Inuit survival drama first feature by women film makers
“There are a lot of people who died this way in the North”
When Marie-Helene Cousineau went on public radio in Igloolik 15 years ago to invite women to learn about making movies, she never imagined that she and a small local group would be shooting a feature film with a $3.5 million budget.
Cousineau and her colleagues from Igloolik’s Arnait Video Productions collective recently wrapped up the first 10 days of shooting Before Tomorrow, their first feature film.
The collective has been gathering Inuit women’s stories since 1991 and have produced docu-dramas of their lives.
Cousineau and her longtime collaborators, Susan Avingaq and Madeline Ivalu wrote the script, which they adapted from a novel by Danish author Jorn Riel. The film is also being directed by Cousineau and Ivalu.
As Cousineau looked around the set last week in Puvirnituq in Nunavik, she was overwhelmed with feelings of pride at how far the work of Arnait, and her colleagues, has come.
“They really understand what film is,” she said from her home in Montreal. “They didn’t go to film school, but they learned from being around professional filmmakers. We work a lot with very little means and now we have the means to show what we can do.”
When Cousineau read Riel’s story of a grandmother and grandson who think they might be the last people of their kind on Earth and their struggle to survive, she thought that it would make a great film. “I felt very touched by the humanity of these people and the humanity of the grandmother who never gave up, even at the very end,” she said.
Riel wrote the story after finding two skulls, one of an adult and one of a child, in a cave in Greenland and began imagining how they might have got there.
His story tells the tale of a small Inuit community wiped out by an unknown disease, presumably smallpox, after contact with European explorers. The grandmother and grandson had been on an island for months drying fish and return to find their family and community dead. They return to the island and eventually succumb to the elements together.
The women in the collective agreed that the story of a woman who demonstrates that human dignity is at the core of life from beginning to end was a natural continuation of the work they had been doing.
“There are a lot of people who died this way in the North,” says Cousineau. “For the elder women I work with this story is about their respect of the lives of their elders and the hardships they faced.”
The connection with family was kept alive in the casting of the film. Ivalu plays the grandmother in the film opposite her real-life grandson, Paul-Dylan Ivalu, who makes his debut in the role of the grandson.
Set in an unidentified part of the North in an unspecified time period, the film is a more of a fable that could have taken place in arctic Canada, Scandinavia, Russia or Siberia.
The film is a co-production of Igloolik Isuma Productions and Kunuk Cohn Productions, with Norman Cohn and Zacharias Kunuk, who shot to fame with his first feature Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner in 2001, stepping in as executive producers.
Cousineau and 25 actors and crew set up a camp of about 35 tents to accommodate more than 100 people working on the film on location in Puvirnituq.
“It’s the size of the community that we needed,” said Cousineau. “It takes some infrastructure to accommodate a film crew.”
Also, it is more difficult to get financial help in Nunavut, Cousineau said.
Although the Government of Nunavut did contribute some money, she said that the film could not have been made without the significant amount of money provided by the Quebec provincial government.
Shooting will continue in one- to two- week stints throughout the fall and winter to capture the varying seasons to tell the story of the film. Cousineau expects the film to hit theatres in the spring or summer of 2007.
“For me the important part is the process of making it and working with the people from Igloolik and from Puvirnituq,” she said. “I hope it reaches northern audiences and aboriginal audiences, but I also hope it reaches the general audience.”