In the middle of a sprawling green terrain, set against an icy blue fjord, a group of young Inuk girls lean against lichen-covered rocks with a shotgun in hand. In the distance, they notice a polar bear and something about it is off. A black gash is ripped through its skull and distorted legs flail from its body. Suddenly, it spots the group and starts to charge. In the film’s trailer, the youngest of the girls, just eight years old, screams as the vicious creature roars and hurtles toward them, and then the sound of a gun goes off.
“Told you I’m a good shot!” says Uki (played by Nalajoss Ellsworth) with a smile on her face.
The Pangnirtung-made and set sci-fi film Slash/Back follows the girls through the small Arctic hamlet as they fight off an alien invasion of worm-like mutants who take over the dead bodies of animals and neighbours. But it’s the aliens who don’t know who they’re dealing with. As the kids’ action-hero catchphrase goes, “Don’t f*ck with the girls from Pang.”
Slash/Back is just one example of the dozens of Northern movies that have toured the globe over the last decade. Filmmaker Nyla Innuksuk recently screened it at the Sitges Film Festival in Spain, where the audience’s response was enthusiastic.
“They were cheering and celebrating every time there was blood or a death,” Innuksuk says. “People were coming up to us in the street afterwards and telling us they loved the movie.”
Her first major film project, Innuksuk made Slash/Back with the help of fellow Inuit creators Alethea Arnaquq-Baril and Stacey Aglok MacDonald, who were overjoyed to tell a Northern story that isn’t based on the cold or the struggles Inuit face.
“It’s actually good to be showing ourselves, not just in states of trauma, but also in moments of joy and laugher,” says Innuksuk.
Motion pictures have been shaping people’s perceptions of the North ever since Robert Flaherty shot Nanook of the North over a century ago. In decades past, Indigenous peoples rarely got to tell their own stories, and when they did distributors were often only interested in themes of trauma.
But Northern filmmaking has come a long way in the past 20 years, starting with Igloolik’s Zacharias Kunuk’s and his film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, which won acclaim at international festivals and put Nunavut on the movie map.
Now, a new roster of filmmakers is working to create a sustainable movie industry. With more local support, national funding and a general thirst for unique storytelling, Northern filmmakers are delivering a mix of documentaries, dramas, sci-fi and horror, and ultimately changing how Canada perceives the scene up here.
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Inside a Toronto theatre in 2016, a crowd of people stood up from their seats and cheered for the haunting truth told in Angry Inuk. No doubt, some were sniffling and wiping their eyes as the documentary’s credits rolled and they began to process the sad reality of how Canada has treated Inuit over the centuries.
“I’m still recovering emotionally,” a patron told a POV Magazine camera crew at the time. “It was a very powerful film.”
Referred to as “activist cinema at its best” by NOW Magazine, Arnaquq-Baril’s documentary spoke to the cultural value of seal hunting at a time when many protested its existence. Told from an Inuit perspective, the film discusses how crucial the hunt is for Nunavummiut in terms of sustainability, survival and culture.
The Canadian response to the film was surreal for Arnaquq-Baril, who recalls how quickly online conversations around the subject shifted. Suddenly thousands of Canadians were by her side. “It was pretty cathartic,” she says. “I definitely had a good cry the first time I saw that.”
During its premiere at the Hot Docs Film Festival, Angry Inuk won the Video on Demand Audience Award and the $25,000 Canadian Documentary Promotion Award. But producing the film didn’t come easy.
Seeking funding for filmmaking in Nunavut was difficult when Arnaquq-Baril began working on documentaries in 2003. Like many other regions in Canada, directors and producers in the North have historically looked to federal funding bodies like Telefilm and the Canada Media Fund (CMF) to get their projects off the ground. But it’s a shallow pool of money if you’re in the North. Of the CMF’s $260 million annual budget, just one million of it is earmarked for all three territories. So competition can be fierce.
When it comes to funding for TV series, there is an additional step. Arnaquq-Baril explains that applicants must first obtain a licence from a broadcaster, which means proving to southern executives that a project will be popular with a national audience. The Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) helped break some barriers by airing specifically Indigenous content when it acquired a national broadcast license in 1999. “But even they have to consider a national audience,” Arnaquq-Baril says.
