Hollywood Far Far North

Making films in Nunavut isn't for the faint-hearted.

The airport in Iqaluit is a rough-and-ready affair. An ancient 727, a KLM castoff, judging by the Dutch instructions in the toilet, ejects me into an April snow squall. Inside the terminal, an Inuit woman pushes an airport trolley carrying a box, out of which pokes the leg of some recently butchered animal. A poster cautions against fraternizing with polar bears: “He may eat the hand that feeds him.”

Flying in the Arctic is not for the time-sensitive; when a flight is delayed, it's not a matter of hours, but days. But nothing prepares you for Igloolik. Never mind business class: the airport limo is a Ski-Doo.

Like most villages in the Canadian Arctic, this island community of 1,200 just off the eastern shore of Nunavut's Melville Peninsula is largely a subsistence economy. According to Statistics Canada's 2001 Aboriginal Peoples Survey, 64% of Igloolik's adult Inuit population said they hunt for food. And the administration of Igloolik exists only through federal government transfer payments.

Sounds like a good place to set up a film production company: after all, few industries in Canada can compete with the film and TV sector when it comes to milking the public purse. Yet I've come to Igloolik to see first-hand the paradox that is Igloolik Isuma Productions Inc., a local film company that is the only significant entrepreneurial success story in this economic basket case. Founded in 1990, the company grabbed worldwide fame in 2001 with its first feature film, Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner). Over the past eight years Isuma has injected more than $2 million into the local economy, generating over 200 jobs. Atanarjuat was the highest-grossing Canadian film of 2002. It earned US$6.2 million worldwide. And it was made in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit.

And yet Isuma may be moving out of Nunavut, thanks to a combination of neglect and good old-fashioned bureaucratic incompetence. In the eyes of the Government of Nunavut, Isuma might as well be a shiny penny compared with a glittering mound of diamonds, diamonds that may lie beneath the territory's permafrost.

The infant mortality rate in Nunavut is twice as high as in the rest of the country, the suicide rate six times higher. Crime in the territory is staggering: there were nearly 35,000 criminal offences per 100,000 persons in 2003, more than five times the rate in Ontario. In Igloolik, unemployment among aboriginals is 30.6%; more tellingly, 63% of adults are described as self-employed, or not working for pay. Of persons 25 and over, 46.6% did not complete high school.

Among those, count Zacharias Kunuk. Born into a nomadic family in a sod hut on the tundra, he did not live in a house until he was nine years old. He dropped out of school after Grade 8 at age 16. I met him for the first time in his Igloolik office; he'd just climbed off his snowmobile, and his tinted eyeglasses made him particularly inscrutable. Kunuk always wanted to be a hunter–and he is–but he also happens to be a filmmaker, and he's got the prize to prove it. On the wall is the Caméra d'Or, the award for the best first film at France's Cannes Film Festival in 2001.

Needless to say, everyone in Igloolik has seen Atanarjuat, not only because it was the first feature ever filmed in their native tongue and hometown, but also because everybody knows somebody who worked on it. In a place where social assistance is standard procedure, people were earning a fair wage for work. Now Kunuk and his filmmaking partner, a New York-born videographer and Kunuk's one-time camera instructor, Norman Cohn, are at it again. Well north of the treeline, a cultural industry is growing, a sustainable, renewable industry. Their latest film, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, a $6.3-million Canada-Denmark co-production, created 100 local jobs; its $1.2-million local payroll made it the town's largest private employer this year.

Twenty-five years ago, a 22-year-old Kunuk was contemplating a future of limitless Arctic horizons, but limited prospects. He was interested in still photography; then he heard about personal video recorders. “Every time my father went hunting he would come back and sit down with his buddies and drink tea and tell terrific stories,” he recalls, “and I just wanted to capture it so we could all see what they were talking about.”

Kunuk was earning some money selling sculptures through an Inuit art gallery in Montreal, so on his next sales visit he bought himself a camera and recorder, battery belt, VCR and 26-inch TV. His first efforts, manual in hand, were black-and-white, and the machine was constantly freezing up. But his work caught the attention of Paul Apak, the local representative of the Inuit Broadcasting Corp., a territorial service launched with federal sponsorship in 1981. Kunuk learned the trade–sound, light, editing–and then went on a camera training seminar in Iqaluit. Norman Cohn was giving the seminar.

Cohn is a video artist whose works have appeared in the Venice Biennale and the Art Gallery of Ontario. He made his living through the 1970s extolling video technology as a teaching tool in U.S. schools and hospitals. Attracted by the growing video movement in 1980s Montreal, he moved to the city and started shooting his own videos there. When he saw the work of Kunuk and Apak on the IBC, he plotted a way to meet them.

“Norman taught me that the cameraman owns the floor,” says Kunuk. “At the IBC, we put the camera on the tripod and let it stand there, and used the zoom for close-ups. But Norman had the whole floor. He would just come close to whatever he was shooting. It was different and real.”

