Last year, Canadian filmmaker Dominic Gagnon released a 74-minute film entitled Of The North. The film is a collage of the life of Inuit people using film clips the director says he took from public video sites such as Youtube.
The film has drawn tremendous criticism, because Gagnon has never been to the Northern territories and his film shows only selected segments of Inuit life, such as extreme weather, Ski-doos and hunting, and also shows drunk people, crashing vehicles and some sexually explicit scenes.
Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, an Inuk and a documentary filmmaker, told the CBC Gagnon's film left her shaking.
"Violent, wandering drunks that neglect their children and don't care for the lives of animals: that's the image I took away from the film. I think it's kind of a cheap move to totally play up a negative stereotype of a marginalized people for your own artistic gain," she said.
Gagnon used the music of Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq in his film; she told the Montreal International Documentary Festival (RIDM) she was "disgusted" by the festival's decision to screen Of the North, a film she says is racist and used her music without permission.
Of the North has been screened at the Montreal International Documentary Festival, the Prizren festival of Kosovo, Leeds in Great Britain, the Film Festival of Rotterdam, the Distrital festival of Mexico City and it won an award at the prestigious Visions du Réel festival in Nyon, Switzerland.
Stephen Agluvak Puskas, an Inuk visual artist, filmmaker from Yellowknife and producer of the first Inuit radio show. Nipivut, launched a petition to stop the screening of Gagnon’s movie. He says it is damaging the representation of Inuit and promoting racist stereotypes.
Puskas says the movie profoundly disturbed Inuit and the Native community, but also feminists, who are offended by its depictions of women as sexual objects.
Puskas also says he found out that most of the videos used for the film were not made by Inuit, and that the movie is transmitting an insulting and fake reality about the communities.
He talked with ICTMN about Of the North in April.
Is your radio show the only communication platform for the Inuit community in Montreal?
Yes, I created it to give a voice to the Inuit of Montreal, because there is no Inuit neighborhood and the community has asked for a cultural center for twenty years. But the program is half in Inuktitut, half in English.
Did you get many calls after Gagnon’s screenings?
No, because the Inuit did not know about it, and nobody from the community was invited. We just saw the trailer. So I decided to launch a petition, for which I received 1400 signatures. I also called the Museum of the Moving Image in New York, introducing myself as an Inuk filmmaker, because any material or cultural object made about Indigenous communities has to involve them. You cannot show a cultural production if the people from that culture do not want it. They violated the international code of ethics of museums by screening the movie. And they refused to speak with me.
What shocked you most in Of the North?
It mocked Inuit identity, showing Inuit as drunk violent people; I was shocked by the sexual objectification of women.
Are the videos made by Inuit in the film?
Thirty-four of the videos are not made by Inuit, and not from the North, like the men fighting on the floor: this sequence was shot in Austin Texas, and they are not Inuit. The videos of the industrial off-shore drilling are in the Baltic sea. It is misleading, as the trailer suggests that Inuit are working on the oil drill, which is not true. Then he is mocking Inuit identity in a music clip, “don’t call me Eskimo.” The term “Eskimo” is derogative. It is a Cree word, they used it as an insult to the Inuit.
What about the sequence with a naked woman, implicitly addressing prostitution in the North ?
She is not Inuk.
So, from an Inuk perspective, the film is racist?
Yes it is definitely profoundly ignorant and racist, because the use of the sound and the imagery send a very negative message, where Inuit appear as less than humans, objectified and stereotyped.
Did Inuit start a protest against the movie?
No, coming together for protest is new to Inuit, and legal structures are not part of our system. My grandmother lived in an igloo. Things changed drastically for us in the last 50 years and we still have a lot to learn about how to operate in a foreign system. In the old culture, when tribes had a problem, the way to solve it, as nomads, was to leave. It is acceptable, when one thinks that nothing can be done. That is what happened: Inuit did not know what to do, so they dropped the case.
Will you continue to act against the screenings?
I definitely want to raise an awareness about the screenings, because people will not walk out [of that movie] knowing more about Inuit, except for negative stereotypes: it is problematic, since the movie is a mix of real and fictional elements.
He is exploiting them, when not a single Inuk gave his consent to release their footage in his film. It is a major issue, as signing a release is a basic practice. But he said he had the right to do so, since their videos were on Youtube, a public space.
It is a grey area and one of the reasons why he has not been sued. But it is morally wrong.
Any hope for change?
I am trying to engage with the people who are screening the film, to address the reasons why it is problematic, and raise awareness about what Inuit really are, so that the government of Quebec starts to do something. Gagnon was funded by the Quebec Cultural Council: he received 32,000 dollars, plus 18,000 to travel and promote his film abroad. I wish they would adopt some new ethics rules, so that a film made about Indigenous people involves the people in the process, as Inuit should have been: I hope that will change.