The NFB Inuit Film collection

By Marc St-Pierre, Analyst, Collection

Ever since the first Europeans arrived in North America in the 16th century, the Far North’s inhabitants and vast expanses have been a constant source of fascination for the white man. The accounts detailing the expeditions of Martin Frobisher and Sir John Franklin of England and the great Scandinavian explorers Vilhjalmur Stefansson and Knud Rasmussen, the captivating images of filmmaker Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) and the entire documentary tradition that followed (a large portion of which are NFB films), popular literature and imagery, Hollywood films, photography and even studies by historians have consistently portrayed the Arctic as a fabulous, exotic and pristine land. In short, the Arctic has always been viewed as a dream world, the canvas on which the white man projected his own fantasies of exotic purity. All these elements of Western culture helped forge an idyllic, mythical – but also stereotypical –image of the Far North’s barren expanses and its inhabitants. Eskimos, as it was customary to call the Inuit in the past, quickly became fascinating characters in the Western collective imagination. They were clearly seen as primitive, yet endowed with a phenomenal capacity to adapt. They were a people capable of leading simple and happy lives in a hostile, even extreme environment within a non-hierarchical and democratic society, far from the violence and complex problems of the civilized world. In the eyes of Western man, Eskimos were tireless workers, experienced hunters and fishermen living in perfect harmony with nature and equipped with rudimentary but effective technology. Their lives were paced by their beliefs and traditions, and they easily adapted to the changes brought about by the white man.

A unique collection
It is not surprising, then, that the National Film Board began to take an interest in the Far North during the very first years of its existence. In the early 1940s, despite the fact that it was engaged in an intense war propaganda campaign, the NFB sent film crews to the Northwest Territories and Baffin Island to capture images of the Inuit people. It should be noted that this interest in the Far North and its inhabitants was perfectly in keeping with the NFB’s initial mandate: make Canada’s various regions known to Canadians in other areas of the country. Inspired by that mandate, NFB filmmakers produced more than two hundred films on the Arctic and its people. Shot in the four major territories occupied by the Inuit (Nunavut, Nunavik, Inuvialuit and Nunatsiavut) the films bear witness to over 70 years of Inuit history. This unique and dynamic collection – the largest of its kind in the world – depicts the ingenuity of past and present Inuit lifestyles and the richness of their ancestral culture as well as their struggles and tragedies. Consisting of 24 outstanding films, the Unikkausivut: Sharing Our Stories box set is a remarkable sampling of that collection. It is a true gem of the Inuit audiovisual heritage and reflects the richness, rarity and diversity of all the films produced by the NFB about the Inuit.

A collection spanning four periods
The compilation can be grouped into four major periods: ethnographic films, early collaborative works and the initial stages of Inuit filmmaking, a cinema of resistance by non-Inuit filmmakers and the emergence of Inuit cinema. Stretching from 1942 to 1970, the first period falls within the documentary tradition briefly mentioned above. The films were largely influenced by the approach of American filmmaker Robert Flaherty and his renowned Nanook of the North (1922). We will discuss Flaherty in more detail below. The second period, early collaborative works and initial stages of Inuit filmmaking, extends from 1971 to 1977. Composed of animated films, it attests to the very first collaborative efforts of non-Inuit filmmakers and Inuit artists. The period also marks the dawn of the first Inuit films and is crucial since Inuit names had never before appeared in NFB film credits. The third period, from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s, consists of films by non-Inuit filmmakers defending the rights and values of the Inuit people and advocating an affirmation of Inuit culture. The last period, which runs from 1999 to the present, reflects the emergence of a true Inuit cinema, i.e., films made by Inuit for Inuit. This emergence also took the form of increased and essential Inuit participation in projects by non-Inuit filmmakers.

Ethnographic films and Flaherty’s influence (1942-1970)
As mentioned earlier, the NFB began producing films about the Inuit at its inception in the 1940s. These early films depict the Inuit as an exotic people and document their culture and social behaviour. They allow non-Inuit audiences to learn more about the art, crafts and way of life of the Inuit. Geared to the educational market and non-commercial distribution circuits, the films were intended for the purposes of discovery and learning. Douglas Wilkinson’s How to Build an Igloo (1949) is a striking example. Shot on 16mm Kodachrome for Canadian elementary and secondary schools, this short film has become a true classic. It traveled beyond Canada’s borders, finding buyers in the American and French educational markets and about ten broadcasters in several countries, including Portugal, Mexico and Thailand, despite their remoteness from the hardships of Canadian winters!

