Director Miranda de Pencier and Inuk producer Alethea Araquq-Baril discuss the making of The Grizzlies, telling Indigenous stories, and why de Pencier wanted to tell this story.
Last year, when we reviewed Indian Horse, Brett Pardy highlighted the problems inherent in trying to tell the story of an Indigenous character, based on a book by an Indigenous author, without any Indigenous people on the filmmaking team: so many important nuances were missed. Canadian director Miranda de Pencier’s The Grizzlies is a step closer to the right direction. Although the script was written by non-indigenous people (also known as settlers), it’s based on the true story of an Inuit community, and de Pencier was sure to engage people in that community when penning the screenplay and putting together the film.
The Grizzlies deliberately follows a familiar narrative of Sports Movies meets To Sir with Love: a teacher comes into a troubled community and helps the kids find a reason to live and look ahead. But unlike most of these ‘inspirational’ stories, from Dead Poets Society to Bad News Bears, de Pencier employs this familiar narrative with the intent to subvert it. When white settler Russ Shepard (the always excellent Ben Schnetzer, with an impressive Canadian accent) gets a teaching position in Kugluktuk, a remote Inuit community plagued with teenage suicides, he is keen to do something to help. So he starts a lacrosse team — a sport that, importantly, has roots in another Canadian Indigenous peoples. But Russ quickly discovers that the only way to succeed is to centre the teenagers he’s trying to help, and be prepared to listen rather than teach: learn and follow their rituals and empower them to call the shots.
The result is intensely watchable and deliberately commercial.The grit and spirit of the Inuit teenagers is invigorating and centred as much as possible, given the film’s narrative constraints. Miranda (Emerald MacDonald) is the heart of the film, the smartest girl in the class who is patient enough with Russ to give him the advice he needs. Kyle (Booboo Stewart) is a quiet and compassionate boy who can run like the wind, but struggles with an abusive father he feels compelled to forgive, knowing his father suffered abuse as a child in a residential school. And Adam (Ricky Marty-Pahtaykan) who becomes one of the team’s star players, had previously stopped attending school altogether so that he could hunt and live the old ways with his grandparents.
The problem is how much the film forces itself into the inspirational teacher narrative: Schnetzer’s Russ must learn to step out of the spotlight among his students, but, as the protagonist, he’s given the spotlight by the film. It feels deliberately tailored to settlers to whom Inuit culture is foreign. This also means that the few glimpses we get of the students’ troubled family lives often feel staged, as characters shout exposition to explain things to a settler audience.
The focus on Russ’ journey to de-centre himself is an important lesson to settlers, but takes time away from the more interesting stories of his players and students. Plus, the film leaves dangling the fact that Russ is a history who only teaches settler history — in an indigenous community struggling to maintain its own culture after decades of settler oppression. We don’t get a sense that he ever adapts his teaching or classroom to better fit the students’ culture. Instead, the students must adapt (by attending class) to continue playing lacrosse.
De Pencier’s filmmaking process was incredibly inclusive, getting advice and feedback from Inuit filmmakers throughout, and empowering her Inuit cast to make suggestions. It’s also wonderful that the soundtrack includes Inuit throat singing — and original recorded music — instead of a more conventional settler score. Yet, though the film aspires to tell the authentic story of these Inuit teenagers, it’s bounded by the narrative point of view: Russ is a settler, and so this invariably becomes a film about how a settler views Inuit culture.
Jim Denault’s mostly hand-held cinematography keeps us always engaged in the action, but shoots the land like it’s an interchangeable backdrop: it doesn’t give us the sense of how crucial the land is to the communities. For Indigenous peoples, culture and land are intertwined, which is why Inuit people still live in the arctic, despite all the attendant hardships. But Denault depicts the land the way Russ sees it: as somewhere to escape or deal with rather than to cherish.It’s a stark contrast to how Indigenous filmmakers have depicted the land in recent TIFF films like Edge of the Knife and Falls Around Her.
At the film’s world premiere at TIFF last September, I talked to de Pencier and Inuk producer Alethea Araquq-Baril (whom Seventh Row previously interviewed about her excellent documentary Angry Inuk). We talked about the trajectory of The Grizzlies, how de Pencier engaged with the Inuit community, and why she wanted to tell this story.
Seventh Row (7R): How did you both get involved in the project?
Miranda de Pencier (MdP): I first heard about the Kugluktuk Grizzlies in an ESPN news piece that was sent to me. I was really inspired that these kids who were living with a lot of trauma, and one of the highest suicide rates in North America, still managed to band together to find and build community and the team, and be living with joy. It touched me. I started to spend time up north. I’d never been to the Arctic, I knew very little, and I thought the only way I’m going to be able to do this is to partner with people that are from here and can help me tell the story authentically
Alethea Arnaquq-Baril (AAB): She came north and was looking for partners, trying to figure out who works in the industry up north and what kind of support she could have for the production. She came to us saying, “I’m an experienced producer but have no idea about in the north or about Inuit so I need your help.”
She came up, and she left, and she came again and again, and again, and again. She asked lots of questions and learned and really spent the time developing a relationship with us. Even before we really agreed to work with her, she was mentoring and helping us on our own little projects. She worked really hard to form a good, trusting partnership. We’d read scripts and give feedback, and we’d see our comments in there. She really proved our intentions of making a project collaboratively, and in the end, here we are.
7R: Several of the characters in the film are based on real people. There are photos of them in the end credits, so I’m guessing you had some kind of contact with them. What was the research process for putting that together?
AAB: I flew up with Graham Yost, who we brought onto the project to write the early drafts of the script. We went to do research in Kugluktuk and meet the real Grizzlies. We met the real Miranda, the real Adam, and the real Kyle. They very generously gave us their life rights and trusted us to tell their story with respect. I’m super grateful to them.
Miranda Atatak said to me, before she signed her life rights away, “Part of me doesn’t want this movie to come out or get made because life in Kugluktuk was so extremely full of trauma.” There’d been a number of suicides and murder-suicides in the community, and the community was in a lot of pain.
So Miranda said to me, “I don’t know if I want to revisit that. But if we don’t, and if I don’t give you the life rights, and this story doesn’t get made, we could repeat ourselves. And I really want communities in other Arctic and other Indigenous communities to hear this story and know that there is hope. By leaning on each other, we can find a way out.”
Adam Kikpak, the real Adam, said he was a drug addict and alcoholic at 13 when a lacrosse stick got in his hands and something profoundly changed. He now works at the recreational centre in Kugluktuk, and he’s a dad himself.
MdP: It was a process of meeting the real kids and having them meet with Graham Yost, who was going to direct the movie. When Graham got busy on his series Justified, and we brought in Moira Walley-Beckett, she also came to the Arctic and spent a lot of time researching, talking to the real kids. We then went back to Los Angeles and rewrote the story.
It was a long process — many, many drafts of scripts, making sure the kids became the heroes. We set up the trope that you think it’s going to be the typical teacher movie where he comes up north and saves the day. We said there’s no way that we wanted anyone to think that this a story where the teacher saves the kids, and Russ Sheppard always says the kids are the heroes of this movie.
It was working with both of them and then meeting Stacy [Aglok MacDonald] and Alethea and having them read every single draft. Stacy was in there; she’s from Kugluktuk. She read every single draft, and I would not have felt comfortable without the input of Inuit creators.
AAB: I’m not from Kugluktuk, but I’m from another Inuit community, and I think just having the shared experiences across communities… Stacy’s worked on suicide prevention before. and we have friends that do that as a job now. It was a real process to make a great story that felt real, honoured the true story, and was also responsible.
MdP: And at the same time was also accessible and entertaining. We wanted to make a commercial film. In some ways, it’s a typical genre picture that you’ve seen before, but in a place you’ve never seen, with performances from kids that you’ve never seen. We hope that comes across. I think there are a lot of communities across the globe that are struggling with issues of trauma, with issues of abuse and poverty. We hope this can be inspiration to kids in those communities, too.
AAB: It was really important to have joy and humour in the film, as well. It’s great to make a more entertaining and accessible film, but for Stacy and I, I’m like, “Yes, please not just a depressing film about suicide!” There’s just so many depressing stories about Indigenous people told by non-native creatives. We’re always thinking, “Everything is not all sad, all the time.”
We want to show the joy and humour and love in our communities. It was really important to us to have that in the script. We were totally on the same page there, maybe for different reasons, but it was like, “Yes, this feels like a more authentic portrayal of who we are because our lives are filled with joy. Yes, there’s trauma but there’s also so much joy and love and jokes.”
7R: One of the things I really liked was the resilience of kids, despite the traumatic things happening around them. They also have so much empathy, like Kyle’s understanding of his dad’s trauma and not wanting to perpetuate the cycle of violence. How did you think about representing those struggles in the film?
MdP: It took a long time to get the script right, and it took a long time in the editing room. We re-arranged some things in the editing room to find that balance because you want people to stay in the story, and you want to show all sides of it: the joy and the truth of why that joy is so awesome and necessary. It’s delicate.
That wisdom that Kyle has, and the compassion he has for his father, and his father’s trauma, was something that I’ve now witnessed over and over again in the north. It’s really been extraordinary to meet many young people in the north who have that maturity and perspective and compassion for their parents.
