From an Inuk Point of View: Behind the Camera with Isuma

By August 12, 2019Feature

I was sitting on a twin-engine propeller plane, flying the two hours north from Iqaluit, NU, to Iglulik, a tiny hamlet on an island at the eastern end of the Fury and Hecla Strait, between Qikiqtaaluk (Baffin Island) and Nunavut’s Melville Peninsula. It was 1992, a decade before 9/11 would make flying up front with the pilots a thing of the past. On this day, though, I had talked my way into the jump seat with them. We watched the Arctic landscape rolling toward us—a wide, unfurrowed brow of tundra, lakes and bogs—and it was more North than I had ever imagined possible. Up ahead, hanging in the air in an arc above the horizon, a thin dusty band of discolouration hovered against the blue sky. “What is that brown stuff?” I asked the pilot, after a spell of quiet. “China,” he said. “It’s pollution blowing over the pole.” The farther we flew north, the darker it became.

It was the first of many revelations and recalibrations that would unspool in the days to come. I would learn about Inuit life in this place, both contemporary and traditional, exploring the town, but also living on the land with the Isuma team, camping in tents on the mainland of the Melville Peninsula. (The word isuma means “to think” in Inuktitut.) The collective was gathering there to make the video Saputi (Fish Traps), which was set (with painstaking accuracy) in the 1930s and would be premiered the following year at the Museum of Modern Art in New York under the auspices of my soon-to-be tent mate, Sally Berger, then the curator of video art at MoMA. She and I had been invited to watch its making.

Zacharias Kunuk on the set of Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001) COURTESY ISUMA DISTRIBUTION INTERNATIONAL INC. PHOTO VIVANE DELISLE

Our hosts were a pair of extraordinary people: Norman Cohn and Zacharias Kunuk, OC, two of the four founding partners of Igloolik Isuma Productions. The other two founders were Paul Apak Angilirq (1954–1998) and Pauloosie Qulitalik (1939–2012). Cohn had seen Kunuk’s earliest work at a video distribution centre in Montreal, QC, in 1985 and had identified a kindred sensibility. He soon found a way to travel and lead video training courses in the North, on contract with the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation. He met Kunuk later that year at the session he led in Iqaluit, returned with him to Iglulik, and they have been friends and colleagues ever since.

It was my knowledge of Cohn’s work that had originally drawn me to the collective, which had formed just a year before my trip. His video masterpiece, Quartet for Deafblind (1986), shown in 1987 at documenta 8, in which deaf and blind children were invited to engage with the camera as both subjects and documentarians, had won my respect some years before, as had his implicit interest in deconstructing power relations within the genre. Cohn’s move to Iglulik to facilitate the development of a video collective was thus a natural extension of his earlier artistic inclination to share the power of the lens. In collaboration with Kunuk, Cohn would be Isuma’s cameraman as well as navigator-in-chief of the funding and distribution challenges in the South. The big wins—the Caméra d’Or at Cannes in 2001 for Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner; the launch of IsumaTV in 2008; the creation of the internet platform Digital Indigenous Democracy in 2012; and the current commission to represent Canada at the 2019 Venice Biennale—still lay years in the future. These were early days.

Natar Ungalaaq as Atanarjuat on the set of Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001) COURTESY ISUMA DISTRIBUTION INTERNATIONAL INC. VIVIANE DELISLE

Cohn met me at the airport. I remember him as intense and compact and very, very busy with his work as he and the team prepared for the shoot. It was my first visit to the Arctic, so I was happy to roam on my own, disoriented by the physical austerity of the hamlet even in those glory days of late August, with children playing in the streets into the late hours. A subtle dusk after midnight was the only reprieve from the light and so much sky.

Those first days brought a lot of waiting. We were to travel from Iglulik to the campsite by boat, I was told, but specifics were hard to come by. When, for example, were we leaving? Today, maybe tomorrow, was considered a sufficient answer. Best to stay close, where we can find you. Kunuk seemed amused by my Southern addiction to my wristwatch and by my many questions, most of which soon started to sound absurd to me, too, and most of which he didn’t answer. And so I sat in Cohn’s tiny house, with his partner, Marie-Hélène Cousineau (who would go on to make work of her own, with the women’s video collective Arnait Video Productions), and their baby, Sam.

In the end, I made the boat ride to camp alone with one guide in a canoe with an outboard motor—a three- or four-hour journey as I remember it, punctuated by one stop for tea on a patch of bald rock. We lit the Coleman stove, boiled the water, had tea and listened to the transistor radio playing a CBC newscast about the Nunavut land claims, currently under negotiation, while sitting in the midst of the biggest, emptiest (to me), most silent place I had ever been.

Behind the scenes of Saputi (Fish Traps) (1993) COURTESY IGLOOLIK ISUMA PRODUCTIONS INC.