These films can be considered as ethnographic since they are not dramatized and are composed of observations and descriptions of life. Nonetheless, they do contain a certain amount of dramatization. Indeed, in most cases the filmmakers wanted to re-create a way of life that, at the time of the shoot, had almost completely disappeared. When the first NFB filmmakers arrived in the Far North, the Western influence was already becoming apparent. The traditional way of life that we hoped to capture on film had altered significantly, requiring the filmmakers to resort to staging and dramatization. The films show Inuit portraying themselves, re-creating a traditional lifestyle that was no longer representative of their daily lives. This is where Flaherty’s influence is discernible. It gave rise to what might be called the “docudrama,” i.e., the use of staging and reconstruction that goes beyond simple re-enactment to re-create a way of life and reality that were once an integral part of a community but that are no longer entirely present.

Films that stand out
This influence can be seen in Arctic Hunters, Eskimo Summer and Eskimo Arts and Crafts, the trio of films directed by Laura Boulton on Baffin Island in 1943 and on which Flaherty himself worked as a consultant and researcher. It is also discernible in The Living Stone (1958), a film on Inuit sculpture by John Feeney. The filmmaker traveled to Cape Dorset in May, 1957 with his cameraman. His plan was to make two films, one on the community and another on sculpture. Bad weather forced Feeney to return to Montreal in the fall of the same year. The film on the community was left unfinished, but the one on sculpture was completed. Infused with poetic images of luminous beauty, the work was immensely popular. It was released in theatres in a dozen countries and received an Oscar nomination in 1958.

The concept of participation
Another of Flaherty’s influences worth noting is the concept of participation; participation by the members of the community being filmed, but also the filmmaker’s participation in the life of that community. Nanook of the North is the result of Flaherty’s long and careful observation from within the community he was filming. He spent several months there, sharing the daily lives of the characters in his film. The approach, or work method, was revolutionary for its time and light years away from the coldly distant and scientific documentary reporting so typical of Flaherty’s contemporaries. Douglas Wilkinson of the NFB used a similar approach. As soon as the war ended, Wilkinson, who had been trained as a photographer, went to the Arctic on a few occasions as a cameraman for NFB films. The account of his travels in the Arctic was published in the mid-1950s and entitled Land of the Long Day (also the title of an NFB film). In it, he mentions that with the exception of Nanook he considered the films about Inuit that had been made up to that point to be fairly superficial.[1] As a result, he set out with his wife and a cameraman, Jean Roy, for Baffin Island, where he spent 15 months and shot two films in a style similar to Flaherty’s: Land of the Long Day (1952) and Angotee: Story of an Eskimo Boy (1953). As Wilkinson states in his book, after that experience, the people he had met would never again be just Inuit to him. They had become his dear friends Singeetuk, Aliuk, Idlout and Kadluk.[2]

The Netsilik Eskimos series
The notions of “docudrama” and “participation” advocated by Flaherty are also evident in a series of films shot in the 1960s and considered today as classic if not legendary works: the Netsilik Eskimos series. Produced by the Education Development Center (EDC), an American institution dedicated to the advancement of the teaching of science and mathematics that still exists today, the 21 films in this series sought to re-create the traditional Eskimo way of life prior to the white man’s arrival by focusing on the Netsilik community (the name means “people of the place where there is seal”). The series was the last segment of an extensive teaching project entitled Man: A Course of Study created for American elementary schools. Its purpose was to explore the nature of humanity. The films were shot during three expeditions to Pelly Bay, Nunavut between 1963 and 1965 by an EDC team that included former NFB filmmaker Douglas Wilkinson. Edited masters of the films were given to the NFB, which handled post-production. Producer David Bairstow and his team spent nearly three years finalizing the picture editing and creating the soundtrack in the studio for all the films. Although the series sparked controversy in the United States (it was criticized for its bloody hunting scenes and depiction of the Netsilik people’s overly primitive ways) and had limited success in Canada, some acknowledge its great ethnographic and heritage value. Firmly grounded as it was in Flaherty’s approach, the series succeeds in eschewing the usual stereotypes and provides a dynamic, authentic look at a way of life that no longer exists.

