What’s Up, Doc? Doc Talk for Jan. 11

of the North

By Pat Mullen

This week’s edition of “What’s Up, Doc?” revisits a controversy cited in an earlier post in this series. Said tiff is the ongoing saga of Dominic Gagnon’s documentary of the North. The film, which erupted at RIDM in November, polarizes viewers with its collection of YouTube clips that predominantly feature the Inuit. The film even draws different reactions from the POV family with Tyler Prozeniuk giving the film a pragmatic assessment in his report from RIDM and with this writer including the film on his blog’s list of 2015’s worst films.

of the North is back in the spotlight following the Museum of the Moving Image’s decision to screen the film as part of its First Look Festival. The screening marked the New York premiere of the film and the world premiere of a new cut in which Gagnon removed the music of Tanya Tagaq (used without consent in the original version) and replaced select scenes of the film with black voids if the owners/subjects of the footage protested to its use in the film.

POV spoke to Inuk filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril following the film’s RIDM controversy (read that interview here) and the filmmaker offered a clear, fair, and forward-looking take on the lessons of representation one can take away from the film. Such a conversation, unfortunately, didn’t happen with the film’s New York screening.

The Museum of the Moving Image forged ahead with the screening despite pleas from members of Inuit and Indigenous communities to cancel the screening. Charges from the Twittersphere erupted and described the programming choice as ignorant, misguided, and morally bankrupt. An online petition launched as well, and it currently has more than 1250 signatures from the public asking MoMI and other festivals to turn their attention to films that are more progressive. CBC notes that a Naples screening of of the North will in will happen in April.

MoMI acknowledged these outcries in an addendum to the webpage offering a programming note for of the North that reads: “The Museum respects and appreciates the feelings and viewpoints of the film’s critics, including the more than 1,000 people who signed a petition asking for the screening to be cancelled. Yet we feel that the film has strong artistic merit and that its use of disturbing imagery is part of an artistic strategy designed to raise questions and challenge the viewer’s assumptions. As a work of avant garde cinema constructed and compiled by Mr. Gagnon, the film does not claim to be a representative portrait of Inuit life.”

Among the responses to the film and to the MoMI screening are a passionate essay by Montreal writer Jesse Staniforth, who tackles the greater element of cultural ignorance implicated in the film and the ongoing support from its defenders. “You don’t get any ideas about the complicated interaction of industry and community in Inuit and Native cultures from Gagnon’s film,” Staniforth writes. “Rather, you get the idea that there’s some causal connection between heavy industry, representing capitalism, and Indigenous addiction and despair. That connection doesn’t exist.”

At NOW Magazine, filmmaker Jonathan Culp offers a deeper look at Gagnon’s body of work and his ‘art of appropriation’ to consider the defenses of the film as a work of art that reflects the age of digital democracy: “The beleaguered art of appropriation is both age-old and honourable, but cultural appropriation is another thing altogether… As settlers, we have a lot to learn, and more to unlearn, when it comes to indigenous culture. Please keep learning. Keep your own sense of persecution in perspective and recognize where we are indeed privileged. Create new spaces for listening – preferably earlier in the creative process.”

The author of the petition against of the North, Stephen Puskas, explains elements of representation that one should have in mind when viewing or programming of the North: “This film is a broken mirror that reflects a distorted and doctored image of Inuit, made by a man who has no stake in the Inuit community and is far removed from the people who he is representing. The film is not only misrepresenting Inuit, it is reinforcing painful stereotypes of a marginalized people. It contains scenes that sexualize Inuit women at a time when we are in a crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women, which is dangerous and reckless.”

The defenders of the film leading up to the New York premiere include the online mag Reverse Shot. The articulate and highly-readable magazine acknowledges the film’s aesthetic deficiencies and argues for the merit of the film, saying, “Gagnon is drawing battle lines against the good taste of official Canadian culture and the picture of the model Inuit it constructs.” Reverse Shot also happens to be the Museum of the Moving Image’s own publication. It’s worth noting, though, that the Reverse shot author, Michael Sicinski also has a follow-up response to of the North via Letterboxd.

At Dazed, Trey Taylor includes the film in a great feature that confronts the issue of representing diverse groups in film. Taylor looks at various current releases including Tangerine and The Danish Girl and reflects upon self-representation versus speaking for others. When it comes to of the North, Taylor asks an important and basic question: “would you want your culture – largely unknown to the world – portrayed as a few layabouts and failures?”

Here’s what Twitter users say about the film:

Short Film of the Week:

This week’s shorts spotlight goes to Zacharias Kunuk’s breathtaking Sirmilik. This doc, part of the anthology film The National Parks Project, is a great portrait of the north by its inhabitants. The music by Tanya Tagaq, Dean Stone, and Andrew Whiteman is a beautiful mix of traditional and contemporary voices.

SIRMILIK – The National Parks Project from ANDINO PRODUCTIONS on Vimeo.

What reads do you recommend for the week?
Let us know in the comments, or send a tip to pat[at]povmagazine.com.
We want to keep the conversation going, so please share your thoughts on what filmmakers, festivals, and filmgoers can do to encourage fair representation.