Sleep Murder butchers the truth, Iqaluit woman says
CTV movie a misuse of family story?
When Nipisha Bracken sat down in front of her computer to read, on the Nunatsiaq News Web site, about what a Halifax film company is doing with the brutal story of her mother’s death, she cried and cried and cried.
“I hadn’t even finished reading it and I was sobbing crazily. My husband and my son had to come console me while I was sitting at the computer. I hadn’t even finished reading it,” Bracken said in an interview last week.
Afterward, Bracken pulled herself together and got down to business. She phoned every relative in Nunavut she could find, and last weekend drove to Toronto from her home in London, Ont., to find a lawyer.
Her goal is to protest what she believes is a gross misuse of the story. “I’m just trying to see what I can do to prevent this from happening to other victims of violence,” Bracken said.
In the fall of 1986, an Iqaluit man named Jopie Atsiqtaq murdered Bracken’s brother, Pootoogoo Eyesiak, 21, and her mother, Oolayou Eyesiak, 51, using a kitchen knife.
Now, Big Motion Pictures of Halifax, in partnership with Shaftesbury Films of Toronto, is employing that story as the basis for a made-for-TV movie, partly shot in Iqaluit, called Sleep Murder.
The film, to be shown on the CTV network, is partly financed by a $750,000 grant from the Canadian Television Fund.
The star, Hollywood pinup boy Jason Priestley, is best known for his role in Beverly Hills 90210, a long-running prime-time soap opera.
In Sleep Murder, Priestley plays a Toronto lawyer sent to defend an Inuk man named Jimmy Tarniq, who stands accused in a brutal double-murder. Priestley develops a defence based on the idea that Tarniq, played by Natar Ungalaaq, killed his victims while sleepwalking, and is therefore not criminally responsible.
That is the same defence that Yellowknife lawyer John Bayly produced on behalf of Jopie Atsiqtaq – without success.
“Frankly, sleepwalking was the only defence that could have been mounted,” Bayly said in an interview this week. “There was some evidence that he suffered from a sleep disorder, but the jury didn’t buy that he was in a sleepwalking state – that’s fair – and they convicted him.”
Atsiqtaq, who has never been granted parole, still sits inside Drumheller federal penitentiary in Alberta, serving out a life sentence.
Bracken is outraged by the possibility the film could take the real-life story of a cold-blooded killer and transform it into a portrait of someone who is a misunderstood victim of the justice system.
“The concern that I have is that they are focusing it on a sleep disorder that the lawyer of Mr. Atsiqtaq used. It’s so sympathetic. They’re trying to make that person a hero, and it’s not right. How could anyone be a hero who did something so terrible to another human being?”
Bracken says it also represents the public exploitation of a private trauma that until now she has shared only with her family.
“This is not the United States where Hollywood has access to every story that is tragic to people. This is the Canadian North, this is Inuit history. Inuit have a hard enough time just surviving. Why should we be the victims of a stupid Hollywood movie as well?”
Bayly says he has no knowledge of how the story could have become known to a southern scriptwriter. It’s written by David Fraser, a Toronto playwright.
“Had they asked me, I would have declined to give them any more help, other than to say, this is the name of the case, and you are on your own to try and get material about it. My file belongs to my client, and I wouldn’t share it,” Bayly said.
Jopie Atsiqtaq and Pootoogoo Eyesiak, who worked together at the Frobisher Inn bar, celebrated Pootoogoo’s 21st birthday one evening in the fall of 1986, drinking beer and smoking dope.
No one, not even Atsiqtaq, has been able to explain why he did what he did next.
After waking up in Pootoogoo’s room, Atsiqtaq used a kitchen knife to inflict a savage attack on the man. Evidence admitted at the trial showed that Pootoogoo was still alive when Atsiqtaq disemboweled him.
Atsiqtaq then killed Pootoogoo’s mother, after finding her sleeping on a couch downstairs. Later, he took a taxi to the Snack restaurant, bought a gram of hash, walked to another friend’s house and smoked dope there until he fell asleep.
In the meantime, Bracken’s younger sister discovered the bodies. Like other family members, she received no counselling to help her deal with the trauma. In 1986, crime victims got short shrift from the justice system.
“She was 19. She should have been the one to have received help,” Bracken says. “There should have been some offers of counselling for each and every one of us, but there was none offered.”
The respectable, church-going Inuit of Iqaluit turned their backs on Bracken’s family too.
“Even some people from the religious side of town weren’t even interested in giving us counselling. We were very briefly counselled, perhaps 10 or 15 minutes, by the Anglican clergy. Our only supporters were relatives, and that’s all we had. It was very devastating for all of us.”
At the trial, Bayly brought Atsiqtaq into the witness box to give evidence. When asked, repeatedly, why he killed Oolayou and Pootoogoo, Atsiqtaq answered by saying that he just had an “urge to kill.”
Atsiqtaq was later charged with the brutal stabbing death of Mary Ann Birmingham, an Iqaluit teenager. But after a preliminary inquiry, a territorial court judge concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to justify sending him to trial. No one else has ever been charged with the crime.
Wayne Grigsby, the executive producer for Sleep Murder, did not return phone messages by press-time this week.