Inuk filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril discusses seal hunting and the making of her HotDocs winner Angry Inuk, which has since been selected as one of Canada’s Top Ten Films of 2016.
“I had to give the audience a chance to fall in love with the Inuit culture and the people,” said Inuk writer-director Alethea Arnaquq-Baril. She does this and more in her passionate, thought-provoking documentary, Angry Inuk. The film is an insider’s look at seal hunting: how integral it is to Inuit culture, how it’s the best source of sustainable nutrition in the Arctic, and how international seal hunting bans are having devastating consequences for the Inuit economy and the environment. After winning the People’s Choice Award at the 2016 HotDocs Film Festival, Angry Inuk was selected as one of Canada’s Top Ten Films of 2016. “I’m really excited,” said Arnaquq-Baril, “that out of the Top 10, two of the features are directed by Inuit.”I had to give the audience a chance to fall in love with the Inuit culture and the people.Click To Tweet
Many Inuit depend on seal hunting as a source of local, sustainable, fresh food, and on the pelts as a source of income. Cost of living in the Arctic is extremely expensive: non-local food has to travel far, which inflates costs, and there’s heating, gas, and more to pay. A case of Coke can cost $80. Seal meat is one of the healthiest dietary options, and it’s a good source of meat for the community. Plus, nothing goes to waste. Seal pelts, sold on the international market, provide crucial income for Inuit, especially since job options are scarce. However, international legislation banning seal hunting and commercial seal pelt markets has created a stigma around its sale, which has been a huge economic blow for the Inuit community.
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The beginning of Angry Inuk is “about trying to capture life here, our truth, our experience,” explained Arnaquq-Baril. In the film, she accompanies an Iqaluit seal hunter on the hunt. We watch how they get there, how remote it is, how cold it is, and then how the community shares the bounty in a large social gathering. Arnaquq-Baril wanted viewers “to get a sense of the pace of life here, of the land, what hunting looks like, so that when they started to think back on the [anti-seal hunting] campaigns that they see, [they’d] see the dissonance there. The campaigns do not reflect our life here at all.”
It’s a little known fact, outside the Arctic, that environmental organizations, like Greenpeace, use the bloody images from the annual Maritime seal hunt as a way to drum up funding. “It was really hard to decide how much of the film to dedicate to debunking misinformation that’s out there and how much of the film to dedicate to providing the context,” explained Arnaquq-Baril.
Although the Arctic seal population is by no means endangered, charities can’t resist the image of an adorable seal being clubbed as a way to rake in the donations. The fact that the Inuit seal hunt is very different from the Maritime sea hunt is of no concern. Nor is the fact that investing all this energy into getting seal hunting banned, by international governing bodies like the European Union, can actually have catastrophic environmental consequences. If seal hunting bans aren’t lifted to allow for the commercial sale of the pelts, Inuit may be left with no choice but to allow offshore oil drilling, which is severely damaging to the local habitat, in order to gain an income.
Angry Inuk is very much about giving a voice to Inuit who have so long been ignored — in documentaries and in developing legislation that affects them. Although Inuit have “been making documentaries for a long time,” Arnaquq-Baril noted, “we’ve also been the subjects of documentaries for even longer. The first documentary ever was Nanook of the North.” Inuit have been almost entirely excluded from the conversation surrounding legislation to ban seal hunting. Their only opportunity to voice their concerns had been just before the legislation was voted on, and only because they took the initiative to go to Europe to do so: they were never asked or consulted.
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Arnaquq-Baril began shooting the film in 2008, but “the project idea was definitely ruminating in my head for a few years before that. It took me a while to convince my main character [Aaju Peters] to be involved. I first pitched it to her as an undercover piece. I was hoping she’d be willing to join Greenpeace as a member and try to work for them to change their attitude from the inside. She did not like that idea at all. Eventually, we did agree it would be useful to have a film that told this story from our perspective.”As an Inuk woman who’s been eating seal meat my whole life, I just naturally became part of the storyClick To Tweet
“Originally, the film was going to be a historical piece looking at the history of how Inuit had been affected by the EU ban on seal products back in the 1980s. But as we were pitching broadcasters and funders for money to make this film, the EU decided they were going to consider putting into place a new ban that was more strict than the one from the ‘80s. So it suddenly became a contemporary piece covering the issues as new information unfolded.”
