Part of what makes Tunniit: Retracing the Lines of Inuit Tattoos (2011) special for me comes from knowing what happened behind the scenes. The odds were stacked against Alethea Aggiuq Arnaquq-Baril when she set off to make it. There was little support and no mentorship opportunities for her. The ability for an Inuk to break into the film industry in Iqaluit, NU, as both creative force and business mastermind was nearly impossible at the time. And, to top it off, she didn’t pick an easy topic for her first film.
I have had the privilege of growing into the film industry with and working alongside Alethea, and I know intimately the many challenges she overcame to make Tunniit. She fought to make this film and, in making it, opened doors for other Inuit to become involved in film production. She learned lessons that eventually allowed her to make another very challenging and important documentary, the award winning Angry Inuk (2016).
A little backstory about how I came to meet Alethea: following the completion of my studies at Nunavut Sivuniksavut in 2004, I had the opportunity to be a production and post-production assistant on the documentary Staking the Claim: Dreams, Democracy and Canadian Inuit. I loved the experience and the process of making films so much that I wanted to see if I could find another job in the field. I began looking for opportunities in Iqaluit and, unsurprisingly, there weren’t many leads—but I did learn Alethea’s name. She was at the very start of her career, but her name was already becoming known. A young Inuk woman who wanted to make films—she sounded awe-some to me! We met soon after I moved to Iqaluit and began working together almost immediately. Alethea knew very early on that we needed to be the creators and drivers of our own film projects. Fast-forward to 14 years later, she has been able to create and share her incredible body of work with the world.
Back to Tunniit. The documentary was Alethea’s first passion project. Already in development when we met, it took her about five years to complete from start to finish (not counting the years she spent just dreaming about it). It was not a seamless process. She struggled. Making a film is never easy, and making a first film with no mentorship is almost impossibly difficult.
The result of her struggle is an incredible film. Following a montage of historic photos of women with tunniit (facial tattoos), Alethea along with activist and storyteller Aaju Peter travel across Nunavut to uncover information about traditional tattoos and other aspects of Inuit culture banned or suppressed by the Canadian government and the influence of religion. They interview elders to learn about the regional variations in style, meaning and application of tunniit. Near the end, both women are tattooed and the powerful moment is recorded. We see Alethea beaming with pride as she shows her tattoos to friends for the first time. Rarely are such moments captured on film.
Speaking on why she made the film, Alethea once said, “No matter how rooted or grounded you are relative to your peers or to your parent’s generation, I think as Indigenous people across Canada, and across the world, no matter where you’re from, we have this sense of loss and we’re recovering from it.” Though this quote was about Tunniit, I think it can also very easily be applied to Angry Inuk and most (if not all) of Alethea’s work, an important body of films about recovering and reclaiming our identity.
I encourage readers (especially if you have access to good and reasonably afford-able Internet) to seek out some of Alethea’s talks and Q&A’s available online. You will learn not only about what drives her creative work, but also about Indigenous issues, healing and reconciliation. Alethea’s work has truly transcended filmmaking and has become a living, breathing process that doesn’t end when the movie ends.
This Choice appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly.