RIDM screened the film, of the North, by Montreal artist Dominic Gagnon. It immediately attracted controversy: while some criticized the use of YouTube videos to portray Inuit in an unflattering way, others defended the filmmaker’s approach as legitimate, fair use of publicly available images. Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, Inuk documentary filmmaker from Iqaluit, saw the film following its controversial Montreal screening.
POV Publisher Judy Wolfe is a management consultant who often works with the Government of Nunavut. She met Alethea Arnaquq-Baril through John Walker at the annual awards ceremony of the Directors Guild of Canada in Toronto, where they were accepting recognition for their film, Arctic Defenders. This interview was conducted on 3 December 2015 in the filmmaker’s home in Apex, Nunavut as Arnaquq-Baril’s 10-month-old son explored the living room.
POV: Judy Wolfe
AAB: Alethea Arnaquq-Baril
POV: The maker of of the North, Dominic Gagnon, claims to have spent a lot of time looking at videos and choosing the ones that made his story. He views it as a work of art, which is put together to reflect a point of view. But there were people who made those YouTube clips and there were people who were the subject of those clips. They were not contacted by Gagnon and asked for consent to appear in his video.
AAB: I think many of them did not consent to be on YouTube in the first place. There are two very serious issues that this film raised. One is the issue of consent and authorship of the piece and the other is the choice to screen it by a major festival. When working with a film that is made up of entirely—or mainly—found footage that was never intended for broadcast and therefore has not gone through the E & O process, there’s more due diligence required on the part of a festival when choosing to screen it. There were many people in this film, who are not just in the background or who are not just in a short clip. They’re prominently displayed at moments in their life when they’ve hit rock bottom. And the footage just goes on and on and on. It’s relentless. People are clearly identifiable. Whether or not it’s legal to do that, I’m no expert, but I don’t think it’s ethical for a filmmaker to show it. You’re going to burn bridges pretty quickly, and hurt people.
POV: Now the filmmaker is saying it’s ok if people withdraw their pieces. “We’ll look at black leader tape and have a conversation about that.”
AAB: Yes, I think the Globe and Mail piece called that a clever jiu-jitsu move, and I’m sure some people in the art world will just eat that up. He said it would end up being a silent film with all black footage; it would just be a meditation on what happened. But I don’t believe for a second that he’ll meditate. I don’t think he’s doing any kind of honest reflection about what he’s done and what harm he might have caused.
POV: Would an Inuk make such a film?
AAB: I could certainly imagine an Inuk making a film out of entirely found footage. But I would be pretty shocked if an Inuk did that without getting permission from anyone in the film. In our tradition of oral history, we have very strict rules around that. Even when something is not recorded, when you are passing on a story, you are expected to indicate where you learned the story—-to cite your sources and pass on information as faithfully as it was given to you. These are very strong principles in our story-telling tradition. It’s possible for an Inuk to make a film in the same style or genre, using other people’s footage, but it’s not likely an Inuk would ever blunder around the way this guy has done.
POV: What is the best response to a film where the subject feels misrepresented?
AAB: That’s a really good question, and one I’ve struggled with. I’m not in the film and none of my footage is in the film. But Tanya Tagaq is and some of her recordings are, and the same is true with Kelly Fraser. Neither of them knew they were in the film until I contacted them. The three of us debated for a good couple of days—we were talking a lot by Facebook Messenger—-whether we should go public with our complaints or quietly send him cease and desist orders. We debated how we could have the most impact on the industry, making sure this kind of recklessness doesn’t occur again, while minimising the amount of attention this guy gets. We really struggled with that. At some point the three of us decided together, and it really was a consensus decision, to complain about it publicly. We felt that the need for the industry to take a good hard look at itself outweighed the negative side effect of giving him more attention than he deserves.
POV: I’m still intrigued by people posting video of their friends on YouTube, which is the film’s source material. How do people respond to their friends posting that material online?
AAB: The film makes it appear that a lot of the footage out there is of these situations. That is not the case. This guy worked really hard, seeking out a particular set of imagery. He knew what he wanted to see before he went looking. But for those who posted that type of video, we live in tiny communities. Everyone knows you anyway. If you’re struggling with addiction, there is no one in town who doesn’t know that. So when someone lives in a tiny, remote, fly-in community and knows literally everyone in town, taking a video of each other and posting it up is not a big deal because the likelihood of anyone beside your own friends and family seeing it is so low. If you’re out there partying with the same group of people, they’re seeing it anyway. I don’t think that we up here, until now, viewed YouTube videos as being as public as everyone in the south automatically assumes it to be. We haven’t been exposed to that kind of risk as have other populations. I don’t think the fact that people posted these images on line necessarily meant that they were ok with the world seeing it at international festivals. Our relationship with YouTube will change over time, especially as the country starts to pay more attention to our issues.
POV: Is there a limit to observations to indigenous people by non-indigenous people?
