Television first came to the North in the late 1960s at the request of mining companies that wanted to keep their transient workers occupied through long, dark Arctic winters with southern sitcoms and soap operas. No one consulted the local Inuit population. Transmissions were in French and English and came in one direction: in. One broadcaster, who watched children turn away from their parents and Inuktitut language in Frobisher Bay (now Iqaluit), compared TV to a neutron bomb that “destroys the soul of a people while leaving the shell of a people walking around intact.”
Zacharias Kunuk, then an Inuk carver from Igloolik in what is now Nunavut, noticed that when television came, “everybody stopped listening, visiting one another and telling stories.” In 1975 and again in 1979, his hamlet rejected government offers to broadcast satellite signals from the South until Inuit had a broadcaster of their own. But Kunuk didn’t want to wait for Canada to restore his Inuit traditions. Born Atagutaluk Kigutikajuk Tagaaq Kuatuk Nujaktut, he was E5-1613 to the government, which rechristened him Kunuk. An Anglican priest called him Zacharias. Southern institutions had claimed enough of his culture. In 1981, the 24-year-old flew to Montreal and sold three of his carvings at Westmount’s Eskimo Art Gallery; he returned with a Sanyo beta camera, a VCR and a 26-inch television.
Kunuk tells only one story from one perspective: the Inuit one, and he tells it in his own language, Inuktitut. Inuit, he says, have gone from the Stone Age to the digital age in one generation, and he’s spent the past 30 years salvaging stories that were nearly forgotten in the transition from an oral culture to one where the written word determines political policy and power. In the process, he’s pressed the Canadian government to acknowledge past human rights offences against Inuit and challenged the effectiveness of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement. He’s created his own form of journalism, one that tells stories from the inside out, and he’s unrepentant about the one-sidedness of that approach. Kunuk’s documentaries sketch the first draft of the losers’ history, and he’s not looking for input or approval from the winners.
“Has it been a bad week?” I ask. It’s early July in Igloolik, the sun hasn’t set in months and it’s stiflingly dusty. I’m at the dump with Kunuk, searching for a ball joint that will connect the wheel to the axle of his burgundy Jeep. His company has just gone into receivership. His equipment and costumes have been repossessed, his office doors are padlocked and the receiver has requested his computer and his vehicle registration. A week ago, he blew a tire on that car and, two days ago, the wheel fell off completely.
Kunuk pulls his head from the wheel well of a half-crushed pickup truck and stops searching for a match to the car part in his hand. We walk back to a borrowed four-wheeler and he finally answers my question.
“Kch!” It’s a quick, percussive sound—not exactly a laugh—that he makes when disaster strikes and, after two weeks in Igloolik, I’m starting to recognize it. He revs up the four-wheeler and yells, “It’s too hot for the helmet” (it’s seven degrees) and “Companies go bankrupt all the time. You just start a new one.”
As in many of Nunavut's 25 hamlets, the houses of Igloolik are bound by the graveyard on one side and the airport on the other, creating the impression that the only way out is through death or the air. This is the Igloolik—and the Nunavut—I recognize from news 2012
reports. It’s the Nunavut of the southernized political system, the astronomical suicide rate, 40 percent unemployment, alcohol abuse and a century of cultural oppression. Ole Gjerstad, a Nunavut documentarian, says it’s a world portrayed so negatively in newspapers: “You walk away from those six to eight pages devoted to Nunavut and man, oh man, we may as well just nuke the whole place and liberate the planet from all that misery.”
But there are two Iglooliks: the town and the island. The name means “place of houses” and refers to the land around the town where Inuit settled before contact with southerners. Kunuk drives through dirt, boulders and soft brown tundra clods to show me another, ruined Igloolik where the political units were families and elders held sway. Suicides were rare and predominantly practiced by elders in times of scarcity. He has made close to 30 docs and two features in as many years and, though roughly half of them are set in modern Nunavut, he never loses sight of this world. We stop the Jeep and get out. The air is absolutely silent. It’s so windless that contrails from the morning flights crisscross like pencil lines through the sky.
