• Feature

Arnait Video Productions: Women Telling Their Own Stories

Jun 20, 2023
by Sonia Gunderson

In 2021, Arnait Video Productions quietly shut down operations with a message on its website. But for nearly 30 years this female-focused Inuit film collective created thoughtful documentaries and dramas featuring the unique culture and voices of Inuit women, becoming a pillar in a growing community of women filmmakers, producers and performers finding new ways to tell stories true to their experiences. Reflecting on Arnait’s legacy, Sonia Gunderson traces the group’s beginnings as a nascent video workshop up to the time when their first feature-length film Before Tomorrow (2008) began raking in award nominations.

When Igloolik elder Susan Avingaq first heard Marie-Hélène Cousineau’s announcement on community radio in January 1992, she was intrigued. A video workshop for women? What could women possibly do with video? “I wasn’t going there to get involved with anything,” Avingaq told me in June 2009, with Carol Kunnuk translating from the Inuktitut. “I was just going to learn what they were doing, the gathering of women. But when I heard that women are able to do things, to show things, to teach, I got interested.” 

Madeline Ivalu and Mary Kunuk Iyyiraq shared Avingaq’s enthusiasm. Working with Cousineau, a video artist from Montreal, the group plunged into mastering a new set of skills that would equip them to record the lives and expertise of women in their home community—knowledge they feared might soon be lost. “I felt that [in today’s North] women are put down,” Ivalu says. “I felt women could do so much more and make a difference.”


Paul-Dylan Ivalu during filming of Before Tomorrow

Dedicated to Preserving Traditional Knowledge

Making a difference has been key to Igloolik’s identity ever since Inuit settled the community in the 1960s. Twice, in 1973 and again in 1978, its residents voted down satellite TV, opting to wait until cultural programming became available. In 1981, local artist Zacharias Kunuk, OC, ON, sold carvings to purchase video equipment so he could begin documenting community life and produce local programming—initially, for the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation. Finally, in 1983, Igloolik voted to allow TV transmissions. In 1990, Kunuk and several partners founded Igloolik Isuma Productions, the first Inuit owned independent film production company in Canada. While Isuma continues to produce documentaries for TV, it is now best known for its award-winning feature film, Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) (2001). The women’s video initiative was a natural outcome of Igloolik’s dedication to preserving traditional knowledge.

Historically, Inuit men and women had equal, but distinct, family roles. As hunters, men provided food and the raw materials for clothing, blankets, tents, and other items. Women took the hides and, through their prowess in skin preparation and sewing, outfitted their families to survive in the arctic environment.

In modern times, Inuit families living in Western-style communities—with ready access to imported food and goods—no longer rely on hunting for their physical survival. Still, most Inuit would argue that their cultural and economic survival depends on maintaining an active connection to the land and traditional hunting practices. Sadly, many of today’s women have already lost such practical skills as sewing skins, which were second nature to their mothers and grandmothers. Gone, too, is the satisfaction of knowing they can provide for all the needs of their families.


Art Director Susan Avingaq lights a qulliq (stone seal-oil lamp) on the set of Before Tomorrow

Igloolik’s new video collective, Arnait Ikajurtigiit (“women helping each other”), later incorporated as Arnait Video Productions, aimed to highlight and boost the expertise and contributions of Inuit women. From the start, the collective sought to give voice to several generations of Inuit: elders, who still know the secular traditions of the region around Igloolik; adults, who have straddled two worlds (traditional Inuit culture and the modern world of Qallunaat [white people]), and are versatile within both, and young people, who are immersed in the Western world, which entices them to learn the tools and skills of that culture before those of their grandparents.

After learning camera and editing techniques from Cousineau, the women practiced shooting videos of each other in their homes as they made bannock or sewed clothes. Gaining confidence, they began to choose topics, line up interviews, and manage their own productions. “I didn’t know that we would keep going when we started,” Cousineau confesses. “We were meeting in available spaces and we had only a very small camera and no money, really. We had a small grant of $5,000 for the year.”