Cohn also taught Kunuk the first principle of business: whether you are a struggling artist, or Bombardier or Toyota, you need to “smell the money.” In other words, he introduced his Inuit colleague to the world of public subsidy.

Kunuk received his first Canada Council grant, $15,000, in 1985 to shoot a documentary about his parents travelling the land. In 1987, he and Cohn received a larger grant and produced a drama, Qaggiq (Gathering Place), which travelled Canada's film festival circuit. In the early '90s came two more projects, Nunaqpa (Going Inland) and Saputi (Fish Trap). All were produced for less than $60,000. In 1994-95, now operating as Igloolik Isuma Productions–“isuma” is Inuktitut for “to think”–Kunuk and Cohn raised their game, producing a 13-episode series, Nunavut (Our Land) on a budget of $600,000. It aired in full in 1995 and 1996 on the Knowledge Network; TVNC, the precursor of the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network; and on SCN, Saskatchewan's public network.

In 1997, Kunuk, Cohn and Apak scripted a retelling of the epic Inuit legend of the Fast Runner, Atanarjuat: a man haunted by evil, both human and supernatural, finds he can outrun both. The film, as with all their work, would be entirely in Inuktitut. A bigger story required a larger canvas: more actors, more scenes, more time–they needed more money. “So we had to apply to a larger funding agency, Telefilm Canada,” recalls Kunuk. “We ran into a lot of problems.”

Telefilm Canada is the principal source of financing for domestic production of film and television. In Canada, as with most countries apart from the United States, public funds are essential to maintaining a production industry. In 1998, Telefilm invested $21.9 million in English-language and $12.3 million in French-language features. But at the time there was no allowance for feature films in another language. There was a $2-million fund for aboriginal TV production, but individual applications were capped at $100,000, with a potential top-up to $200,000. Kunuk and Cohn figured they needed at least four times that to make a film of Atanarjuat's scale.

Earl Hong Tai, at that time an investment analyst at Telefilm's western regional office, remembers his surprise. “You don't see this sort of script come by every day,” he says on the phone from Vancouver, where he now runs the western regional office. “It was fantastic.” But, he admits, “From a funding point of view, it was a high-risk request.” The agency gave Isuma some development funding in early 1998, and Kunuk and Cohn, confident of production support, began shooting Atanarjuat in March of that year. But Telefilm turned down their request for $900,000 shortly after, and production was suspended in May.

“Luckily,” says Kunuk, “Norman is a guy who doesn't take no for an answer.”

Norman Cohn is in his Igloolik home, a once abandoned shack that he has rendered habitable through the aroma of freshly ground coffee and vast quantities of insulation. Kunuk has learned much from Cohn, but not as much as Cohn has from Kunuk. No person would be living in such a place without having been first inculcated into the ways and rhythms of life in the Arctic. “It's a Zen practice,” says Cohn. “I can't think of a culture with so little.” He searches for a better word.”Nothing. Imagine spending 10 hours waiting at a seal hole: you have to be alert the whole time. Shut down your inner voice, focus. It's a vision quest. Living here, you are living an ascetic life.”

Fortunately, Kunuk taught Cohn the value of patient persistence; 1998 was a summer and autumn and winter of phone calls and letter-writing. The National Film Board of Canada stepped in to co-produce Atanarjuat with Isuma, and Telefilm had the comfort zone it needed. The film got made on a final budget of $1.96 million; it premièred at Cannes; it won one of the festival's top awards. (Paul Apak died of stomach cancer before seeing his work recognized; his daughter, Krista Uttak, has taken over his partnership in Isuma.)

Asked if Atanarjuat changed the way Telefilm finances aboriginal films in Canada, Hong Tai replies: “It changed the way Telefilm finances all films. It demonstrates that there is talent across the country. It opens the mindset that we have to be receptive to talent everywhere, whether Igloolik or Montreal.”

Five years later, in an igloo a short Ski-Doo ride outside of Igloolik, Cohn and Kunuk are framing a shot for The Journals of Knud Rasmussen. Rasmussen, a Danish ethnographer who was part Greenlandic and spoke Inuktitut, travelled through this area in the 1920s on a trans-Arctic expedition to study and record what he believed was a vanishing breed: the Inuit. As envisioned by Kunuk and Cohn, the new film subverts the “brave white man” cliché of such films as Dances With Wolves, by looking at the story from the inside out, taking the Inuit point of view.

Rasmussen changed the economy of Igloolik. But it certainly didn't change the way films are made there. The only time to shoot a winter story in the Arctic is in the spring; the real thing is too ferocious, and its daylight too brief. Still, during the April shoot, Cohn's camera–the latest, most advanced Sony high-definition machine–did something the young Kunuk could relate to from his early shooting days: it froze. Cohn had tried to capture a blizzard in full howl but, he says, “The camera protects itself, shuts itself off to prevent you from doing permanent damage.” Aside from frostbite on a few southern crew members, the eight-week shoot passed without incident and wrapped on May 12. Kunuk and Cohn are now plotting their return to Cannes in May 2006.