“This is where we lived,” Kunuk says, pointing at a square-shaped welt in the grass where a sod house once stood, eight feet wide by eight feet deep. There are six more like it stretching down the coastline. It’s the site of a community that died only decades ago, but it’s not marked on any map. The day he left his sod house, Kunuk says, “was the saddest day of my life.”
Soon after Kunuk was born in 1957, the territory’s Inuit were divided into those who had accepted federal government subsidies to move into pre-fabricated towns and those who stayed on the land to live on small monthly allowances. Kunuk remembers falling asleep on the sod, listening to the stories: his mother telling him about Atanarjuat, an ancient hunter chased naked across the ice for marrying a forbidden lover and breaking a cultural taboo; his father describing the hunting adventures that his son would soon join.
But when he was nine, the government threatened to take away the family’s allowance if his parents didn’t send their boys to town for a southern education. He hated English (Inuktitut was forbidden), but loved art and sold sculptures to his teachers in exchange for quarters, which he spent on screenings of John Wayne movies at the local community hall. He loved history, but wondered why he learned more about European history than the events that formed modern-day Nunavut.
Kunuk dropped out at 16 and moved further north to work in the oil fields of Arctic Bay. Three years later, he returned home tougher and world-weary after watching friends die around him. But Igloolik had changed too: a radio station was about to go on the air and Kunuk knew television would soon follow; it was just a question of when. And it was going to affect their culture; it was just a matter of who held the camera. When Kunuk bought his camera in 1981, he planned to film his father on a hunt.
Four years later and a world away, Norman Cohn, a Manhattan ex-pat living in Montreal, saw a 30-minute video about a walrus hunt. The film follows a family of hunters as it stalks and kills an ugly of walruses, then ties them up with ropes made from the animals’ own hides. The average shot is over a minute long and the only close-ups are on one dying cow’s eyes as she slips into the ocean and the men’s blood-soaked hands as they tie fast and complicated knots with the steaming fur. A videographer who spent his early career making Warholian portraits of senior citizens and children, Cohn was rapt: “They were letting the camera run long, and they were filming it all from the inside.”
He traced the video to Igloolik, where the community had finally accepted television on the condition that the government fund the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation. Kunuk and his friend, Paul Apak, worked there as producers. Cohn flew north, ostensibly to train camera crew for the IBC, but really to work with the men behind Walrus Hunt.
A talented cinematographer and Kunuk’s unofficial co-director, Cohn’s most public role, according to Nunavut Film president Derek Mazur, is “asshole.” He complains to reporters when funding falls through (which happens a lot in Nunavut) and rants about northern broadcasters’ policies when they don’t pan out in his favour. He also showed Kunuk how to apply for funding from the Canada Council of the Arts when aboriginal people were considered “craftspeople” and not “artists.” He’s a very effective asshole.
In 1991, Kunuk and Apak grew frustrated with their lack of creative control at the Ottawa-run IBC and formed Igloolik Isuma Productions with Cohn and another friend Pauloosie Qulitalik.
There's so much slaughter in Isuma’s early videos that a 2006 Walrus profile of Kunuk called him “The Hunter Who Happens to Make Movies.” Writer Denis Seguin points out that My First Polar Bear (2000) and many episodes in Isuma’s 13-part series Nunavut (1994-1995) are essentially wildlife films where animals “are in focus alright—within the crosshairs of a rifle.” Kunuk begins with blood 2012
because all traditional Inuit life began with blood. Death was the source of all clothing, all food, all tools and, ultimately, all stories.
So when Igloolik hunters killed and beached an endangered whale in 1994, Kunuk and his team raced to the shore with cameras in tow. They filmed as locals scrambled atop the barge-sized corpse, dividing the pink blubber into grid sections and handing it out to passersby like pint blocks of strawberry ice cream. Isuma followed the hunters for a year, through their trial for hunting without a licence, their defence that Inuit were not to blame for the dwindling bowhead population and their eventual acquittal, which led the government to allow Inuit one bowhead hunting licence every two years.
Arvik!, the resulting documentary, examines the conflicted relationship between federal and traditional Inuit law in the territory. It begins with a pictorial history (narrated by Kunuk) of the European whaling trade, detailing the exploitation of Inuit, the enormous profits the whalers made ($100 billion in 1994 currency) and the animal’s subsequent near-extinction. In 1972, Canada banned bowhead hunting and the Inuit lost a major source of traditional food.
