Living With Giants film raises concern among Inuit over treatment of suicide

Some Inuit and mental-health advocates are raising concerns about how Living With Giants, an award-winning documentary portraying the life and death of a young man in Nunavik, handles the issue of suicide.

Some worried about how documentary represents its main character, Paulusie Kasudluak

Inuk filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, who lives in Iqaluit, says the Nunavik-based film Living With Giants treats the death of its main protagonist 'like a plot twist in a way to shock people.' (Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC)

Warning: This article deals with the subject of suicide.

A public screening of the documentary Living With Giants was cancelled in the Inuit community of Kuujjuaq in northern Quebec, after community members spoke up about concerns over how the film portrayed the suicide of its main protagonist, a young Inuk named Paulusie Kasudluak.

"He's not just a character in a film, this is a real person that we are talking about and his death is just treated like a plot twist in a way to shock people at the end of the film and then it's over and I really I find that quite exploitive," said Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, an Inuk filmmaker who lives in Iqaluit.

"It's really not a good way to treat this young man's life with respect."

The feature-length film has won multiple awards, including the Vancouver International Film Festival award for best documentary and the Emerging Canadian Filmmaker Award at the Hot Docs documentary film festival in 2016. It is nominated for three Quebec Iris awards, which will be handed out in Montreal on Sunday.

Living With Giants was directed by Montreal filmmakers Sébastien Rist and Aude Leroux-Lévesque and produced over a span of two years in Inukjuaq, located in the Nunavik region in northern Quebec.

Its synopsis, posted on the film's Facebook page, describes Kasudluak as "a caring son to his ailing father and a good boyfriend. But what begins as the story of an innocent teenager quickly becomes the struggle of a young man coping with the guilt of having made a huge mistake."

The filmmakers added a note to their website last month, acknowledging that Kasudluak had died by suicide.

"I just think that is irresponsible and it's not just the unexpected nature of the death in the film but the total lack of context, the total lack of discussion about what contributes to that kind of situation," said Arnaquq-Baril, who is the director of the award-winning documentary Angry Inuk.

Rose LeMay, the international chair for the the Wharerātā Group, which is an worldwide network of Indigenous leaders working in mental health and addictions, watched the film with Arnaquq-Baril and had a similar reaction.

"I'm worried that it upholds some stereotypes around Indigenous youth who may encounter one or two rightfully difficult issues in their lives and then immediately turn to suicide. That is a stereotype and that perpetuates the myth of deficit and the need of outsiders to come in and support," said LeMay.

Through her company, LeMay provides cultural education to health and mental health organizations to better serve Indigenous communities.

She said she had high expectations for the film, given the publicity it had received, but admitted she didn't feel those expectations were met.

"I understood that it would delve into the delicate topic of suicide, but I didn't realize that it seemed to be a bit of an afterthought in the movie."

'We need to be prepared'

According to the National Inuit Suicide Prevention Strategy from Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the suicide rate in Nunavik has actually decreased from 181.2 per 100,000 people from 1999-2003, to 113.5 from 2009-2013. However, suicide is still a very serious concern among Inuit in Nunavik.

A community member in Nunavik who requested to remain anonymous, due to their work and public persona, says the film doesn't do enough to prepare audiences for the suicide and it does nothing to support the communities it portrays.

"If you're going to play [screen the film], we need to be prepared, we need to notify, especially in the communities. You're showing it in the small communities and you're not prepared for anything."

The community member added that nobody in Kuujjuaq had been notified that Living With Giants is about suicide when it was about to be screened, and that mental-health workers in Nunavik were not prepared to deal with the potential fallout of having this film screened to unsuspecting audiences.

Rose LeMay is the CEO of the Indigenous Reconciliation Group. She is a Tlingit woman whose parents both went to residential school. (Submitted)
"You never know — there may be people who are watching the film who may be struggling with suicidiality and this film, I can't say that it meets any standard for safety for viewers who may be suicidal," said LeMay.

Inuit and mental-health workers are also concerned that Living With Giants does not provide context about suicide in Inuit communities.

One of the film's directors, Sébastien Riste, said their producer asked if they wanted to include information about Inuit culture, Inuit history, and statistics for suicide in Inuit communities, but they decided to leave that information out.

"I think that we realized that these issues are so complex and there's so much to understand about that, and we don't have the answers for that. So I think that we just wanted people to kind of see through a personal journey," said Riste.