The camp, when we got there, was sizable—with ten or more big white canvas tents on platforms by the water’s edge and a range of people, from grandmothers to babies, living and working together. Saputi, the video in production, would document the making of a stone weir fish trap in a river near the campsite, a late summer pursuit for Inuit in the old days. The men in camp were working on the video and on building the weir, often knee-deep in the rushing water all day using their bare hands, with only skin clothing to protect their legs and feet. (I remember their hands turning orange from the cold and the many tiny leeches that bonded to their flesh, which I was told came with the territory.) The women in camp were preparing food and finishing their work on the clothing for the actors—amauti (women’s parkas) and waterproof kamiit (boots) made the traditional way—the skins chewed for softness hour after hour, the stitches tiny and tight to prevent leaks.

It was clear that here in camp Kunuk called the shots, but it was also clear that much about the project was enabled by Cohn, including minding the visitors. One night, realizing that Sally Berger and I had been living on ramen noodles for days, he fried us up some caribou meat in his tent. I remember having the ideology of the project explained to me, and then explained again. There was and remains something almost evangelical about Cohn’s passion for the work of the collective. We were told that they were making a new kind of documentary. There would be no authoritative voice-overs, no omniscient narrator, no southern-style music to stitch the viewer’s experiences together—just the watching eye of the camera, recording against a backdrop of silence and the sounds of the Inuktitut spoken word. Things would take as long as they took, both on camera and off.

As the days went by I asked fewer questions. My head opened up and all my ideas flew away. I remember asking one question, though, that left Kunuk completely confounded: “How do you men in the camp decide who gets to be the leader of the hunt?” Presumably, I continued, this was an honour that was vied for. Inevitably, there would be disagreements. He looked at me in genuine confusion. Could I repeat the question? I did. A beat. “Well,” he said, “of course the best hunter leads the hunt. Everyone knows who the best hunter is.” I was sorry I’d asked. The question had revealed so much about my culture, which I was now beginning to understand from another perspective. In the North, such competition would be the enemy of efficiency, and efficiency is what has guaranteed survival for millennia.

When it was time to leave camp, I would have been happy to stay longer, except for the fact that I had left my young family back in Toronto. But when the plane came to get me, it was a foggy day. After circling several times, the plane flew away, its engine noise gradually faded. I stared up into the blank whiteness. “Don’t worry,” Kunuk said to me. “He’ll come back next week.”

I called home to my husband and I cried. But the days that followed in Iglulik were a crash course in Inuit life, and I have never forgotten them. TV had just come to the community a few years before (Iglulik was the last holdout), and I remember watching Dallas (1978–91) reruns in the house of my impromptu and unfailingly generous host, Kunuk’s sister, Mary Kunuk, a school teacher in the community. I spent an unforgettable afternoon visiting with a very old man in town who made and sold uluit (women’s knives), which cut with a rocking motion. I still have mine in my kitchen drawer. In the high school, I attended a session on positive reinforcement, led by a jaded facilitator flown in from Ottawa, ON. I also saw the way the men in town threw themselves into gear when belugas were spotted media, the platform has allowed Inuit and other Indigenous communities to share and strategize.

Jacky Qrunnut as Malik and Gouchrard Uttak as Japati see Boss’ dog team coming in One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk (2019) COURTESY ISUMA DISTRIBUTION INTERNATIONAL INC. PHOTO LEVI UTTAK

Isuma’s most recent project, launching as Canada’s official entry at this summer’s 58th Venice Biennale, is a feature titled One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk (2019), a drama that imagines the day in 1961 when an Inuit camp leader and Anglican convert was directed to bring his migratory community into Iglulik, in compliance with the forced settlement program of that time.

It’s a story very close to Kunuk’s heart. Kunuk began his life on the land, in a sod house in Qikiqtaaluk. In 1966, however, his parents were told by the government agent in the region that they would lose their family stipends unless they brought the children into town to attend school. It is a reality that that is common across Inuit Nunangat and one that has arguably fuelled Kunuk’s artistic journey.

It turns out that I really needed those extra days in Iglulik. Certainly I had learned a lot about Inuit life, both past and present. But the visit also challenged and changed my ideas about time and its value. Isuma’s videos, with their real-time pacing and sense of the dilated moment, challenge the southern compulsion for speed, forcing those of us unfamiliar with the pace of life in the Arctic to decelerate into experience and contemplate a humbler way of listening and speaking. Their work continues to make me think more about how we can solve conflicts through coming to solutions of mutual benefit, how we can strengthen the bonds of respect between generations and how we can honour the natural world, even now. This is what Isuma productions are about, at least for me.

The weekend after I got back to Toronto from Iglulik, my husband and I were driving north from the city with our children to our cabin up near Algonquin Park. Two hours into the drive, I suggested that we stop by the highway for tea. He looked at me as if I was crazy. “Don’t you want to just get there?” he asked. Of course, I understood exactly where he was coming from.

This Feature appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly.

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