Uvanga explores mixed ancestry and identity in the North

"Uvanga" means "Myself" in Inuktitut and that makes it a perfect title for the new Quebec feature film about a young Inuk who goes north to learn about himself and his roots.

Film shot in Nunavut opens this week in Quebec

Lukasi Forrest plays Tomas, a 14-year-old boy who travels to Igloolik with his mother to meet his family. (Mongrel Media)

"Uvanga" means "Myself" in Inuktitut and that makes it a perfect title for the new Quebec feature film about a young Inuk who goes north to learn about himself and his roots. 

Fourteen-year-old Tomas (Lukasi Forrest from Kuujjuak) makes the trip with his mother, Anna (Marianne Farley of Big Wolf on Campus and Vampire High) to Igloolik to meet his late father's parents and his own biological brother, Travis (Travis Kunnuk from Igloolik).

The feature is directed by Marie-Hélène Cousineau, a filmmaker who has been working in the North for the past 20 years. 

Her first feature, Before Tomorrow, won best Canadian film at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2008.

Cousineau is a member of a film and video co-op based in Igloolik.

She and her partners, Madeline Ivalu and Susan Avingaq, wrote the screenplay, directed and even star in the film:  Ivalu plays Tomas' grandmother in Uvanga.

Novelist Trevor Ferguson also helped with the screenplay.

Cousineau says the story of mixed identity is common in Canada's North. 

"There's a lot of people of mixed ancestry — Inuit father, white mother, the reverse — and a lot of those people are there and they're making, trying to create, their identity with the two cultures," she said. 

Cousineau thinks this type of story can appeal to anyone from mixed cultural backgrounds and she hopes it will help bring Canadians closer to the Canada's indigenous people. 

Fiction with a documentary feel

The film explores the tentative friendship between the two young brothers who have grown up in different worlds, but can still find connections. Each of them shows the other how many guitar chords they know.

Travis offers to get a knife so Tomas can help skin the seal he's just caught. 

Marianne Farley plays Anna, a young white women who left the community after getting pregnant 13 years earlier. (Mongrel Media)

The warmth of the Inuit community surprised actor Marianne Farley.

She plays Anna, a young, white women who has left the community after getting pregnant 13 years earlier. 

"I didn't know much about that culture at all," Farley said.

"I think most people in Quebec the rest of Canada, we don't know anything about them and I think we have a lot to learn from them — their relationship with nature and time. These people are in the present time, they have goals, but not like us with agendas and responsibilities that never end and stress."

Cousineau didn't have qualms about depicting some of the problems of life in the North, including addiction and health issues. 

It is a fictional story, but scenes like the carving of the seal make it feel like a documentary. 

It was shot in Nunavut in the summer, when there was sunlight 24 hours a day.

Uvanga is part of a new wave of filmmaking in the North, made accessible because of projects like Isuma TV, which provides internet service so new films and videos can be viewed more easily in the isolated communities. 

Cousineau feels these young filmmakers have a lot to tell us. 

"People are expressing in this media because they know they can touch a lot of people," she said.

"It's a time where people are really changing. A lot of the old traditions and elders have passed away. The generation that went to residential school is now in their 50s and 60s ... Now their children taking over and pushing to take their place in society."

Uvanga opens in Quebec on Friday in English and Inuktitut with French subtitles. 

It will open in the rest of Canada this June. 

Mobile users: Watch the trailer here


Jeanette Kelly works as the arts reporter at CBC Montreal. She's also the host of Cinq à Six, Quebec's Saturday afternoon culture show on CBC Radio One.