A constant struggle
Shooting was difficult, especially during the 1963 expedition. The long filming sessions, combined with the cold, snow, wind and vast expanses that forced the team to cover long distances on foot dragging heavy equipment were further aggravated by unexpected and sometimes serious events that delayed shooting. In the fall of 1963, the onsite ethnographer Guy-Mary Rousselière broke his collarbone and fractured several ribs in a skidoo accident caused by adverse weather conditions. He was medevacked to a hospital in Winnipeg and was only able to return in the summer of 1964. At almost the same time, the community was hit by a flu epidemic. A number of Inuit were hospitalized in Yellowknife, including several of the film’s actors. A few days later, filmmaker Douglas Wilkinson also left the shoot site, sick and exhausted as the result of respiratory complications due to an allergy. Despite these problems, two more expeditions were organized: one in the summer of 1964; another at the end of the winter of 1965. Shooting was completed the following spring and the films were finalized and ready for distribution in the fall of 1968.

Early collaborative work and initial stages of Inuit filmmaking (1971-1977)
Up to the late 1960s, collaboration between filmmakers and Inuit appearing on screen was common practise, yet there were no Inuit per se on the production teams. Films were made by non-Inuit and represented their points of view. That situation began to change in the early 1970s. In 1971, the French Program’s animation studio began working on a series of films on Inuit legends sponsored by the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs. During the first half of the decade, five animated films were completed: four by Co Hoedeman, who won an Oscar in 1977 for his film The Sand Castle, and one by Caroline Leaf. What is important about these films is that, for the first time in the history of the NFB, Inuit were directly contributing to the production process. They participated in developing the scripts, music, sound design, art direction and narration. The soundtracks were partially in Inuktitut. NFB animators handled making the films, but the contribution by Inuit was essential for interpreting the legends.

A new policy
In 1971, another important event helped Inuit begin to take their place behind the camera: the Canadian government’s announcement of its multiculturalism policy. The policy recognizes Canada’s ethnic plurality, confirms the status of the country’s two official languages and the rights of Indigenous peoples. Shortly after the policy’s announcement, the NFB, in collaboration with the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs and the Government of the Northwest Territories, organized a series of animated and documentary film training and production workshops for Inuit. The Nunatsiakmiut project gave Inuit a chance to make their first documentary films, while the workshops in Cape Dorset, the Canadian Arctic’s cultural hub, provided an opportunity to introduce them to animation. The films that stemmed from these projects are extremely important because they represent the early stages of Inuit filmmaking. Natsik Hunting, made in 1975 by Mosha Michael as part of the Nunatsiakmiut project, marks an important moment in the history of these early endeavours. As the very first documentary film by an Inuit, its heritage value is inestimable. Animation from Cape Dorset (1973) is a compilation of the best animation to come out of the Cape Dorset project, while Sikusilarmiut (1975) is centred on how the project was carried out. Both are fascinating works that exemplify the first phases of Inuit animation filmmaking.

A cinema of resistance (1978-1998)
As a result of the changes stemming from the animated film project on Inuit legends, which was sponsored by the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, and the training and production programs discussed above, the point of view of non-Inuit filmmakers began to shift. While the films of the 1940s and 1950s presented a stereotypical image of the Inuit and their way of life, films of the 1960s, apart from the Netsilik Eskimo series, focused on the relationship between the white and Inuit cultures. The perspective was nevertheless still based on the premise that the Inuit could benefit from the West’s culture, religion and way of life, thereby suggesting an ultimate assimilation of Inuit culture. However, films made in the late 1970s and subsequent decades have an entirely different point of view. They come to the defence of the rights and values of the Inuit people, show their struggles and reveal the dangers and challenges facing their culture.

These films of resistance have nothing to do with ethnography or nostalgia for the traditional Inuit way of life. They are firmly rooted in the present and address real and current problems. Barry Greenwald’s documentary Between Two Worlds (1990) is certainly one of the films from this period worth mentioning. Tinged with tragic overtones and devoid of sentimentality, it is an objective account of the fate of one man – Joseph Idlout, Canada’s most famous Inuit, whose likeness appeared on the back of two-dollar bills. He was a man caught between two worlds, the white man’s, which was not his own, and his people’s, a world he wanted to change. Magic in the Sky (1981) by Peter Raymont documents the efforts of the Inuit to create a television network broadcasting entirely in Inuktitut and preserve their culture. Our Land, Our Truth (1982) by Maurice Bulbulian also deals with the struggles of the Inuit to preserve their culture, but this time the filmmaker lets them speak for themselves to denounce the Bay James Agreement. Signed by the Quebec government, the Cree and Inuit of Northern Quebec, the land claims settlement agreement was, according to opponents in the community, an open door giving the white man access to Inuit lands.