“Being so involved in the issue, and researching it so much over several years, as an Inuk woman who’s been eating seal meat my whole life, I just naturally became part of the story and the advocacy of the issue. There came a point when it started to feel like if we didn’t have me in the film, it would feel kind of not reflective of the truth, because it certainly affected the story that I was driving. To my great dismay and distress, I became one of the characters in the film, as well.”To my great dismay and distress, I became one of the characters in the film, as well.Click To Tweet
Working with a local crew allowed Arnaquq-Baril to make “the film authentically from an Inuit perspective.” The director of photography, Qajaaq Ellsworth, “was born and raised here, has spent a lot of time out on the land. He’s a hunter himself. He knows what he’s doing. He knows what it’s like to be out there in the cold.” Shooting in Arctic winter weather is no easy feat. “He’s got his tricks: his batteries inside his coat pocket, his caribou clothing. He knows exactly how long he can operate a camera bare-handed in -42ºC and how often he has to warm up his hand so he doesn’t get frostbite.”He knows exactly how long he can operate a camera bare-handed in -42ºC so he doesn’t get frostbite.Click To Tweet
“But it was definitely great value in having producers and editors that aren’t from here,” said Arnaquq-Baril. “It was extremely hard to know what the general public in Canada know about Inuit and what they don’t.” Having an outside perspective helped her “walk that line of what information is relevant, what things I’m over-explaining and under-explaining. There’s a lot of information. The realities here are complex. The discourse outside our jurisdiction that affects us are complex. It’s not easy to decide how much information to give and how much you can give without overloading people and making it more difficult to understand.”
One of the unexpected challenges for Arnaquq-Baril, when putting the film together, was deciding how much blood to show from the seal hunt and the butchering process. “I didn’t want to avoid it. I didn’t want to sanitize the process. I want people to see what we see — see an animal, its blood, and its meat as a positive thing. It represents life to us, the nutrition it gives us. It’s survival. I didn’t want to not show hunting. But I also didn’t want to be so confrontational about it that people would just shut the TV off and not watch it.”I want people to see what we see — see an animal, its blood, and its meat as a positive thing.Click To Tweet
“I was definitely surprised at how hard it was for people to watch it, even people I had talked to extensively about the issues, people who were working on the film with me, who were fully supportive of the right of Inuit to hunt for commercial purposes. Intellectually, they were totally on our side. But they still had a hard time seeing the scenes of an animal being killed and butchered. That was really surprising to me. I thought it would be really hard for a lot of people, but I didn’t think it would be hard once we’d already talked through the issue. I learned a lot about how little people see blood in the south, real blood. They see a lot of fake movie blood. But there’s very little blood outside of that.”I learned a lot about how little people see blood in the south, real blood.Click To Tweet
Because Arnaquq-Baril had been working on the film for almost a decade, “it was a behemoth” to edit. But there was an unexpected advantage to working with editor Sophie Farkas Bolla, who based far away in Montreal, rather than someone back home. “That need to go back and forth between home and Montreal during post really gave me the opportunity to be really specific and careful about grabbing what we needed for the story.” During the edit, Arnaquq-Baril realized that they actually needed more footage, and having that commute allowed her to go home to shoot in between editorial meetings.
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“Some people shoot the film, and [then] edit all in one go. I can’t do that. I don’t know what the story is going to be before I get into the editing room. So it was really valuable for me to be able to take time away from the edit, get my head out of the details, go home and touch base — remember what life is like at home and the reason I’m making the film. It was really good to do that and then come back to the edit with a fresh energy and perspective. And then, to go home and shoot again what we needed.”I don’t know what the story is going to be before I get into the editing room.Click To Tweet
Since premiering the film at HotDocs in May, Arnaquq-Baril has screened the film at multiple festivals in the south. She has also screened the film in her hometown and has plans to screen more widely in the Arctic. “I’ve seen very, very different reactions her than in the south. In the south, a lot of the screenings, people were clapping and cheering, with expressions of support and excitement. They’re learning about something new and wanting to help. In the north, it’s been a more subdued reaction. People are remembering their own personal histories, their own traumas, their own shame, their own humiliating experiences with poverty and hunger. It affected people here in very real ways. They’re happy to see the film is helping to change people’s minds. But it brings back memories that aren’t so happy. It’s a very different mood.”