Born, raised and living in Iqaluit, Nunavut Territory, Alethea Arnaquq-Baril chose filmmaking to contribute to her rich, oral culture.
“I felt a weight of responsibility as a filmmaker to address issues,” notes Arnaquq-Baril. “My work is a lot about culture, language and de-shaming—of sealing, homophobia and traditional tattooing,” she explains. “I’ve had a fortunate life and childhood. I live well now. I never struggle for food and shelter and that’s not the case for many Inuit. I feel I need to do what I can to mitigate the forces that make life hard for Inuit people.”
In December 2016, Arnaquq-Baril was honoured with the DOC Vanguard Award for her latest documentary, Angry Inuk. The activist film challenges perceptions of seal hunting and sheds light on its central role in Inuit culture and hope for global economic viability. Premiering at the 2016 Hot Docs Festival, Angry Inuk won the Vimeo On Demand Audience Award and the Canadian Documentary Promotion Award. Arnaquq-Baril spoke with DOC about her life and her perspective as an Inuk filmmaker.
What is it like to pursue filmmaking in the Arctic?
It’s always hard for filmmakers no matter where you are—I’m very honest about that. I’m incredibly lucky to have a supportive partner and family. It’s hard for me to advocate for other Inuit to take up this living. Last year, the average cost of groceries [in Iqaluit] was $20,000. The average annual income for a documentary filmmaker is $30,000.
The documentary community here is small and we really support one another. We do a lot of learning by doing, without formal training programs. We’re a tiny population but we do a surprising amount of production.
Who and what influenced you in becoming a documentary filmmaker?
I’m very much a product of my parents. My mom is Inuk, a teacher with a Masters in Education, and passionate about language, culture, and social education. My father was a radio broadcaster with the CBC. He always loved journalism and storytelling, the principles of journalism and how important it is to support democracy. My father taught me to love intellectual debate and question everything. My mom is an Inuk history nerd who taught me that the source of the story matters, the perspective matters. To me, it’s normal that we take part in shaping the narrative around society.
What were some of your key takeaways from studying computer science and illustration?
I wanted to be a video game designer. I found computer science interesting but I came to realize the people who tell the stories are the artists not the programmers. At Sheridan College, I learned to give and take critiques objectively and not take it personally—a valuable skill—and the attitude of not being too precious about what you do. It’s a way to advance more quickly.
What is the meaning behind your production company, “Unikkaat Studios Inc.”?
Unikkaat means stories so it’s like saying “storytelling studios”. The very broad meaning includes fables, legends and myths which could be fictional or true stories. I wanted to choose something that didn’t limit me to film. That was 13 or 14 years ago and I still hope to do some video games. We’ll see.
What is your creative process like?
I’m definitely a slow worker. I mull things over a lot. I watched a film by a US filmmaker who went from conception to premiering in 11 months, which I’m envious of. Angry Inuk took 8 years to make. I took breaks, tried things and realized more footage was needed. That speaks to the fact that I’m thinking long-term for all my work, my community and future children to help my fellow community members to contribute and address our collective trauma, and build a good foundation, a strong identity and a stronger economy.
How has your activism through film enabled Inuit culture and people?
In terms of a cultural impact, the film Tunniit helped to open a door. There was already interest in reviving Inuit tattoos, and I think my film made it easier for young women to ask their parents and grandparents about tattoos, learn about the history, and make it a little less scary for them to get tattoos with or without their parents’ permission. The film helped to de-shame that part of our culture.
What might be some key aspects of directing and producing a film in a uniquely Inuit way?
When we were out on the ice floe edge shooting the opening scene of Angry Inuk, I had two cameras. The DOP Qajaaq Ellsworth who is Inuk, and a non-Inuk shooter, John Price. It was so interesting the differences in their footage. I could see the wonder at nature in John’s shots. With the Inuk DOP’s shots, nature is everyday for him so he shot intimate things and caught action that someone who doesn’t hunt seals could not possibly anticipate. If you’re speaking to a non-Inuk, southern audience, it’s valuable to have both [perspectives] at the opening and closing of the film.
For my short drama Aviliaq, almost my entire cast and crew were Inuit. I’m pretty proud we managed that in our little town because we don’t have a long cinematic history. My non-Inuk producer saw how we all worked together and noticed it was not very hierarchical, how we were checking in with each other and everyone just lent a hand and made decisions. I also insisted on paying everyone equally. In the south, many people work for free to get the great DOP. Here, for production, I took whatever money I had and split it evenly and that was surprising to [my producer]. It’s not a hard rule but I don’t subscribe to southern standards when it comes to wages and who’s in charge in what situation.
What other projects are you working on or thinking about for the future?
I’ve taken a part-time job working for the Qanak Collective, which supports Inuit empowerment initiatives including a leadership discussion series, and a men’s group that collects fresh river water for elders every week. We’re also developing an Inuit scouts program—a long term project around traditional land, sewing and survival skills—to value Inuit principals and bring them into leadership so we can better influence our own destiny.
For more information about Alethea Arnaquq-Baril please visit http://www.unikkaat.com/ and follow her on Twitter @Alethea_Aggiuq