In January 2021, she began her own broadcasting company and 24/7 Inuktut channel — Uvagut TV. Broadcasting movies, documentaries, interviews and kids' shows, the channel is available to more than 600,000 homes across Canada and in turn, empowers Inuit stories.
Of course, securing the funding to produce a movie or TV show is just the first step. Actually shooting a film in the North is a different battle.
On a cold January morning in 2001, 21-year-old Jay Bulckaert’s head throbbed while his stomach swirled with nausea. Luckily, the –35 C temperatures softened the rank smell of garbage surrounding him at the Yellowknife dump, but the frigid air still stung his nose. The weight of the camera pulled at his shoulder, but he pushed that all aside. He and his friends were braving the frigid temperatures and rank odour to shoot another episode of Dump Talk.
“What I mostly remember is the honey bucket episode and how disgusting that was,” Bulckaert says. Over Dump Talk’s five or so episodes, which aired online, Bulckaert and others from the Western Arctic Moving Pictures (WAMP) crew interviewed people who worked at and visited the dump, filming how to properly dispose of assorted objects, like a honey bucket. “It was just guys being idiots, like dumping out the honey bucket and hitting it with an axe just to show people what a shit-sickle looks like.”
From those humble beginnings, Bulckaert founded his own production company, Collective 9, a few years later. Elsewhere in Yellowknife, another filmmaker, Pablo Saravanja, started his own company, Artless Media. Saravanja was a cinematographer and sound technician. Bulckaert was an editor and camera operator. The two went back and forth hiring each other for different productions until they eventually decided to join forces. It’s how Yellowknife’s Artless Collective was born.
“It’s amazing we survived,” says Bulckaert. “It wasn’t obvious when we started a film production company that we could be doing this full-time.”
Still going strong today, the duo mostly works on documentaries and short projects on language and cultural revitalization in collaboration with Indigenous organizations and governments. But before all that, Bulckaert says he and the few NWT filmmakers at the time first had to create a film industry.
The territory’s film commission launched in 1999 as a part of NWT’s arts and crafts budget. But there were no jobs or funds set aside specifically for filming. Calls often went unanswered. Bulckaert remembers a time when a German yoghurt company called about filming a commercial in town and got the commissioner’s answering machine.
“That was all the film commission was — a voicemail — and they got no answer. They brought basically a half a million-dollar production to town, and no one cared.”
In 2011, Bulckaert helped launch the NWT Professional Media Association to try and promote the importance of developing a film industry and to convince the territorial government that it deserved funding. The non-profit organization continues to cultivate professional growth in the territory and today, the NWT film commissioner offers significant rebates and incentives for people to film here.
Since 2015, the commission’s film rebate program has supported 16 projects, which has resulted in more than $5 million of spending in the NWT.
But then came the next hurdle: finding professional filmmakers and ensuring they have consistent work at a professional level.
When Artless Collective had to turn down an opportunity to film a Hallmark movie because locals didn’t have enough experience, that was the last straw.
“I’m not saying that people here are untalented and aren’t experienced,” says Bulckaert. “I’m saying that in the scripted world of dramatic film, we have very limited experience.”
So, Artless Collective created the Hyper Arctic Creators (HAC) Lab, which offers solid film experience over three months while simultaneously teaching 10 employees how to work as a united film crew, all so future film opportunities don’t get passed up. Or that would have been the case if the HAC Lab hadn’t launched in the middle of a global pandemic.
But Artless Collective is not giving up. The workshop may yet be revived, along with the Dead North Film Festival, which the company ran from 2012 to 2019. The winter event gave Northerners three months to create a short horror film that would later screen in a Yellowknife film festival.
What began with only a handful of participants soon grew to dozens of submissions each year from across the territories, as well as the circumpolar North. While the festival was successful in garnering interest in Northern filmmaking, Bulckaert and Saravanja are currently re-evaluating its structure.
“What we found is we were creating a system that was continuing to leverage people in not the most ideal way,” Bulckaert says. “We were encouraging people to do it for free and rely on favours and never raise money for their films. And that’s exactly what we don’t want to happen up here.”
