September 4, 2006

Canada Filmmaker Brings Remote Arctic People to Screen

By Jennifer Kwan

TORONTO -- Inuit filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk bought a video camera in 1981 with the proceeds from the sale of three soapstone sculptures and the purchase kick-started his movie-making career.

On Thursday, his career goes into high gear. His second feature film, "The Journals of Knud Rasmussen," gets its world premiere as the opening film of the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival.

A story of cultural identity and loss, the C$6.3 million ($5.7 million) movie is shot in barren Canadian Arctic landscapes and in igloos lit by seal-oil lamps. It tells the story of Avva (Pakak Innukshuk), one of the last great shamans,

and his daughter Apak (Leah Angutimarik) as they struggle to survive the impact of Christianity and commerce during the 1920s.

"We thought we were the only people on Earth," Kunuk, 48, said of the former isolation of the Inuit. "It felt like overnight there was TV, cable, Hollywood. So many changes in one lifetime."

The Inuit-Danish production follows on from "Atanarjuat The Fast Runner," which won the prestigious Camera d'Or at Cannes in 2001 and was hailed as "masterpiece" by The New York Times.

It is based on Danish ethnographer Rasmussen's journals during a 20,000-mile (32,200-km) dogsled trek across the top of North America from Greenland to Siberia, and on interviews with Inuit elders who looked back to a time of folk tales, song and living off the land, said Kunuk.

"We're following the journals of Knud Rasmussen but we're following the journals from the Inuit side," he said from his office in the hamlet of Igloolik, 1,900 miles away from Toronto as the crow flies, or three plane rides away.

"Some people have told me, 'It's not the journals of Knud Rasmussen,' But it is. It's just from the other point of view."

"We're reminding people that shamanism was religion," he added. "Then Christianity came."

The film was shot in the mostly Inuit territory of Nunavut, where 90 percent of residents are now Catholic or Protestant, according to government statistics.


Kunuk's vision of merging Inuit storytelling and experimental video began at age 9 when he moved to Igloolik from a sod house at Kapuivik, his family's winter camp, where he was born.

In Igloolik, he discovered John Wayne movies screened at a community hall, paying a quarter to see a movie. His father used to tell hunting stories and when Kunuk was in his 20s he decided to trade in life as a sculptor to document by video the Inuit custom of oral history.

"We have to do it right," said Kunuk. "Our next generation will be watching and learning."

Shot in April and May 2005, the 60 or so cast and crew endured weather that often fell below minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 20 Celsius) and waited days to film the perfect blizzard scene.

But the real challenge of making films in the North is political, said New York-born Norman Cohn, co-director and Kunuk's business partner of about 20 years, and the only non-Inuit member of Kunuk's Igloolik Isuma Productions Inc., which was incorporated in 1990 as Canada's first Inuit independent production company.

The native people in the Far North have little access to

independent cinema and they don't attract much attention from marketers.

"If nobody does anything special then a film like 'Fast Runner' or 'The Journals of Knud Rasmussen' will play in Toronto, New York and Paris, but native people will be the last people on Earth to see it," said Cohn from Montreal.

"We're not talking about welfare screenings for poor victims and drug-addicted native people." he said.

Toronto film festival co-director Noah Cowan said "The Journals of Knud Rasmussen" was an easy choice for the opening night spot, which traditionally goes to a Canadian movie.

"These guys are art house filmmakers of the very highest caliber," said Cowan. "They're doing something that is specifically Canadian and incredibly important."