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The Grizzlies: 15 things about the groundbreaking new Canadian film

In a tiny Inuit community, teen suicide was widespread — until a teacher showed students how to play lacrosse.

In a tiny Inuit community, teen suicide was widespread — until a teacher showed students how to play lacrosse

The film The Grizzlies was mostly shot in Nunavut. (soda studios)

In the early 2000s, the remote Arctic town of Kugluktuk was making headlines, but for a tragic reason: the tiny Inuit community had one of the highest teen suicide rates in the world.

Growing up with the dark legacy of abuse, poverty and addiction, and with few prospects, the teens' desperation was chronic — until a teacher introduced them to the sport of lacrosse.

Not only did the sport transform them: it transformed their entire community. Before long, the teen suicide rate had fallen to zero.

Now a new feature film is telling the teens' incredible story, which took them from icy Arctic playing fields all the way to the National Lacrosse Championships in Toronto. More than a movie about the power of sport, it's also about the power of hope, even in the face of extreme adversity.

The Grizzlies premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, and this week it hits theatres across the country. Miranda de Pencier and actress Anna Lambe are joining Tom Power on q, but first we gathered 15 facts about the film, which is getting a lot of buzz.

It all started 15 years ago with a segment on ESPN

Fifteen years ago, entrepreneur and Major League Lacrosse founder Jake Steinfeld saw a short segment about the Kugluktuk Grizzlies on ESPN SportsCenter, and he was so affected by their story that he immediately contacted the teacher, Russ Sheppard, who had introduced lacrosse to the teens.

The two later gathered the original Grizzlies at a major lacrosse event in Denver, and it was there that Steinfeld said he was determined to see their story on the big screen. Soon he had recruited legendary Hollywood producer Frank Marshall (who cofounded Amblin Entertainment with Steven Spielberg) to be executive producer, and later connected with director Miranda de Pencier. "She gets it," said Steinfeld. "She's zoned in and is so passionate about this story."

Nearly everything in the film is true

According to de Pencier, nearly every character in the film is based on a real person, and nearly every scene is something that actually happened. This includes a character who has to escape an abusive father, a teen who is forced to gather bits of food for his hungry younger brother, and a young woman who experiences domestic violence at the hands of her boyfriend. The exception is a boy who dies by suicide.

"In the North right now, there's still youth suicide. It's still a big issue. So for the families, we didn't want to pick one of the kids and tell their story," explains de Pencier in a phone interview with q.

Actor Ben Schnetzer plays Russ Sheppard, a teacher from "the South" who introduces lacrosse to Kugluktuk teens. (Mongrel Media)

"Zach represents many young kids in the North who are struggling and who are in that in-between generation where they have parents who are struggling, so they're looking after their parents, and there are also younger siblings, and they're looking after them. They're having to hold up the whole family."

One of the producers went to the same high school

Stacey Aglok MacDonald is not only a producer on the film, she is also from Kugluktuk and was a student at the high school just before the Grizzlies team was formed, when teen suicide was widespread. She later returned as a substitute teacher when the team was in full swing, and she says the difference was night and day.

"They were only two or three years in, but they had already established themselves as an organization, and the students were already very actively involved in the running of the program. So it was such a huge thing to leave home after graduating in 2000 and then coming back three years later and seeing that huge shift," remembers Aglok MacDonald.

"The way the youth were moving through our community was also completely different," she adds. "I was happy that my younger siblings had something healthier that they were all involved in."

It's not a story about a non-Indigenous teacher who saves the day

While teacher Russ Sheppard is instrumental in bringing lacrosse to the tiny northern village, the film isn't about a white instructor who swoops into an Indigenous community and saves the day. Rather, it's about a group of Inuit students who, with the help of an encouraging teacher, transform themselves. Along the way, they also change their teacher and their community.

Russ maintains to this day that the kids changed him much more than he did them, and that the kids are the real heroes of this story.- The Grizzlies director Miranda de Pencier

"When Russ Sheppard comes into their lives they are suffering from abuse, many are drinking heavily, using drugs, and all had been touched by suicide. It took Russ looking deeply into himself and coming to terms with his own vulnerability and ignorance before he could connect with the kids," says de Pencier.