The creation of Nunavut and the emergence of Inuit cinema
The late 1990s witnessed an important event for Inuit in the eastern Arctic: the creation of the Nunavut Territory on April 1, 1999. This milestone coincides with the emergence of Inuit cinema in its own right: films made by Inuit for Inuit; a cinema in which they are responsible for telling their stories and presenting their culture and traditions as well as the issues that concern them today. The films no longer result from training programs or workshops, as was the case in the 1970s. They are now part of the usual activities of studios across the country. Often made by young filmmakers, the works focus on the current Inuit situation. Although the films are intended for all Canadians, the filmmakers also want to reach out directly to the members of their communities. Amarok’s Song: The Journey to Nunavut (1998), by Martin Kreelak and Ole Gjerstad, and My Village in Nunavik (1999), by Bobby Kenuajuak, are obvious examples of this new and rapidly developing cinema. Another eloquent example is singer-filmmaker Elisapie Isaac’s If the Weather Permits (2003), which unfolds like a letter to her deceased grandfather. With intelligence and sensitivity, Elisapie Isaac contemplates the links between tradition and modernity and the survival of Inuit culture. The films by Bobby Kenuajuak and Elisapie Isaac were produced through the Cinéastes autochtones competition. The competition’s primary objective is to foster the development of Indigenous filmmakers who, through film, can provide an inside view of their culture, their reality and the issues they are facing. But it is unquestionably Atanarjuat the Fast Runner (2000) by Zacharias Kunuk that, more than any other film, signals the advent of a true Inuit cinema. Entirely written, filmed, produced and acted by Inuit, this remarkably beautiful and poetic fiction film avoids all stereotypes to show Inuit culture as seen from the inside.

Collaborative films
The emergence of Inuit cinema also took shape through the increased and crucial participation of Inuit in projects by non-Inuit filmmakers. A striking illustration is Martha of the North (2009) by Marquise Lepage, which was made possible through close collaboration between the filmmaker and her main character, Martha Flaherty, the granddaughter of filmmaker Robert Flaherty. The filmmaker tells the story of an Inuit community uprooted from its village and transported to Ellesmere Island, one of the most inhospitable places on earth. Members of the community had to contend with extreme cold and hunger for years. Orchestrated by the Canadian government in the 1950s, the displacement was intended to ensure Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic. Thanks to the main character’s extensive participation in the script and a desire to give a voice to the people who lived through the events, the director becomes the spokesperson for a community beset by tragedy. It is a poignant film that recalls a dark page of our history. The joint effort of filmmaker Mark Sandiford and satirical writer Zebedee Nungak is another fine example of collaboration. Their “docucomedy” Qallunaat! Why White People Are Funny (2006) presents the research on non-Inuit culture carried out by the “very serious” Qallunaat Studies Institute, headed by Nungak. The filmmaker and writer turn the tables in this satirically comic gem, forcing us to reflect on how the non-Inuit world has viewed the Inuit people and their culture over time.

This brief overview of more than 70 years of film production involving the Inuit cannot possibly convey all the complexity and richness of a collection comprising over 200 works. Instead, it seeks to demonstrate that we have come a long way since NFB filmmakers captured the first images on Baffin Island in the 1940s. It is also intended to show that key moments in history have influenced or radically changed the way films are made. True, it took nearly 40 years of filmmaking before moving away from the pejorative designation of “Eskimo” (the term comes from an Indigenous language, perhaps Algonquin according to some authors, and literally means “eater of raw meat”) and adopting the word “Inuit,” meaning “people of the Earth.” We must not be overly judgemental of these films, but rather place them in their socio-historical context. The fact remains that the initiatives by the NFB, the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, the Government of the Northwest Territories and the creation of Nunavut made the advent of Inuit cinema possible – an industry that continues to flourish today. With no less than ten projects in the making, the NFB’s presence in the Far North and its collaboration with Inuit creators are stronger than ever.

[1] Douglas Wilkinson, Land of the Long Day, Clarke, Irwin & Company Ltd, 1955, p. 21.

[2] Douglas Wilkinson, Land of the Long Day, Clarke, Irwin & Company Ltd, 1955, p. 21.