With Rasmussen now in the can, Isuma is in the planning stages of its next production, Before Tomorrow. Kunuk and Cohn are taking a back seat: they will be executive producers on the film, which will be directed by three local women and a Montrealer.

This would be a happy story about how a local aboriginal and his white business partner turned Canada's public subsidy system into a win-win situation–except for an ironic twist that most moviegoers would reject as far-fetched.

In May, Isuma laid off five of its permanent employees. After spending all those dollars on Rasmussen, the company was anticipating a training and wage rebate from the Government of Nunavut, or the GN as it is known, of $193,000, the equivalent of those five salaries for the rest of the fiscal year. The cheque that arrived was for $12,000.

It gets worse. In 2004, the GN created a territorial film commission, Nunavut Film. But the person hired to run it, Sheila Pokiak, was not behind her desk until January 2005. Established as a not-for-profit agency, the commission's budget must be renewed annually through a contribution agreement with the GN. Four months into the present fiscal year, the GN still had not signed the contribution agreement, effectively nullifying Nunavut Film's ability to function, let alone commit funds over the summer months.

It is common practice for the local jurisdiction to contribute a percentage of the film's budget, in order to complete a financing package. Because of the success of Atanarjuat, Isuma currently has access to $1 million in discretionary production funds through Telefilm, but the money is supposed to be committed by March 31, 2006, or they will lose it.

Isuma is looking for 10%, or $350,000, from the GN's Nunavut Film for Before Tomorrow. If the money doesn't come through by October, the production must find a new place to shoot–a jurisdiction more willing to contribute the percentage of the budget necessary to ensure Telefilm's continued participation. As most moviegoers know, Toronto frequently stands in for New York, but an Arctic film on a modest budget is a tougher location to cheat. Northern Quebec is a possibility, but it would mean tremendous upheaval for the filmmaking team and the loss of $700,000 in wages, equivalent to at least 50 much-needed jobs, for Igloolik.

“It's unbelievable,” says Cohn. “We created $350,000 in employment in 2004 and received only a $12,000 labour rebate from the territory. This year we're looking for a labour credit, and there's nobody to apply to.” Isuma is now confronting the possibility that the film won't be made. “You come up against a system's willingness to support you or not,” says Cohn. “We did it with Telefilm and caught them by their values. But to have our local government treating us like this, you have to wonder what's behind that.”

Ed McKenna is wondering too. A senior analyst in the GN's Department of Economic Development and Transportation, he was a lead civil servant involved in setting up Nunavut Film. “We're late,” he says. “There's no ambiguity about that.” McKenna confirmed $650,000 has been transferred to Nunavut Film, as of Aug. 24, but these funds have yet to be allocated to local filmmakers. “As far as I'm concerned, they'll be getting their money,” says McKenna.

Cohn and Kunuk suggest the GN is more interested in attracting De Beers to extract diamonds than in encouraging filmmaking. (In January, De Beers Canada Inc. and Inco Ltd. announced a joint agreement on exploration in north Baffin Island.) But do they honestly believe filmmaking can support communities across the North?

“I don't know,” says Kunuk. “But it seems to be the answer here.” He looks at his hands. “Every morning before nine you see 300 kids walking up to the school, hoping that one day they get a decent job. What decent job?”

“Mining is not the answer,” Kunuk adds. “They're going to be digging for diamonds from the land, and we're sure not going to end up with diamond rings.”

Cohn calls the gems “the currency of everything bad.” He points out that Isuma has brought in $1,000 for every man, woman and child in Igloolik this year. “On a per capita basis in Montreal, that would translate into $2 billion.”

Asked if Nunavut's citizens will be wearing diamond rings, Linda Dorrington, a De Beers Canada spokesperson, replied that the company is committed to developing local communities by upgrading educational qualifications and providing technical training such as carpentry, heavy equipment operation and administration; in short, skills that are transferable.

Like Dorrington, the GN's McKenna diplomatically disagrees with Cohn and Kunuk. “Mining is an important part of our economic future. But our cultural industries are also important. Economic diversity is what all provinces and territories strive for.” He is full of praise for Isuma: “We're very fortunate to have them in our territory. I've dealt with Norman for a quite a few years, and he's always put pressure on the government…it had a lot to do with getting [Nunavut Film] established.”

Whether or not Before Tomorrow gets its funding or has to move to Quebec, Kunuk and Cohn are committed to keeping Isuma in Igloolik. Their next hands-on project, a documentary entitled Kiviaq vs. Canada, is 90% financed; because of its smaller budget, it does not hinge on a GN contribution. The film puts Kunuk in Michael Moore mode, confronting the federal government over a historic injustice: Inuit are not treated equally to First Nations when it comes to tax exemption policy.

Biting the hand that feeds is by now an infectious pleasure for Kunuk and Cohn. Telefilm Canada is one of the film's investors.