"When he finally did, they ended up transforming him – as well as themselves and their whole community. Russ maintains to this day that the kids changed him much more than he did them, and that the kids are the real heroes of this story."

Long after Sheppard left the community, the program remained student-led.

The filmmakers created a paid mentorship program

The filmmakers were determined to include Inuit people in every aspect of the making of The Grizzlies. That way, the film would not only represent the Inuit experience, but it could provide a training ground for Inuit and Indigenous filmmakers who could go on to make their own films.

The Grizzlies producer Stacey Aglok MacDonald, actress Madeline Piujuq Ivalu and director Miranda de Pencier. (Blake Hannahson)

A paid mentorship program invited Inuit actors, crew, musicians and other creative collaborators to participate, and in the end, more than 91 percent of the cast and more than 33 percent of the crew were Inuit or Indigenous.

"We really wanted to hire as many local people as we could on the film, and we pushed to do that. And even when we couldn't find people who had the skill sets, we ended up training people in the North in every single crew department," says de Pencier. "They were paid trainee positions, so we could use the film as a way to build more capacity in the North for the future."

Many of the leading actors have never acted before

You wouldn't know it from watching the film, but many of the leading actors had never acted before. More than 600 youth in over 25 communities across Nunavut and the Northwest Territories auditioned for spots. More than 60 Inuit youth were then invited to attend Arctic Youth Performing Arts Workshops for training in acting, filmmaking and Inuit drum dancing, throat singing and mask work.

Many of the film's actors were chosen from that group, and come from communities including Kugluktuk, Iqaluit, Igloolik, Arviat, Rankin Inlet, Inuvik, Frog Lake, Gjoa Haven, Pangnirtung, Sanikiluaq and Yellowknife.

At first, the fact that the director was non-Indigenous raised concerns

"When Miranda first came North to explore the possibility of making this film, my first thought was: Who is this white lady? And who the heck is she to be telling this story?" says producer Alethea Arnaquq-Baril in a press release. However, de Pencier started the conversation by asking questions, and she continued to ask questions.

"Miranda sat down with Stacey [Aglok MacDonald] and me and explained that although she was fascinated and inspired by the story, she knew nothing about the Arctic or about Inuit, and needed our help. She always had a million questions, and she kept coming back, for years," remembers Arnaquq-Baril.

"And when she made mistakes, we pointed them out, and she listened. Her determination to include our community in the making of the film, at the time, was really not common, and it impressed us."

The movie was filmed on location

The filmmakers behind The Grizzlies were determined to shoot the film in Nunavut, with most of the scenes being shot in Niaqunnguut and Iqaluit. This was a significant feat because they had to ship gear and supplies, and train locals to fill key crew roles.

"It's really tough to shoot in the Arctic. It's physically demanding. You have to bring all the equipment in. We had to bring crew in which is expensive. There are big food issues in the North, so we had to bring food in, and that's expensive," says de Pencier.

"So there were a lot of practical issues. I could have made the film four years earlier in northern Manitoba for half the price. But I was like, 'I am not taking away this opportunity from the North. We've built too much.'"

The soundtrack features top Inuit musicians and emerging artists

The Grizzlies features some of the biggest names in Inuit music, including Tanya Tagaq, The Jerry Cans and Silla + Rise, but the filmmakers also used the project as an opportunity for emerging Northern artists to work with top producers — among them Juno-nominated producer DJ Shub, a Mohawk DJ who produced backing tracks for Inuit hip-hop artists Hyper-T, 666God, Nelson Tagoona and MisterLee. The artists travelled to Toronto for a week to record with engineer Jason "Metal" Donkersgoed (known for work with Drake, Madonna, The Weeknd, k-os and others).

The Grizzlies soundtrack features music by Inuit musicians from throat singer Tanya Tagaq to up-and-coming hip-hop artists. (Canadian Press)

"There are so many talented people in Nunavut, so many talented actors and performers and musicians, but we don't really have studios here," says Aglok MacDonald, on the phone from Nunavut on a chilly April morning. "So to have all these young musicians in a professional studio in Toronto and seeing them record their music for The Grizzlies was pretty incredible and special, and something that I'm going to remember forever."