Not satisfied to simply document Inuit victory over the legislation, Kunuk pushed his film further. He interviewed a Repulse Bay hunter who caught a bowhead shortly after the 1972 ban. For hours, the man struggled with the whale, shooting it, harpooning it and even running over it with his boat propeller in a gruesome and dangerous battle. It wasn’t until an elder started shouting directions from the shore that the hunter mercifully skewered the animal through the heart. “So that’s the heart,” the hunter said. “I thought it was his rear.” Only the elders knew how to kill it. But bowhead meat rots quickly after the animal is injured and often the whale sinks to the ocean floor, ravaged to death. Arvik!’s final scenes follow the first licenced bowhead hunt two years later in Repulse Bay. Again, the hunters are inexperienced; the meat spoils and only the blubber is salvaged. Kunuk’s message is clear: reversing an oppressive law does little to revive the culture it oppresses unless those customs can be relearned.
This is where the story of Atanarjuat comes in. When Apak suggested Isuma recreate it, Kunuk took the opportunity to piece together the documentary snapshots they’d been making into a historical and cultural world recreated so completely that he hoped Inuit could watch later and know how an igloo or a caribou skin tent was made. Apak, Qulitalik and Kunuk interviewed dozens of elders about details as picayune as “How did Inuit French kiss before contact with white men?” (they didn’t, they only nose-kissed) and “How did young Inuit men resolve disputes over women?” (a violent temple-punching contest in the centre of a ring formed by the community).
Half of Isuma’s nearly $2 million budget went to the salaries of over 60 Iglulingmiut (native Igloolik) crew members—almost five percent of the hamlet’s population at the time. Kunuk directed actors not to act, but to interact with the housing, clothing and tools of the 1,000-year-old world he and his community had created. Often, he and Cohn left the camera rolling between shots, filming both scripted and unscripted moments, such as a hunter corralling his dogs or shaving a chunk of ice to make an igloo.
For an inside job, Atanarjuat’s impact on the world outside Igloolik was massive. Margaret Atwood called it epic, stressing that “this is not a made up story any more than Homer would have said The Iliad was ‘made up.’ It’s based…on a series of events said to have really happened, in real places.” As scholars now mine Homer for information on a lost Greek world, future generations will find the first—or only—draft of Inuit historical life in the eastern Arctic in Kunuk’s films.
Atanarjuat won dozens of national and international awards. When Kunuk accepted his 2001 award for best first feature film at Cannes, he delivered his speech in Inuktitut before English.
“We dressed like them, we ate like them, we walked the red carpet like them. We stopped Cannes for five minutes when I spoke Inuktitut…. I’m so proud of that.”
On the phone with CBC Radio, Kunuk tries to sum up his 30-year career in a 20-minute interview. The Globe and Mail has been calling all morning because the leading territorial newspaper, the Nunatsiaq News, has belatedly broken the story that Isuma’s gone into receivership and the national news outlets are following up.
Isuma’s Igloolik staff is now only Kunuk and his assistant Carol Kunnuk (no relation). Cohn moved back to Montreal six years ago, Apak died before finishing Atanarjuat and Qulitalik died in 2007. Last week, Kunuk and Kunnuk moved the office into Cohn’s old house, a wood cabin Isuma redesigned to look like the galley of an American whaling ship for its last feature film. Except for the Aboriginal Achievement Award perched between caribou antlers on a shelf, there’s no sign that Kunuk plans to sift through his boxes of awards, paperwork, photos and trophies any time soon (though he did rescue his Order of Canada medal from a box of skull fragments).
After repeating the CBC interview in Inuktitut, Kunuk dials the local station. The announcer puts him on the air immediately (she puts everyone on the air immediately). He speaks in Inuktitut, but Kunnuk paraphrases his speech for me: “Isuma’s gone into receivership. Thank you for the help over the years. We’re starting a new company called Kingulliit (the Next Generation). We’re working on a new documentary in Nunavik and we need men’s, women’s and children’s costumes and a caribou skin tent.”