But Arnaquq-Baril disagrees and thinks that such information is required in telling a story about suicide.

"I wouldn't go near the subject if I wasn't trying to do something positive about it. Otherwise you're just kind of trying to make people feel something. But if you're just going to do it, showing something sad and walking away, that's just cheap to me; that's cheap storytelling," she said.

Arnaquq-Baril believes this is a reflection of a lack of education in Canada's film industry on Indigenous issues.

"The Canadian film industry is embarrassingly uninformed about Indigenous issues, embarrassingly, and there simply is no excuse for it because there are so many incredible Indigenous filmmakers," she said.

The Inuk who wishes to remain anonymous says the film is sending the wrong message.

"I don't feel comfortable with people going around winning awards on topics of our lives without really helping, without helping us to heal, without helping us to get the right services we need."

Blurs the line between fact and fiction

There are a few scenes throughout the film in which Kasudluak is portrayed wearing a wolf mask, walking around Inukjuaq in slow motion, almost in a dream-like state, and accompanied with eerie music. These scenes were used to represent his dreams and foreshadow his death in the film.

Co-director Aude Leroux-Lévesque said it was the directors' idea to portray him in a wolf mask. When asked about the evolution of those scenes, Leroux-Lévesque referred to a previous conversation they had with Kasudluak where they discussed the use of the wolf mask.

Leroux-Lévesque recounted, "'What do you think if we use, for example, the wolf as a metaphor to how you behaved that night,' and he thought that it was a good idea and he agreed. So that's one of the scenes we had, to make this wolf mask that he wears and we film [him] walking in the tundra with the mask."

While many documentaries use staged scenes to portray re-enactments, Arnaquq-Baril believes the scenes with the wolf mask were heavy-handed editorials on how the directors viewed Kasudluak.

"I'm concerned that could have potentially contributed to him viewing himself in a negative way," she said.

"I hope not, but I'm worried about that and I think it's incredibly irresponsible for the filmmaker to ask a young person who's really struggling emotionally to portray themselves in that way."

The wolf mask depicted in the film and in posters for the film is not a part of Inuit culture.

Respect for the community

Many Indigenous people have been hesitant to speak out about Living With Giants out of respect for the Inuit connected to the film.

"I also worry about the community and the individuals who are portrayed in it because I suspect that they would see this being better than nothing, and I fully honour them for their perspective," said LeMay. "I just think that this story deserves much better treatment than it received."

Conflicted with criticizing the film, Arnaquq-Baril said, "I was hesitant, too, because I don't want to hurt the feelings of the people involved with it, so it's an uncomfortable position to be in."

Arnaquq-Baril is afraid that people will come to the defence of the film because of the filmmakers involved, arguing that they are very nice people, but she said "that doesn't excuse not making any attempt to handle such an incredibly delicate and dangerous issue more responsibly and it doesn't take away that responsibility.

"Being nice and having good intentions is not good enough in this case."

Turning to resilience

Chris Lalonde is a professor of psychology at the University of Victoria and has been researching suicide in Indigenous communities for the past 20 years. He says including more stories of resilience is required in order to have a balanced view of suicide in Indigenous communities.

"Let's find the things that make communities better, that help youth to grow and flourish. If you take that more resilience view, or holistic health view, better things can happen," said Lalonde.

Chris Lalonde, a professor of psychology at the University of Victoria, says including more stories of resilience is required in order to have a balanced view of suicide in Indigenous communities. (University of Victoria)
Outside filmmakers who want to work in an Inuit or other Indigenous community should be working with people from that community, Lalonde said.

"If I were looking at the credits for that film, I would expect to see a lot of names of Inuit as advisers, that you don't just jump out of the helicopter with the camera," he said.

On the topic of what filmmakers have to consider before approaching the topic of suicide, LeMay recommends "that filmmakers and storytellers consider the balance of strength and challenge in covering topics of suicide.

"Everybody has strength, everybody has worked through difficulties in their lives, and everybody has that strength that we use in order to find balance when we encounter challenge."

CBC contacted Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services and has received no response.

Suicide prevention resources

If you or someone you know need help or someone to talk to, here are some services available in Nunavik and beyond:

Stephen Puskas, an Inuk from Yellowknife, is a freelance journalist based in Montreal.