Fortunately, Arnait did not spring up in isolation. Cousineau had originally come to Igloolik to work with Kunuk and his partner Norman Cohn. Isuma provided early support to Arnait, and, to this day, the two companies share production facilities, in addition to some staff, actors, and crew. The companies also share a visual aesthetic and a commitment to cultural authenticity, as reflected in production scripts, acting, costumes, and props, as well as their decision to film in the arctic environment using natural light. 


The women of Arnait meet to discuss the day’s shoot. (Left to right: Mary Qulitalik, Susan Avingaq, Marie-Hélène Cousineau, Attuat Akkitirq, Madeline Ivalu and Carol Kunnuk)

Video as Community

From the start, Arnait treated video as community, creating a production process that was in harmony with the lives of the women involved in each project. Its production values reflect the cultural values of the participants—respect for community events, for elders, for hunting and fishing seasons, and for certain traditions belonging to particular families, among others. The women work as a team to write the scenes for each script, to make the costumes and accessories, and to shape the interaction and performances of the actors.

Early on, participants shot videos about the construction, use and cultural significance of the amauti, the hooded parka women wear to carry children, and the qulliq, the stone seal-oil lamp. Other topics included: profiles of community members; customary travel routes on land and sea; family relationships; adoption practices; midwifery, and other health issues; cross-cultural relationships; stories and songs from the past, and animations and dreams.

Many Arnait videos deal with traditional knowledge and reenactments of the past, while others highlight life in a modern Inuit community. Since 2000, the group has produced feature documentaries such as Anaana (2001) and Unakuluk, Dear Little One (2005). Over the years, these have been shown at museums and arts festivals throughout the world. More recent projects incorporate the latest communications technology to provide a forum for Inuit women to interact via the Internet.


Marie-Hélène Cousineau, co-director, co-writer, and director of photography for Before Tomorrow, working on set with Madeline Ivalu

Before Tomorrow

In 2004, the collective tackled its most ambitious project to date: Before Tomorrow (2008), a feature film based on the novel Før Morgendagen by Danish author Jørn Riel. Isuma provided seed money for Arnait to develop the script. The project represented a huge leap for the group on many levels: budget, fundraising, logistics, time frame, artistic demands, costumes, props, and personnel. With the help of Carol Kunnuk, an Isuma veteran who joined principals Cousineau, Ivalu, and Avingaq as assistant director, the collective rose to the challenge, shooting the film near Puvirnituq, Nunavik, over four seasons during 2006–07. 

Before Tomorrow scooped up numerous awards on the festival circuit, including Best First Feature Film honors at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival. It was also selected as one of 16 films—out of more than 1000 entries in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition category—to screen at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2009.

After the initial Igloolik screenings in February 2009, I asked the principals about their experience of making the film and their reactions to the final cut. To a person, participants attribute the project’s success to smooth teamwork. Every night after filming, the women met to discuss how things went and what would improve the dialogue or other aspects of the production. “Tired or not tired, we had those meetings,” Cousineau said. “Everyone felt involved.” As Susan Avingaq marvelled: “anything’s possible if everyone puts their minds to it.”

Attuat Akkitirq, a costume designer and actor who has worked with both Isuma and Arnait, told Cousineau in a recorded discussion after filming was complete: “In the other [Isuma] films, the actors did not really have much input because the dialogues were already decided … When we made Before Tomorrow we put more of what we wanted to say into the movie. It gave us more confidence … Our film was made from more of a woman’s point of view. I felt less stress.” And their reactions to the final cut? “I wanted to shout and celebrate,” a beaming Avingaq told me. Madeline Ivalu chuckled, then sighed, “I didn’t sleep for two days.”

The achievements of the women are all the more remarkable, given that they have family responsibilities and work in difficult social conditions. Their precarious financial situation presents an added challenge. The sheer endurance required on their part to produce these works testifies to the importance of the initiative in their lives. Cousineau’s dedication to training the women, coordinating the projects, and raising production funds has been key to the group’s longevity and accomplishments. With the success and visibility of Before Tomorrow, she anticipates that funding for future projects will be easier to procure. Susan Avingaq, for one, trusts that Arnait will continue to thrive. “More ladies in our generation are starting to have their own opinions and ideas and are willing to do things on their own,” she says. “They are strong with their rights. People like that will keep this collective alive.”