Within an hour, four-wheelers start pulling up at the door of Cohn’s cabin with boxes full of fur.
If Atanarjuat resurrected an ancient world, Isuma’s second feature, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, documented its death. Set in 1922, it follows a traditional Inuit family’s struggle to maintain its faith in shamanism in the face of Christian conversion. Everyone knows the ending: the Inuit lose.
Critically and at home, Journals was a flop. Reviewers were less tolerant of Isuma’s trademark slow pacing and narrative imperfections in a plot that didn’t appeal to a universal audience. Isuma screened Journals in Igloolik’s high school gym, and the audience was silent when the screen went black (Atanarjuat received a standing ovation). Natar Ungalaq, the actor who played the lead role in Atanarjuat, and Nuqallaq in Journals, says that’s because religion is still a sensitive issue in the hamlet: “It was too close.”
Cohn hasn’t returned to Igloolik since Journals. When I ask him if he’ll make more historical films in Isuma’s early style, he says, “That’s done. We recorded what we could, but those elders are dead now.” Lately, he’s more involved in Isuma.tv, a sort of aboriginal YouTube where indigenous filmmakers worldwide share videos in their native languages. Before Isuma went bankrupt, staff uploaded most of its documentaries, as well as hundreds of videos from IBC’s deteriorating archives, including Kunuk and Apak’s early work. It’s the only outlet where Inuit can watch Inuktitut programming on demand and in Igloolik, Isuma.tv airs on the local television channel. Residents watch it daily.
Since Journals, Kunuk's films have become more explicitly political. In 2005, he read an article in Up Here magazine about Canada’s first Inuk lawyer, Kiviaq (formerly known as David Ward). Kiviaq argued that, while the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement seemed like a good idea at the time, it robbed the Inuit of their aboriginal status and will keep them poor for generations to come. Kunuk visited him at his home in Edmonton and produced a social crusader film—Kiviaq Versus Canada—in which he stakes out a communications officer at the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs and interrogates her when she emerges. After she dismisses his questions, Kunuk stands outside, hunched over a cigarette, muttering, “We’ve been too polite too long.” Jim Bell, the muckraking editor of the Nunatsiaq News, praised the film for “exposing the hollowness that he and many other Inuit have discovered inside the heart of the once-celebrated Nunavut project.”
Kunuk hated it. “It was an experiment,” he says. “I wanted to make a film about my fellow Inuk.” But much of the doc focuses on experts and government spokespeople in an artificial attempt at balance and exaggeration of conflict. “I’m not interested in that Michael Moore-style documentary, chasing politicians.”
In 2008, though, Kunuk was incensed again—by a show on the CBC about the High Arctic relocation. At the dawn of the Cold War, the government split up 19 northern Quebec Inuit families and moved them 2,000 kilometres north to Resolute Bay and Grise Fiord to maintain Canada’s sovereignty in the North. Abandoned on the tundra, they fought for survival against polar bears, six months of darkness and near-starvation. The program “made it look like fun,” Kunuk says. “I wanted to show that it wasn’t fun.”
Exile begins with his narration: “This is what really happened to them. This is their Inuit side of the story.” The testimonials of 11 victims of the relocation follow, nearly uninterrupted, for 45 minutes. Some remember their terror during long months of unexpected darkness. Others tell how they were forced to hunt for polar bears and caribou on barren tundra for months on end. John Amagoalik, one of the victims and a founding father of Nunavut, found his three dogs shot and left for dead at the dump; others say their dogs were also shot, and still others describe eating Mounties’ left over coffee grounds and frozen bananas from the dump to ward off starvation.
For Kunuk, though, the telling is as important as the story itself. That’s why Globe reporter Patrick White thinks few journalists have established the same trust with Nunavummiut as Kunuk. “He could get that kind of honesty and candidness,” he says. “You don’t just walk into a room and get a stranger to tell you that stuff.” Madeleine Allakariallak, a former Inuk host and producer with the CBC says, “Zach’s what we call Inummarik. It means ‘true Inuk.’” But Kunuk shakes his head. “I’ve been to school. Inummariit haven’t been to school.” Does he regret school? “No. Then I wouldn’t know how to play the game.”
