• Interviews

Tracing the Narratives of Inuit Filmmaking Talents

Aug 31, 2022
by IAQ

On Inuit Cinema | Inuit Takugatsaliukatiget, a new book published by Memorial University Press, features interviews and essays that survey the work of Inuit filmmaking talents, many of which have gone uncredited through history. Edited and compiled by Mark David Turner, a cultural historian and facilitator who works in the northwest Atlantic, the book also features an extensive filmography and a section of moments in the development of Inuit cinema that readers will never find on an IMDb page. (All proceeds from On Inuit Cinema | Inuit Takugatsaliukatiget are going to the Inuit Art Foundation.)

IAQ Deputy Editor Sue Carter spoke to Turner about the book and the importance of recognizing the work of Inuit in front of and behind the camera. 

Sue Carter: What was the first Inuit film you remember watching? 

Mark David Turner: Zacharias Kunuk’s Atanarjuat (2001). I had certainly known about Isuma and to a lesser degree Arnait Video Productions’ work. But outside of that, I did not have  a very clear sense of the scale or scope of Inuit-produced film. 

The first Inuit-produced audio-visual media I really spent time with—material I digitized over the course of two or three years—was content produced by the OKâlaKatiget Society (OK), the radio and television broadcaster based in Nain, Nunatsiavut. In 1983, they started making five-minute segments for broadcast as part of the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation’s Qaggiq program with the name Labradorimiut. Eventually, Labradorimiut became a 30-minute weekly documentary series presented in English and Inuttitut/Inuttut on IBC and later, APTN. Watching that material  opened my eyes to the amount of work that had been done by Labrador Inuit. I come from a settler culture from Newfoundland. Growing up, we were never exposed to anything like this. Digitizing that content—which mostly took place in real time—gave me the opportunity to watch it. 

The history of film production in Labrador is interesting because the majority of films produced there were made by people from outside the region. Labradorimiut, however, is a television show produced in the region for 28 years. The show is unique in Labrador and was a wonderful way to learn about the region, and about Labrador Inuit. It opened my eyes to the different ways Inuit have historically worked in film and television. 

SC: How is digitizing a film a different way of watching than going to a theatre or sitting in front of a television?

MDT: With the OKâlaKatiget Society collection specifically there were a few key differences. First, as I’ve mentioned, very little of the history and culture it documents is known in Newfoundland. It was very humbling in that sense and I learned a lot. Second, the media themselves are often historical records and I was very aware of their fragility. Third, I was very conscious of where I was while doing a good chunk of that work. I’m very grateful to my friends at the OKâlaKatiget Society for hosting me while doing a lot of that work. It was immersive and that certainly affected how I came to understand the history of film and television in Nunatsiavut.   

SC: Did that history influence your methodology in creating this book and how you approached your role?

MDT: Absolutely. My earlier work focused on filmmaking in Newfoundland and Labrador. Filmmaking in Nunatsiavut is also part of that history but it is obviously also part of a history of filmmaking across Inuit Nunaat. Working on the OKâlaKatiget Society materials exposed me to that, but when I started working for both the OKâlaKatiget Society and Nunatsiavut Government (NG) it became obvious how essential that kind of circumpolar context was. 

Since 2016, I have worked for both NG and OK as a Manager of Audiovisual Archives and Media Literacy for both. I help to develop paths of access to digital historical records. That position came about as a result of a research partnership between Memorial University and Nunatisavut Government called Tradition and Transition Among the Labrador Inuit (T&T). And it was Tradition and Transition that created a context for On Inuit Cinema | Inuit Takugatsaliukatiget.

The book itself comes out of the 2016 Inuit Studies Conference, which was organized by T&T. We had a very strong film program in that conference and its two associated festivals, iNuit Blanche and the katingavik inuit arts festival. The screenings and discussions were fantastic and I wanted to keep that conversation going. I recognize I am not necessarily the ideal person to lead that conversation, but it seemed to me that there were ways I could help to amplify the voices of the people involved in making Inuit cinema. My experience with film and relationship with the academy meant I could leverage resources to make something like a book happen. And seeing as there are no books that attempt to create a space for Inuit-directed thought on film, a book seemed like the right kind of format for the project to take.   

