Inuk director's new film shows One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk that changed everything

The latest feature film by Zacharias Kunuk imagines an encounter between Inuit camp leader Noah Piugattuk and an Indian Agent come to pressure them into a permanent settlement. 

'I love to make films about the past because the past is not written,' says director Zacharias Kunuk

One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk depicts an encounter between Inuit camp leader Noah Piugattuk (Apayata Kotierk) and an Indian Agent (Kim Bodnia) one spring afternoon in 1961. (Isuma)

The latest feature film by Zacharias Kunuk, director of the multi-award winning film Atanarjuat: the Fast Runner (2001), depicts oral history about how Inuit were pressured to move into permanent settlements.

One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk shows an encounter between Inuit camp leader Noah Piugattuk (Apayata Kotierk) and an Indian Agent (Kim Bodnia) who visits one spring afternoon in 1961 to pressure them to give up their traditional way of life and relocate to the government settlement of Igloolik, in what is now Nunavut. 

This moment is an important piece of Canadian history that director Kunuk says needs to be shared and preserved. 

"Being born on the land, being forced off the land to come to these small communities so [you] could go to school to get your education in English has to be known," he said. 

The story is also one that is close to Kunuk as he was born in Piugattuk's camp at Kapuivik in 1957. 

"I'm very lucky that I have heard about this event — nothing is written down," he said. 

Kunuk said Noah Piugattuk was a special man, a leader of his camp who was born in 1900 and spent most of his life living a traditional Inuit life on the land.

"As a camp leader, he ordered people to do that and to do this and kept everything going," he said. 

Through the 1950s and 1960s Inuit were forced into permanent settlements by the Canadian government and their children were placed in residential and day schools. 

"It's part of our Canadian history, [what] happened up there nobody hardly knows because we were always focusing on St. John's to Vancouver," Kunuk said. 

"I love to make films about the past because the past is not written."

Even though it was a feature film, there were no scripts used. The actors knew what the situation was in the scene and just got into character and acted how they would have facing the same pressures.

Inuk filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk. (Matt Barnes)

Apayata Kotierk, who is Piugattuk's nephew, said he didn't do anything to prepare for the role of Piugattuk because it's about his life and history. 

"I don't find anything hard about it," Kotierk said. 

Kunuk involved the entire community in the production, with women sewing traditional outfits and men making props. Children and youth also took part and got training to run dog teams. 

Sharing and preserving stories

In 1990, Kunuk and three partners founded Igloolik Isuma Productions Inc. with the goal of producing independent video art from an Inuit point of view. 

Kunuk bought his first video camera in 1981 and made history in 1985 as the first Indigenous person to receive a Canada Council for the Arts professional artist grant, to create a video from an Inuk point of view. 

He has been creating videos about Inuit history and culture ever since to share and preserve those stories for future generations. 

Apayata Kotierk, who plays Noah Piugattuk, is his nephew. (Isuma)

"A lot of children are going to school and there's not a chance to learn about oral history," said Kunuk.

"Now with this film they could watch it and see what's happening."

Films and videos by Isuma Productions will be on view through the Qaggiq: Gathering Place exhibit at the University of Toronto's Art Museum Sept. 18 to Nov. 30. One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk will screen at the Small Arms Inspection Building in Mississauga from Sept. 21 to Dec. 1 as part of the Toronto Biennial of Art.