And he has a home-field advantage. Exile’s consensus-style approach is ideal for Nunavut’s odd geography. While major news outlets cite the fact that 25 hamlets dot a land mass the size of Western Europe as a major hindrance to reporting in-depth stories, Kunuk uses it to his advantage: Exile’s 11 sources speak from six different communities in Nunavut and Northern Quebec. So when victim after unrelated victim corroborates that RCMP officers shot their dogs, forced them to hunt in pitch blackness and broke their promise to take them back home after two years, each gains a little more credibility and the overall effect becomes a little more horrific. In 2010, the federal government acknowledged—and apologized for—the High Arctic relocation.
Kunuk gives his sources a platform without hijacking or abbreviating their accounts, a marked departure from the style taught at journalism schools (of which there are none in the eastern Arctic anyway). Even after knowing Kunuk for 30 years, Cohn struggles to define his friend’s style, offering cryptically, “There are many Inuit who are journalists, but Zach is the only Inuk journalist.”
But there are some stories Kunuk won’t tell. One afternoon, I wander into the local radio station and idly ask what happened that morning. The announcer tells me, “Nothing much.” Three days later though, I read a different story on the Nunatsiaq News website: “RCMP in Igloolik cope with armed, suicidal 16-year-old.” The boy had been arrested after seven in the morning on the day of my visit.
Back at the Isuma cabin, I ask Carol Kunnuk whether it’s possible the announcer didn’t know about the incident. “Everybody knows,” she says. Does it matter, then, whether the newspaper publishes it or not? “It matters a lot. We believe when you talk about those things, it only makes them happen more.” Kunuk explains, “When you talk about something, it makes it alive again.” I ask him whether he’d ever make a film about suicide. It’s a young people problem, he says, “It should be the young people who talk about this problem.” If that sounds as though Kunuk is dismissing the North’s arguably gravest epidemic, consider his words in a 1998 grant application to the Canada Arts Council: “When our elders stopped talking, our children began killing themselves.”
Atanarjuat was almost destroyed by the power of a taboo. “Once you get that picture into your head of that naked man running for his life across the ice, his hair flying, you never forget it,” Kunuk wrote, “and at the same time, buried in this ancient Inuit ‘action thriller,’ were all these lessons we kids were supposed to learn about how if you break these taboos that kept our ancestors alive, you could be out there running for your life just like him!”
I ask him what good a taboo can do and he says, “Nothing. There is nothing good about a taboo.” But a taboo can only be destroyed from the inside, and Kunuk is neither a modern Inuk nor an Inummarik. He’s an in-between. When he first pointed the camera at his friends and family, he says, “They told me, ‘Why are you pointing that thing at me? That’s what Qallunaat [white people] do; that’s not Inuit.”
Generations of Inuit before Kunuk were the subjects, crew members and often uncredited consultants of northern documentary. After Kunuk, says Ungalaq, “we couldn’t find anyone to go in front of the camera. Everybody wanted to be behind it.”
It's after midnight and Kunuk sits on the beach at his summer cabin, smoking. The rest of Canada stretches out across the water on one side and a 10-foot vertebra—all that’s left of the Arvik! bowhead—lies on the shore to his left. His truck, behind him, is tied to its wheel with a string of sealskin rope, still missing its ball joint. The light softens, but never fades, as the sun skirts the horizon like a marble rolling on the edge of a bowl.
In the morning, he’ll head to Montreal and then on to Nunavik, where he’s filming a documentary about the many wars waged between the Cree and Inuit in northern Quebec. Two women from town will camp out at the cabin all week, piecing a square of canvas into a plausible replica of a caribou skin tent, then mail it in time for the shoot. Their children and grandchildren will catch lemmings all day and scramble on flotsam hunks released from a winter in sea ice and washed up on the gravel beach.
A day before the shoot, Telefilm will temporarily withhold funding, waiting for assurance that Kingulliit will not go bankrupt too. Kunuk and Cohn put up the initial funds for the project themselves. But Kunuk doesn’t want to talk about business. He talks about his latest research with wonder in his voice. “I didn’t know Inuit ever went to war,” he says. He puffs his cigarette and blows himself a smoke cloud. “So many stories…. I never knew.”