Once you make a movie in the North, it helps to have an audience who wants to see it and somewhere they can watch it.
Just ask Andrew Connors, artistic director of the Yukon Film Society (YFS). He has been passionate about movie-making for decades, but he only realized the need to showcase more Northern projects at a film screening in 2003.
It was 10 am on a Saturday and Connors was parked outside the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre looking at a line of people outside the locked doors, waiting for the first year of Whitehorse’s Available Light Film Festival (ALFF). Connors and others from YFS were preparing to screen Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. It was clear from the crowd that the Yukon needed and wanted more local cinema.
“There were no opportunities to see Canadian films in Whitehorse and I’m sure it was the same in Yellowknife and Iqaluit,” Connors says. “So, we would program international films, but the focus has always been on Canadian [and Northern] cinema because we don’t get to see our own stories on our screens.”
Fast-forward 20 years and ALFF brings in thousands of viewers to Whitehorse theatres each February. In 2023, the films varied from illustrated documentaries from China to Oscar award-winners like The Whale, and Northern stories like documentaries about Inuit throat singers and First Nations boat carvers, and dystopian Arctic thrillers.
In between shows, industry professionals hosted film panels and workshops to inspire and inform people about what it takes to make a movie.
The festival has grown so immense over time that ALFF now partners with Canada Goose to fund Yukoners to screen short films. Local shorts were once the Dawson City International Short Film Festival’s sole domain, but as it turns out, there are enough Northern projects to spread around.
“If I think back 10 years ago… there might have been two or three films from the territories and now it’s more like five or six in a typical year,” Connors adds.
During 2023’s festival, a Telefilm spokesperson announced a new partnership with the Arctic Indigenous Film Fund, based in Norway. Joining circumpolar filmmakers together, the organization intends to launch film workshops in Northern communities.
Meanwhile, the festival’s Indigenous Initiatives Department, created in 2017 in response to calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is hiring more Indigenous people to take on the roles of decision-makers, answering a need for more diverse voices in media.
“There’s much more awareness in peer circles and in the general public that there are successes from filmmakers in each territory,” Connors says. “I think that’s shifted people’s perspective and knowledge of what’s happening here.”
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Surveying the Northern film landscape these days, Arnaquq-Baril agrees that a lot has changed.
“A lot of work has been done by different people to create funding structures, training programs and support systems for people who want to work in the industry,” she says.
Like Artless Collective, which continues to finetune its plans, hosting workshops, writing competitions and other events while taking on commissions to create more projects.
Behind the scenes, the Nunavut Film Development Corporation is boosting education with the Film Industry Training (FIT) program. Funded by the Makigiaqta Inuit Training Corporation, the program offers camera, sound and editing workshops for future filmmakers. Over four years, FIT welcomed 275 participants to join both beginner and enhanced film workshops for those seeking professional development.
And a talented roster of film creatives and on-screen talent from the North have become well-known names. Yellowknife’s Kirsten Carthew, who created her first feature The Sun at Midnight in 2016, has had a flourishing career, including a recent collaboration with Yukon producer Max Fraser for the 2022 drama Polaris, providing an example of how Northern filmmakers can work together.
Inuk actor Anna Lambe’s career is taking off after her debut in Iqaluit’s The Grizzlies. The 2018 film, based on a true story about a group of Nunavut students who learn lacrosse, landed Lambe roles in high-ranking TV series on CBC and Amazon.
Documentaries, too, are reaching national screens, like the Yukon’s Voices Across the Water, Caveman Bill and Nunavut’s Twice Colonized.
While some Northern films tell hard truths about Canada’s colonial past and present, others highlight quirky residents living their best life. Sci-fi films like Slash/Back not only offer moments of joy, but a taste of reality for those who know little about the North.
One journalist, for example, expressed surprise to Innuksuk when she realized that the kids living in Pangnirtung have such “modern” lives. While the comment surprised Innuksuk herself, she says it also solidifies the importance of telling Northern tales.
“Just by telling stories that are reflective of ourselves rather than ones rooted in stereotypes, it’s going to humanize who we are and make people understand, even in our differences, how similar we are.”