Inuit filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk and his co-producer Norman Cohn grabbed worldwide attention for their film Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) when it won a medal at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, but neither expected the accolades and attention to trickle down to others telling aboriginal stories.
That's why the two have started a new service allowing such filmmakers from around the world to share and show their work on a website that could become the YouTube of aboriginal cinema.
"[We] are an example of how you can actually succeed and find an audience in this world, but we're the only ones who have been able to do that," said Cohn.
The duo's new website, called Isuma.tv, has already gathered 100 films and videos from four countries in the four weeks since it began.
The offerings, all free to watch online, range from complete versions of Kunuk's features Atanarjuat and The Journals of Knud Rasmussen to accounts of a Swedish Sami girl's efforts to learn her native language.
There's also children's programming from Greenland as well as work from indigenous Mexico. The quality ranges from the polished to the distinctly amateur.
Many of the films are in aboriginal languages, some subtitled. Almost all offer views of parts of the world that few get to see, through the eyes of those who know the place best.
Any aboriginal filmmaker is free to post work to the site, said Cohn.
"Who defines aboriginal? You do," Cohn said.
The work of first-time submitters is viewed to make sure it meets the intent of the website — that it's by an aboriginal filmmaker and about aboriginal issues. Once approved, the filmmaker gets his own "channel" to which he or she can post new work at any time without any kind of screening.
"You can upload your films to Isuma.tv even easier than YouTube," Cohn said.
Even though the number of aboriginal film festivals around the world is growing, there are few places for such filmmakers to show their work — and even fewer places for people to see them. Economics make it tough for aboriginal films, especially in aboriginal languages, to be disseminated through conventional media.
"Mainstream media — broadcasting and theatrical moviemaking — is an extremely closed shop," said Cohn. "It's not an accident that you haven't seen many other films like ours on any television channel or in any movie theatre."
Isuma.tv is one more example of Inuit people adapting southern technology to their own purposes.
Viewers from Ghana, Argentina
"Launching this website is a statement of state-of-the-art technology adapted to Inuit and indigenous values, the way Inuit adapted snowmobiles and rifles," said Cohn.
He hopes that by the end of the year the site will offer about 1,000 films and videos from up to 30 countries, and that a million people will have tuned in.
Ultimately, Cohn said he hopes Isuma.tv will be able to offer live webcasting of events such as aboriginal protests or music festivals.
"This is not any more unbelievable than taking [Atanarjuat] to Cannes," he said.
The site has already received viewers from countries including Ghana, Argentina, Australia and Japan.
Development of the site was supported by a loan from one of Nunavut's birthright corporations, which are funded by land claim money. Cohn said Isuma.tv is looking for about $1.5 million to see the project through its first couple of years, then hopes to support it through subscriptions to the service.
"The biggest obstacle is that people have been trained to believe they really can't change anything," said Cohn, who doesn't agree.
"Progress is not always impossible."