The idea behind Unikkausivut arose from a National Film Board of Canada screening at the Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec. It was there that federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq provided the spark of inspiration for an exciting new project.
“I remember watching NFB films in my community in Nunavut when I was growing up,” Aglukkaq said after watching Passage (John Walker, PTV Productions, 2008). “They are wonderful films. It would be great if we could see them again now.”
Aglukkaq was expressing exactly what many people felt. With all eyes on the changing Arctic and everyone—in both the North and South—wanting to know more about its past, present and future, it seemed obvious that the time had come to take action and make the stories of the North accessible to all.
Tom Perlmutter, Government Film Commissioner and Chairperson of the National Film Board of Canada, and NFB Assistant Commissioner Claude Joli-Cœur, decided to conduct an inventory of all the films in the NFB collection on, or by, the Inuit. They determined that there were more than 100 titles, forming the largest collection of Inuit films in the world. For a variety of reasons, most of these films were not widely distributed.
To make this happen, the NFB partnered with the Inuit Relations Secretariat of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, the Government of Nunavut, Department of Education, as well as with the support of other Inuit organizations. An advisory committee was formed, made up of representatives from various Inuit organizations and from each Inuit region. Translator and activist Martha Flaherty, Peter Irniq, one of the founders of Nunavut, and Zebedee Nungak, director of the Inuktitut Language Department at the Avataq Cultural Institute, came on board as special Inuit advisors on the project. They collaborated on the versioning of the films into Inuktitut, and Nungak suggested Unikkausivut, or “sharing our stories,” as a fitting name for the project.
The 110 films in the Unikkausivut collection span seven decades of NFB film production on the North. This selection includes contemporary titles and upcoming projects by Inuit creators that are still in production and slated for release in the near future.
In consultation with NFB collection experts Marc St-Pierre and Albert Ohayon, the committee decided it was important to reflect the evolution of the films over time, beginning with the “ethnographic” perspective of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. These early films, which depict the Inuit from the point of view of white outsiders, are of historical interest as they document a vanished way of life. Later, in the 1970s, a new kind of Inuit film began to emerge, and in the new millennium Inuit filmmaking continued to grow.
From the instructive How to Build an Igloo (Douglas Wilkinson, 1949) to Between Two Worlds (Barry Greenwald, Investigative Productions Inc., 1990), the story of traditional Inuit hunter Joseph Idlout, who got swept up in and devastated by another world, Unikkausivut brings the rich stories of life in the North to viewers across Canada. This includes the Inuit, who are eager to see stories from their communities reflected on screens.
Last year, as part of events related to the federal government’s apology to the Inuit for the Arctic resettlement of the 1950s, Martha of the North (Marquise Lepage, Les Productions Virage Inc., 2009) was screened in Inukjuaq, Nunavik. Featured in Unikkausivut, this documentary tells the story of the repercussions of this relocation on one Inuit family. After the screening, the response from the Inuit audience was emotional. The film expressed something of their own experience, and somehow, seeing it was like reclaiming a piece of their history.
Paul Parsons, the Mayor of Kuujjuaq, drove home the importance of bringing these stories to Inuit communities when he said, “These films are important tools for our youth.”
These films are also important viewing for all Canadians. Ensuring that the compelling histories of the North are available to all is one way of keeping a unique culture alive while learning from one another in the process.