AAB: There’s no harm in it, in my opinion. There are excellent films about indigenous people made by non-indigenous directors and producers. I have no problem with that. The stories that are being told are on a case-by-case basis whether it’s appropriate or helpful for a non-indigenous person to tell them–or even indigenous people to make films about our own issues. There are still questions of perspective and access. My complaint about this particular film was not to suggest that non-native people should not be making films about us.
POV: He’s arguing that he’s making some kind of statement about the impact of colonialism.
AAB: When of the North came out and we started to complain about it, all people heard was ‘racist film about drunken Inuit by a white guy who’s never been there.’ People have a very short attention span for indigenous issues, so all we get time to say is, ‘I’m not a drunk,’ or ‘We’re not all drunks,’ and that’s pretty much as far as the conversation is able to go. We don’t often get to elaborate. I knew there would be non-Inuit and non-Northerners who could see right away that showing these nude women in the state they were in, there was something that wasn’t right about that. And showing people without their permission who were at rock bottom, without putting together any kind of dialogue about how they got there and what we can do to get them out, I know that a lot of people would see that right away. What I don’t think a lot of people will see are the statements he’s making about colonialism and Inuit, or more accurately, industrial development and the state of Inuit society. Those are more damaging to me because a lot of people won’t get that right away. What I saw on screen were a lot of shots of nameless, faceless corporations, massive development, destructive development, and Inuit society disintegrating and not being able to help itself. My problem with that is it erases the role of southern Canada in our destruction. It implies that our trauma is mainly self-inflicted. That implies that Canada’s role has been passive. When in truth, our trauma, the state of our society, has not taken place because we’ve been ignored. It’s because we’ve been actively destroyed.
He used the word colonialism but he only showed development. That shows Canadians that it’s all the fault of big bad corporations and it’s very easy to go tsk tsk and not feel any sort of responsibility. It’s important when talking about colonialism to address what actually happened. A shocking number of Canadians don’t realize that Inuit went through forced relocations. A lot of people have heard of residential schools now, but don’t necessarily know what that means and don’t realise how young people were when they were taken away. They don’t know about the dog slaughter when 20,000 sled dogs were shot, to force Inuit off the land and into communities.
There were many horrible, horrible things that Canada did, actively, to destroy Inuit culture, and I don’t just throw that sentence around lightly. It was official policy. It’s well documented. I think people have a very hard time coming to grips with that. People don’t want to think about it. They don’t want to imagine that their own parents or grandparents or ancestors took part in that, were responsible, took those decisions. It’s hard to imagine that their own people, their own families knew what was happening and supported it. It’s a hard thing to face. I wonder about the non-Inuit side of my family, and how many of them knew what was happening up here, or cared. Those are difficult conversations to have. His film, the way he phrased things by juxtaposing pictures of big oil rigs with people falling down drunk, it excuses people from having to have those conversations.
POV: Has the film, and its screenings at RIDM, been useful as a spur to awareness, and perhaps conversation?
AAB: A lot of people are thinking that at least there is some good discussions coming out of this incident. But I think that discussion can happen without racist films being made. I’m frustrated by how much time I’ve had to waste over the last two weeks saying, ‘I’m not a drunk, my family and friends are not drunks, it’s not ok to make a film that says we’re all drunks’. It’s not like the controversy stirred up in-depth, useful debate. I just had to defend the same old basic stereotypes. I would argue that the film was not useful in creating good dialogue. I’ve had great discussions with fellow Inuit, fellow indigenous people and then you and Ezra [Winton] are the only non-Inuit I’ve had a chance to delve into these issues around this film. And you two work in the industry and are very conscious people.
The impact of his film was that it brought the issue of whether Inuit are still drunks to a national audience. So it just reinforced it, whether or not we got to deny it.
POV: RIDM chose to screen the film and has acknowledged that it could have provided context and room for discussion. No one is suggesting that a filmmaker’s work should be censored, but every festival makes choices about what films to show.
AAB: All festivals are always dealing with the relationship between the subjects of the film and the story-teller. Quite often a film is made about a culture that of the director. That is something that has to be constantly negotiated and considered. This film is not a rare instance of having to consider whether it’s appropriate or not. Film festivals have to do this all the time. I was really surprised at the programmers who chose the film for RIDM showed so little consideration to my people. It was an extremely colonial mindset, that we can tell a story without consideration for the people being talked about. I was flabbergasted that this could happen in Canada in this day and age.
This is not a unique situation. This is something that all festivals should be thinking about all the time: what perspective is this story coming from? Who is telling it? Who is it about? Is it a fair representation? Is it damaging or is it helpful? These are really basic questions that should be asked. And not only did they not ask them, when the questions were raised, they were so closed to having a discussion about them and were really defensive.
There were journalists, film critics, in Quebec, writing in defense of this film without ever having seen it. Is the filmmaker’s reputation so amazing that people jumped to his defense without even seeing the film? Or was it just an automatic reflex to defend the white filmmaker and assume that the indigenous people are being whiny and overly sensitive? I don’t know, but I think it’s also a question that needs to be asked by people who work with film critics.