seemed sincere, knew a lot about climate change in the North and asked him good questions.
But while hobnobbing with movie stars and film industry types is part of the job, he’s more comfortable shooting footage or talking about the elders’ observations in his film — two things he enjoyed most about his first trip to Berlin.
Kunuk said the theatre was packed for the screening of Qapirangajuq and it unfolded in the usual way — with him introducing the film in advance and then talking about his work afterwards in front of the audience.
The hour-long documentary, shot when changing weather and diminishing sea ice in the Arctic started to dominate the news, features observations of elders from four Nunavut communities: Resolute, Igloolik, Pangnirtung and Iqaluit.
Inuktitut voices narrate a story of growing up on the land, of camping, hunting and playing, and of unsettling changes to the environment, all against the backdrop of Kunuk’s footage of those four communities. For English speakers, there are subtitles.
Kunuk said he found the elders’ environmental observations fascinating.
In the film, they talk about changing animal migration and plants, about wind, clouds and precipitation, and about slumping permafrost, shrinking ice and growing melt water on the tundra.
“Making a documentary is like being a detective, trying to find out proofs,” Kunuk said. “That’s the fun part.”
He also filmed some scientists but they got edited out.
“Because they’ve gone to school, they know everything. But the Inuit are talking from experience, from what they see,” Kunuk said. They know intimately how the environment has changed because they grew up on the land, he said.
Most elders who appear in the film have passed away now and Kunuk is grateful he managed to capture so much knowledge before it disappeared with them.
Kunuk said that while in Berlin, he enjoyed taking his video camera around the city during the day and shooting scenes at the remnants of the Berlin Wall and the bombed-out remains of the “zoo” where Inuk Abraham Ulrikab and his family were kept as curiosities in the 1880s.
He’s hoping to put some of that footage up on the IsumaTV website.
Kunuk said he got lost only once on his way to see an Alaskan film featured in the festival. After taking a wrong turn, and ending up nowhere near the theatre, he returned to his hotel and went to bed instead.
“I had a nice one-hour walk though,” he said, laughing.
Kunuk, and producer Jonathan Franz are currently working on their next feature film — Maliglutit — an all-Inuk film based on the plotline of a 1956 John Wayne western called The Searchers. They’re hoping to complete it this year.
You can stream Qapirangajuq: Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change for free here, on the IsumaTV website.