SC: Film isn't monolithic, in the same way that culture isn't. But in recent films produced by Inuit filmmakers, have you observed a general shift in the types of stories being told?

MDT: I think the biggest shift is the proliferation of non-documentary styles of storytelling. Often, the first phase in the development of a culturally-specific cinema is documentary. There are cost considerations, of course, but documentary is a very direct way to tell a story and promote one’s language. 

Really, you can see that shift away from documentary between the late ’90s through the early aughts. What is funny though, is that southern audiences maybe didn’t catch up to Inuit filmmakers. Marie-Hélène Cousineau makes an interesting observation in the Arnait interview that when they would screen films like Uvanga (2013) in the South, audiences thought it was a documentary film!  

Right now, there seems to be an explosion in narrative filmmaking, especially in the horror genre. Nyla Innuksuk’s Slash/Back (2022) is the latest there, but Marc Fussing Rossbach has been working in a similar constellation since at least 2017–18 with Akornatsinniittut - Tarratta Nunaanni (2019). There also seems to be a slight uptick in animation with Echo Henoche’s Shaman (2017), asinnajaq’s Three Thousand (2017), which blends documentary and animation, and Zacharias Kunuk’s Angakusajaujuq (2021).  

Of course, documentary is thriving and many of those filmmakers are breaking new ground. Aleksei Vakhrushev’s Book of the Sea (2018) blends animation and new footage to explore the cultural significance of the sea in Chukotka. Jennie Williams’ Nalujuk Night (2021) is also pushing the envelope while documenting a very old and very Labrador Inuit tradition. And films like Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s Angry Inuk (2016) and Inuk Silis Høegh’s SUMÉ: The Sound of a Revolution (2014) have, I think, helped to shape important debates and push the conventions of the genre. 


SC: The book also includes an extensive filmography. Can you talk about the job of pulling that together?

MDT: I work with records so lists are second nature. But I also come from and work in contexts where there are barriers to understanding and accessing what’s out there. Making sure people know what’s out there—regardless of who created it—is part of the work of decolonization. 

It’s important to understand that the filmography I created is not a filmography of “Inuit Film”. I’m not in any position to define what Inuit Film is. Rather, it’s a representative filmography of 500 films and television shows by and about Inuit. It is essential that everyone knows the full scale of what’s out there. Five hundred was a nice round number. There’s a lot more, of course. In some of the interviews in the book, especially Stephen Pusakas’s and Inuk Silis Høegh’s, there are interesting discussions about the work of non-Inuk filmmakers and the legacy of that work. The filmography is another way to chart the history. 

The core of the filmography came from the interviews themselves—from the titles that were discussed and also the output of the interviewees. I had been separately maintaining a filmography of Labrador and incorporated relevant bits there. The National Film Board of Canada and Danish Film Institute maintain great databases. And print publications like Inuit Art Quarterly helped to fill in the gaps.   

The book also has a “Moments” section, which was shaped by both Blandina Makkik [Inuit Art Foundation’s Igloo Tag Coordinator] and by the peer reviewers from the book. It became a much larger thing because of their prompting but also because of Blandina's fantastic methodology: “It's not really about dates, it’s about moments whose significance resonate.”


SC: What do you hope the book achieves?

MDT: One of the things that I hope the book does, is to demonstrate the depth, range and deep history of Inuit labour in film and television, which I find absolutely inspiring. There are so many Inuit that have worked so hard for so long, and I think the book shines a light on those accomplishments. In many of the films listed in the Filmography–especially up until the 1970s or 80s–crediting conventions often concealed who was doing the work. I think it’s important to reassess what it means to author a film, especially during that period.

I'm also inspired by Labrador Inuit like Esther Eneutseak (1877–1961) and her daughter, Nancy Columbia (1893–1959), who began their performing careers in zoos in Europe before moving to pan-American expositions, and then became writers and directors of early feature films. We’re only starting to recover some of those stories now and I hope this book helps to put their work and the work of [silent film actors] Zacharias Zad (1884–1918) and Simon Aputik (1861–) into a much larger context.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Suggested Reads

Related Artists