My experience, in the south, is if you have a parent who is struggling, you are usually blaming that parent for their shortcomings. In the north, there is deep respect for the elders. [There is an] understanding that where they fall and fail is both because they are human but also because of colonialism. They are a victim of circumstance, and they are doing the best they can. I think that’s inspiration indeed.
7R: How did Ben Schnetzer get involved in the project?
MdP: We’d been looking for someone to play Russ Sheppard for a while. We went after some big fish and had a number of comedians who were interested in doing the role. We were trying to find a comedian, originally, to balance out the story.
But in the end, our casting directors in New York sent a movie that Ben had done called Pride. I loved it, and I thought he was incredible in it, so I agreed to Skype with him. He wasn’t quite a big enough name for our distributors and our financiers. They wanted a bigger name originally, but I Skyped with Ben and absolutely loved him. He’s such a sensitive, beautiful actor and person. I also thought he would really be able to work with the kids and not be a diva on set. He was lovely to work with, and I’m so glad we were able to convince the financiers and distributors to give him the role.
7R: Ben’s character is our way into a community that audiences from the south are not going to be familiar with. He’s a very charismatic actor, but it’s also this very self-effacing role. His character’s arc is realising that he doesn’t have the answers and that he has to give the spotlight away. How did you work with Ben to subvert potential stereotypes, like the white saviour and the inspirational teacher?
MdP: It was important for us to blow up all these stereotypes. The real Russ Shepard always says he came up with the idea of teaching lacrosse, but it was the kids who made the biggest transformations and really taught him. He said, and I think this is true, he became the student and they became the teachers. We really wanted to show that. The flip of the movies is the kids up there needed to learn to play and be young again, and Russ actually needed to grow up. I think they helped each other do that.
Ben himself is a very humble and open human, and Russ always gives props to the kids. Ben, especially when he came up to the Arctic and met these kids, and saw how special both the real kids that he met are and the actors playing them — all these kids themselves are coming from similar traumatic backgrounds and pushing through as actors. He was very humbled by meeting them.
He said, “I’m a professional actor, but I’ve got to up my A game because if I’m not real in their presence, I’m going to look like the bad actor.” He always had respect, and I think in the same regard, was OK with having to give them the spotlight because he saw that as the strength of the movie. He was happy to be part of blasting the trope of the white saviour, which is bullshit as we know, and also giving space and props to those kids and those fellow actors that he respects so much.
AAB: I think it’s a real credit to both of those guys that they could see that this film is not about them.
7R: Ben actually does a Canadian accent. We have so many American actors in Canadian movies who don’t bother with it, so I’m just wondering how that happened?
MdP: It’s also because I put Ben in touch with the real Russ, and they got to have some conversations. Russ has a pretty Edmonton/northern Canadian accent, so it was important for Ben to get that right.
AAB: I love that he did that.
MdP: I love that he did it, and we wanted to celebrate it. We were like, “Let’s not pretend and hide this is Canada. Let’s celebrate it and go with it.” He had a fun time learning that accent. Sometimes, he goes a little Fargoish, but I think we cut most of that out in post.
7R: Can you tell me about the music in the film? There’s throat singing in the film’s soundtrack, which is so wonderful.
AAB: Tanya Tagaq is on the soundtrack. She’s lovely, one of my favourite people. I think Miranda and Stacy worked really hard on getting all the right people in the room, getting four young rappers that had never recorded anything professionally in a real studio down here [in the south] with DJ Shub who works with Drake and The Weeknd
MdP: Tribe Called Red!
AAB: Yeah, Tribe Called Red guy. The group’s not all together anymore, but yeah. And Tiffany Ayalik sings on the soundtrack. Getting them together in a proper recording studio, with the support of a really well known artist like Tanya — we’re so proud of the soundtrack. It’s just so awesome.
It was important for Miranda to have Inuit on the soundtrack, which is of course also important for us. We were really excited when she made it a priority to spend all this money to bring all these artists down [south], put them in a recording studio, and trust that we were going to come up with something incredible. It’s magical, and I’m so proud of that.
MdP: We would have loved to use music that was already recorded; it would have been a lot easier and a lot cheaper, but it just didn’t exist. There’s not enough access for northern artists and not enough money. I am so excited for the world to hear these unique, original Inuit rappers because I hope that now they are going to have a lot more opportunity. Their music is going to be heard around the world. I’m thrilled that they were willing to come down from the Arctic and write an original Inuktitut rap for the movie.
7R: Are you going to release a soundtrack?
MdP: Yeah, we are working on it.