Angry Inuk director Alethea Arnaquq-Baril hopes to change minds on seal ban

'Something had to be said ... about how unfairly we've been treated by anti-sealers,' says Iqaluit filmmaker whose documentary is screening this week in Toronto.

'Something had to be said ... about how unfairly we've been treated by anti-sealers'

Alethea Arnaquq-Baril says 'I'm hoping this film will change the minds of millions of people across the world.' (Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC)

An Iqaluit filmmaker's documentary that looks at Inuit and the sealing industry is being screened at the HotDocs film festival this week in Toronto.

Alethea Arnaquq-Baril spent eight years on her film Angry Inuk, inspired in part by Aaju Peter's work to bring the voice of Inuit to the debate over seal product bans in Europe. 

Arnaquq-Baril spoke with Kevin Kablutsiak, host of CBC Radio's Qulliq, earlier this week. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Why did you want to tell this particular story?

I'm a filmmaker and I'm Inuk so of course I'm think of issues that are important to us as Inuit. And I felt like something had to be said on the international stage about how unfairly we've been treated by anti-sealers. I had to make this film.

You started filming this documentary about eight years ago. Why did it take so long to complete?

When I wanted to make this film, it was going to be about the history of sealing and how the European Union banned seal products from white coat baby harp seals in 1983. I was going to tell the story of how Inuit were affected, how incomes dropped to about five per cent of what they were before the ban and how many Inuit went hungry, had to move off the land and into town. There were very real effects on a lot of Inuit and I wanted to tell that story.

But as soon as we started filming, it turned out that the European Union wanted to pass a new ban that was even more strict than the last one. I thought I was going to make a historical film about the past and suddenly it had to be about the present day, too, the present-day fight to stop the new ban from happening.

Of course we all know the ban happened anyway. My film talks about how that happened, and all the people that ignored us, and how the animal rights groups ignored us and continued to say things they knew were untrue. They tried to minimize the importance of Inuit on the sealskin market, but in fact most people who sell sealskins in the world are Inuit.

Who is the angry Inuk?

It started out it was going to be a lot about Aaju [Peter] and all her work over the decades, along with many other Inuit, but Aaju's definitely been a voice on this issue publicly, nationally and internationally for a long time. She does it all as a volunteer on her own time and I've just really admired that and I wanted to show that to the world.

Aaju Peter in a still from Alethea Arnaquq-Baril's documentary Angry Inuk. (Unikaat Studios)

But as time went on I realized that I'm an angry Inuk, too. Something I learned while making the film and the reason why I decided to call it Angry Inuk is because — Aaju really taught me to notice this about our culture — as Inuit we tend to try to not be too angry, and if something is upsetting or not fair or not right, we try to stay calm about it and talk about it reasonably. So of course sometimes inside you feel anger, but we tend to express it much more quietly and not as loud and angry as we see on TV with animal rights protests.

Also, in the past, qallunaat [white] filmmakers for a very long time now, a hundred years, have portrayed Inuit as very happy little simple people, sometimes in a condescending way. So the title is kind of poking fun at that stereotype of us and I think part of that stereotype exists because of the way we express anger. I called it Angry Inuk for that reason, because the anti-sealers have been so wrong and treated us so wrongly and I want the world to understand that just because Inuit aren't screaming and yelling and fighting back and throwing bombs and protesting in the streets, it doesn't mean that we're not upset about how we've been treated.

What is the message that you hope comes out of your documentary?

I want the world to know that sealing is extremely important to us as a people for food and for sealskins; that there are thousands of Inuit in Canada and Greenland that sell sealskins and are part of the commercial sealskin market, because the world tends to think of us a people who just hunt for food, and of course many, many Inuit only hunt for food, but there are also thousands of Inuit who sell sealskins.

I didn't realize before I started this film how many Inuit there are who sell sealskins. There's lots! Lots! So we're commercial sealers, too. Just because we hunt seals one or two at a time doesn't mean that the cash from those sealskins isn't important. Many of us who get seal meat for free from hunters who share it so generously, many of us don't realize that those same hunters are selling the sealskins from that seal so they can buy more gas and bullets to go hunting.

And I want the world to know that when we don't have the sealskin economy as an option for our young men and women, we're more up against the wall to do things like mining. Of course they're a part of life now but I want people to take part in that because they want to, not because they have to.

When will you be showing Angry Inuk to the general public?

It's really important to me to show it at home, I can't wait to do that but I want to ask my fellow Inuit to be patient, because I'm hoping this film will change the minds of millions of people across the world and in order to do that they have to see it in Europe and the United States and the south of Canada. The major film festivals, they prefer to only show films that haven't been seen anywhere else before. They want to be the first place it's been seen in Canada, and the first place it's been seen in Europe. They like to have those big premieres. And in order to reach as many people as I can and change as many minds as I can, I want to get to the big major festivals.

I hope people will be patient. It will be probably be fall or winter before I can show it at home.