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Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to ICT

There’s something out there – on the tundra, in the icy waters of Baffin Bay, and now it’s coming through the door. Who will save the remote town of Pangnirtung?

Horror films have traditionally featured macho men coming to fight off aliens and rescue the girls. A new breed of films, made by women filmmakers, is turning the scary gender tables on that premise, with the girls now doing the rescuing.

The hit movie, “Prey,” featured such a heroine, and now “SlashBack,” a new film by Nyla Innuksuk in her screenwriting and directorial debut, arrived in theaters and on demand on Oct. 21.

The film stars a plucky band of young Indigenous newcomers — Tasiana Shirley, Alexis Vincent-Wolfe, Nalajoss Ellsworth and Chelsea Prusky, all Inuit girls who won parts in the film after attending a casting workshop.

Set in Pangnirtung, Nunavut, a small tundra town in the mountains of Baffin Island in the Arctic Ocean in northeastern Canada, “Slash/Back” opens with the kids in the village waking up to what they think will be just another summer day.

There is no school, not many cool boys, and the sun shines for a full 24 hours. Maika and her adventurous friends ride their bikes, take hikes in the hills and do some hunting, showing off their skills. Suddenly,however, everything changes as they discover bizarre creatures in the hills and in the water. An alien invasion has arrived in their hometown.

The teenagers, who have been dealing with their own Indigeneity, are put to the test using makeshift weapons and their knowledge of horror movies to show the aliens they shouldn’t mess with the girls from Pang.

“‘Slash/Back’ is a personal film,” Innuksuk told ICT from Spain, where she was with the cast for a film festival. “It deals with teenagers as I did when I was growing up. It channels the stories I wished I would have seen when I was a child in love with movies.”

It was filmed on location in Nunavut.

“The title sequence for ‘Slash/Back’ is a special one for me because there is something very familiar about seeing kids on bikes in their hometown in movies, but this isn't Southern California,” she said. “This is Nunavut, one of the most remote and beautiful places on the planet. I think it's important to be able to see yourself in different types of stories, and this is primarily a movie for Inuit.”

Coming of age

Inuksuk said she was a nerd who holed up and watched films while growing up.

“That's how I got into movies, loving horror and sci-fi,” she said, “and so for me, the idea of being able to make a movie like the ones that I grew up watching in this place that felt so familiar and magical was just a dream.”

Shooting in a frozen, barren place was a challenge, she said. She’d been told it would be impossible to make the movie in Pang, as it is called.

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“It basically turned out to almost be true,” she said, laughing. “It was absolutely crazy, but I'm so glad that we were able to figure out a way to make it work, as this is a community that's so special to me and is so stunning. Certainly, there was influence of myself in there, but I had worked with a lot of the teenage cast that ended up acting in the movie during the development of the script.”

Innuksuk says she held workshops and shot a trailer demo of the film.

“We invited anyone that was interested in acting to come,” she said. “We had pages from the script, and in the process of making that I met these amazing girls who ended up in the feature film. They all were such a pleasure to work with. It's been really great over the process of six years of working together and seeing these foundational years where they grow up with the movie.”

Innuksuk said it became clear as she was developing the script, from the language the girls used, that there was a sense of shame connected with their Indigeneity. Conversations arose and made their way into the script to tell the coming-of-age story of teenage girls figuring out where they fit in in the world and where their Indigeneity fits into that.

“All of these kinds of conversations with the girls made us realize, also, that no matter what, boys would be a part of the conversation even if an alien invasion was happening,” Innuksuk said. “Life goes on.”

As for the all-important alien, she said, that was fun to figure out, too.

“First, we tried to figure out how to make something unique and cool,” she said. “We landed on these creatures that are made up of tentacles and take over the bodies of animals and wear their skin as disguises. Then the next thing is trying to figure out how they move.

“I got to work with this amazing contortionist, Troy James, and we were figuring out, ‘How would you move if your body is built with tentacles?’” she said.

‘Terrifying stories’

The film slips easily into the horror genre, which remains as popular as ever.

Innuksuk thinks she understands why.

“I get asked, ‘Why do you love horror?’” she said. “I think that there definitely is something you feel like you're getting away with when you're younger and watching scary movies. Now that I'm making movies, it is more fun making a movie when it has blood and special effects.”

It’s a shared experience, she said.

“There is something communal about coming together and getting scared and trying to scare each other,” she said. “Growing up we've got plenty of terrifying stories that we tell each other.”

The film is directed by Innuksuk, who also co-authored the script with Ryan Cavan. 

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