THE FILMMAKERS

How 'Atanarjuat' taught a new generation of Inuk filmmakers about possibility — and responsibility

Young filmmaker Nyla Innuksuk shares how Zacharias Kunuk's movie reminded her that "there is an alternative to allowing others to tell your truth."

The film reminded Nyla Innuksuk that 'there is an alternative to allowing others to tell your truth'

"Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner." (Odeon Films)

This is part of a series of essays by panellists featured on the new CBC Arts talk show The Filmmakers. A panellist from each episode writes about the film being featured this week, which this week is Inuk filmmaker Nyla Innuksuk discussing Zacharias Kunuk's Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. You can watch Innuksuk alongside imagineNATIVE Film & Media Festival executive director Jason Ryle and filmmaker and songwriter Elisapie Isaac on the full panel here.​

Last week, a producer at a Toronto International Film Festival party told me that it is difficult for Indigenous people to tell stories through film, since it's an inherently European medium. Without missing a beat, they then explained that their production team would be "exploring" the Arctic, and would be in touch with me shortly. A week prior, I had to remind a director for the fifth time that, no, I would not be a producer on a documentary film about an urban Inuit that was already shot and partially edited so that they could receive the money that having an Inuk on board would bring.

A few days ago, a close friend and fellow producer warned me not to become "enamoured" with everyone who wants to work with me and to be selective with who I work with. The suggestion was that I don't have enough my own sense to not become infatuated with every person who wants to work with me. I think what he meant is that it's easy to find someone who will want to tell Indigenous stories and I'm an easy ticket in. He's right of course, and it's key that I remember this. Because unlike Euro-centric filmmakers, I have a responsibility to my community in the way I make my films.

Unlike Euro-centric filmmakers, I have a responsibility to my community in the way I make my films.- Nyla Innuksuk , filmmaker

Zacharias Kunuk knows this kind of responsibility. In his 2001 film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, he did what so many others had failed to do: make money, get critical praise and win the Camera D'Or at Cannes. Not only did Canadians watch the film, but people all over the world embraced it.

I was 14 years old when Atanarjuat hit theatres, and was already planning to go to school to become a documentary filmmaker. I felt an onus to make documentaries about Nunavut and the overwhelming amount of social and cultural issues that my community faces. I used to think that my feelings of responsibility were rooted in guilt that comes with "privilege" — privilege in my case being that I always had food, clean water, a mostly okay family situation, a good education and access to the "south." Now that I have nephews growing up in Pangnirtung, Nunavut, it's become much bigger than that.

From left: imagineNATIVE Film & Media Festival executive director Jason Ryle, The Filmmakers host Johanna Schneller, filmmaker and songwriter Elisapie Isaac and filmmaker Nyla Innuksuk. (CBC Arts)

Zacharias — a residential school survivor — dedicates his life and talents to preserving Inuit stories and traditions through film. Unlike our oral tradition of storytelling, Atanarjuat imagined characters that exist within the belief system of the Inuit people, without sounding like folklore. I don't think he would feel so strongly about preserving his culture and language if it hadn't been put so violently at risk.

I've reached a point where I don't feel I need to make documentaries, and can take comfort in the idea that by making entertaining content with Indigenous representation is enough. Zacharias, as well as my friends Alethea Arnaquq-Baril and Stacey Aglok-MacDonald, have helped me come to that realization — not only because Alethea is already making the documentaries that are changing policy and perspective with more aggression tempered by grace than I am capable of, but because she, along with Zacharias and Stacey, are making films that reflect our culture, our land, our people. Watching them do so has shown me that I can do the same.

Maybe we aren't making movies because we live in the most beautiful, untouched land in North America. Maybe it isn't even our rich culture with scary and nuanced myths combined with a deep history of oral storytelling. Maybe it's our responsibility that drives us to tell stories.- Nyla Innuksuk , filmmaker

I am going to go to a film set in Nunavut in less than a week. I can do as much as possible to prepare, but one of the things that I've been saying over and over again this week is this: "Things just work completely differently up there." I'm directing a sci-fi film with a mix of aliens and Indigenous cinema, and I'm planning to turn it into a feature sometime soon. There couldn't be a more beautiful place in Canada to film — or a more alien place, for that matter. Nunavut is one of the last remaining untouched corners of the Western world and is home to a culture rich in history, storytelling, art, myth and legend.

Filming in Nunavut doesn't come without challenges. It's not that they don't have a film infrastructure — it's that this infrastructure is seriously limited. There are a handful of amazing producers (hat tip to the ladies) and filmmakers who are kicking ass, plus the very notable director this article is a tribute to, who collectively are making great content. All of this despite the fact that Nunavut probably has 5 lights, 12 light stands, 15 sandbags, 8 prosumer cameras and 20 tripods in total. The fact that I was just quoted $3,000 to ship the gear I have to bring up for a 10-minute short means there's a way to go before filming in Nunavut could be considered an easy feat.

Natar Ungalaaq in a scene from the 2001 movie Atanarjuat:The Fast Runner by Inuk filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk. (The Canadian Press)

But there is something about the films that are coming out of the North that are interesting. And that all comes back to the responsibility I mentioned. Alethea's most notable works are activist films. With Tunniit she brought back Inuit traditional tattoos, a practice that would have certainly been lost to colonization without her film, and Angry Inuk focuses on the seal ban by groups like PETA and its resulting devastation of the northern economy. Stacey and Alethea's most recent narrative film The Grizzlies, directed by Miranda de Pencier, is a true story about Stacey's home community of Kugluktuk that once suffered from the highest suicide rate in Nunavut, a territory which already has a suicide rate 10 times the national average.

This has me thinking. Maybe we aren't making movies because we live in the most beautiful, untouched land in North America. Maybe it isn't even our rich culture with scary and nuanced myths combined with a deep history of oral storytelling. Maybe it's our responsibility that drives us to tell stories. Even my silly sci-fi movie with girls on bikes battling aliens comes from my personal feelings of responsibility for young people. I want my nephews and young kids like them to grow up in a world where they can imagine bigger and brighter things.

Atanarjuat reminds me that there is an alternative to allowing others to tell your truth. For that, I'm grateful.

The Filmmakers airs this Saturday at 8:30 p.m. (9 NT) on CBC Television, or stream it at cbc.ca/watch. After the episode, stick around to see this week's feature presentation, Manfactured Landscapes.​

About the Author

Nyla Innuksuk

Nyla is a filmmaker originally from Igloolik and Iqaluit. She graduated from Ryerson University's Film program and is now living in Toronto where she is an Associate Producer at Big Soul where she has worked on a variety of projects including music videos and a television series. She is currently working on her own documentary film about Inuit youth as well as a feature film. She recently completed a mini-documentary with the NFB on the legendary Inuit button accordionist, Simeonie Keenainak.