Earlier this month the track Trials, a collaboration between DJ Shub and 666God that also features Tanya Tagaq's throat singing, won a Canadian Screen Award for best song.

At times it's very funny

While the subject matter is at times extremely dark, at other points the film is very funny, and that contrast was intentional.

"People tend to think that it's always moody and dark here because there are suicides, but it actually really emphasises the need for humour because Inuit are some of the funniest people you will ever meet," says Aglok MacDonald.

"Even in the darkest and most trying times, there is so much humour. And that was something that was really important to us."

The original Grizzlies got to see it first

Many of the original players shared their stories with the filmmakers, and their experiences became the foundation of the film, so they got to see it first — at the very Kugluktuk high school where the story began.

The Grizzlies lacrosse team began in Kugluktuk in the early 2000s, and is still going strong today. (soda studios)

"I was thinking, 'We're premiering at TIFF. What if they hate it? What are we going to do?' But they loved it," says Aglok MacDonald. One actor said he was so affected by the depiction of his mother and father, who were elders who had passed away years earlier, that he cried because it was so good to see them again.

"And just to be in that room with them afterward, with all of the reminiscing about their experience as Grizzlies in those very early establishing years, it was so special and it made me and Miranda feel so much more confident," she says. "Knowing that we'd gone to Kugluktuk and shared the movie with the original Grizzlies first, and that we had their blessing, just made all the difference."

Early this spring, the film was screened in Inuit communities across the North

Before the film officially opened in theatres, the filmmakers and several of the actors did a tour of remote northern communities, screening The Grizzlies in local community venues. After so many years spent working on the film, Aglok MacDonald was thrilled but also extremely nervous — especially when it came time to screen the film in her hometown.

Everybody stayed after and talked and embraced and hugged and cried and then we had a dance to celebrate after and it was just pretty incredible- The Grizzlies producer Stacey Aglok MacDonald

"Over the 10 years, I joked that I would like to go home and not have my community be upset with me," remembers Aglok MacDonald with a laugh. Her worries, it turns out, were unfounded.

"So I was incredibly relieved and humbled on the night of our screenings. Over half of the community came out and the venue was just packed. There wasn't an empty space in the room. And people laughed and people cried, and people at the start of the movie were doing their old Grizzlies chants they did before competition," she says.

"And everybody stayed after and talked and embraced and hugged and cried and then we had a dance to celebrate after and it was just pretty incredible," she says. "I felt a huge weight off my shoulders and that I could finally breathe a little bit better knowing that our community responded in such a loving way."

The real Grizzlies have gone on to become leaders

Despite the deep challenges they faced as children and youth, the Inuit players who inspired The Grizzlies have gone on to become leaders in their own communities — in government, law enforcement, athletics, land management, education and more.

"They're amazing, and they're doing so much more than that. They're lobbying government, and they're pushing for changes in the North across a whole bunch of issues — language, culture, mental health — so they have become role models," says de Pencier.

"And everybody across the North is learning who they are and then thinking, 'Hey, that could be me. I can have a challenged background or I can have a home life that's really difficult, or my parents can be struggling. And I can have compassion for my parents, but I can make a different choice.'"

Lacrosse wasn't the answer

While lacrosse is the sport at the centre of the film, Aglok MacDonald says it's not because the sport is a magic bullet.

"In Kugluktuk we had The Grizzlies, but in Pangnirtung, it might have been music programs, in Arviat it was a youth film society," she says. "All of our communities have had these beautiful stories of how it took just one spark and a few committed people and youth to inspire a town and change lives."

It wasn't just something that the teachers created and that the teachers held onto. They really put the power into the hands of the students.- Stacey Aglok MacDonald

The Grizzlies program is still going

Nearly two decades after it began, the Grizzlies program is still going to this day.

"People who established the Grizzlies in the early 2000s now have Grizzly kids. So it's still running," says AglokMacDonald. "And a big reason why the program was so successful was because the youth were a part of running it. They learned how. They were an active part of it. It wasn't just something that the teachers created and that the teachers held onto," she says. "They really put the power into the hands of the students."

About the Author

Jennifer Van Evra is a Vancouver-based journalist and digital producer for q. She can be found on Twitter @jvanevra or email jennifer.vanevra@cbc.ca.

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