–Sonia Gunderson is a freelance writer, specializing in Inuit art and culture. She is currently writing a book about cultural preservation initiatives in Igloolik.

Selected Filmography

Restless River (2019)

An adaptation from Gabrielle Roy’s novel La rivière sans repos set in Northern Quebec following World War II, Restless River follows an Inuk woman navigating two worlds after giving birth to the son of an American soldier. Co-production Nunavut-Québec.


Tia And Piujuq (2018)

Directed by Lucy Tulgarjuk, the film follows its title characters Tia (a young girl recently moved to Montreal from Syria) and Piujuq on a journey of Inuit myth and legend.


Sol (2014)

Part-investigation, part-moving tribute, Sol follows the story of Solomon Tapatia Uyarasuk, a 26-year old Inuk performing artist found dead in the Iglulik police station in 2012—in the process, it offers a view into the impact of the young man’s death on the community, and the underlying issues of youth suicide in the North.


Uvanga (2013)

Following a Montreal woman and her 14-year-old son to meet his late father’s Inuit family for the first time, Arnait’s second feature film explores cross-cultural relationships, homecoming, and the complexity of rebuilding family ties in the midst of painful shared histories.

Before Tomorrow (2008)

Arnait’s first feature-length film, the story was adapted from Jørn Riel’s novel Før Morgendagen, which depicts the dignity and resourcefulness of the human spirit. Madeline Ivalu and her real-life grandson, Paul-Dylan Ivalu, play a grandmother and grandson who become stranded on an arctic island as winter closes in. The film won numerous awards, including Best First Feature Film at the Toronto International Film Festival, and was screened at the Sundance Film Festival.


Unakuluk (Dear Little One)
(still) (2005)
© the artists

Unakuluk (Dear Little One) (2005)

An exploration of Inuit adoption practices, featuring the personal histories of women in Iglulik. An intimate portrait of family ties and a vibrant illustration of the role adoption plays in Inuit culture. Following in a parallel thread, the film documents the creation of an intricate felt wall hanging that depicts key moments taken from their lives.


(still) (2001)
© the artists

Anaana (2001)

The remarkable story of Vivi Kunuk, mother of filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk and artist Mary Kunuk Iyyiraq. Her stories personalize the history of changes experienced by Canadian Inuit during the last 60 years.


Ningiura, My Grandmother
(still) (2000)
© the artists

Ningiura, My Grandmother (2000)

An experimental fiction based on authentic oral histories, traditional knowledge and the contemporary reality of Iglulik. An elder and her granddaughter get to know and appreciate each other after a family tragedy.


Unikausiq (Stories)
(still) (1996)
© the artists

Unikausiq (Stories) (1996)

In this computer-animated work, Mary Kunuk Iyyiraq preserves stories and songs from her childhood.


Travellers (still)
© the artists

Travellers (1996)

An experimental documentary about the relationships between Marie-Hélène Cousineau and the women of Arnait. The video is a cross-cultural self-portrait of the group.


Aqtuqsi (My Nightmare)
(still) (1996)
© the artists

Aqtuqsi (My Nightmare) (1996)

A short experimental piece by Mary Kunuk Iyyiraq, depicting her aqtuqsi, a paralyzing nightmare.


Piujuk and Angutautuq
(still) (1994)
© the artists

Piujuk and Angutautuq (1994)

This portrait of two women from Iglulik—Madeline Ivalu (Piujuk) and Susan Avingaq (Angutautuq)—shows them participating in community events over the past six years. Computer illustrations by artist Mary Kunuk Iyyiraq are integral to the video.


(still) (1993)
© the artists

Qulliq (1993)

A qulliq is the seal oil lamp and stove, the only source of light and warmth, traditionally attended by women. This re-enactment tells about the qulliq in words and songs as the women install it in their iglu.


Attagutaaluk (Starvation)
(still) (1992)
© the artists

Attagutaaluk (Starvation) (1992)

Rose Ukkumaluk, a now-deceased Iglulik elder, relates the tale of Attagutaaluk, the revered “Queen of Iglulik,” whose cannibalism in the face of starvation reflected her courage and strength. Both Iglulik schools are named for her.


This Feature was originally published in the Summer 2009 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly.


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