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A trip to Nunavut to research Inuit art turned into a seven-year labour of love for a pair of filmmaker-journalists from Boston whose documentary about an Inuit and an African circus is getting worldwide recognition.

The film Circus Without Borders (Northern Light productions, 2015) tells the story of the friendship between two world-class acrobats and the partnership they formed between the circuses each had founded — Artcirq based in Igloolik, Nunavut, and Kalabante in Guinea, West Africa.

On the surface they could hardly be more different, given their geographic locations and ethnicity. But they share the same vision: to bring hope and change to their struggling and isolated communities, through circus arts. The film casts a light on difficult issues such as suicide and poverty, which continue to haunt Nunavut, yet it focuses on the resilience and joy of young Inuit performers.

The seed for the film was planted in 2006 when Boston Globe reporter Linda Matchan went to Cape Dorset and pangnirtung on Baffin Island to write a travel article about Inuit sculpture and prints. Tragedy struck during her stay in pangnirtung when a young mother took her own life, and Matchan witnessed the devastation to the small community.

Saddened by what she’d seen, Matchan, a Canadian, began to research the phenomenon of suicide in Canada’s North and its link to the country’s history of residential schools attended by thousands of aboriginal children forcibly removed from their parents. Suicide is one of Nunavut’s most urgent public health issues. The rate has been estimated as 10 times the Canadian average, much higher for young men.

In the course of her research, Matchan learned about Artcirq, a performing arts troupe from Igloolik started by Guillaume saladin, a Quebec acrobat who had performed in Montreal’s acclaimed Cirque Eloize.

Guillaume is the son of the prominent Canadian anthropologist Bernard saladin D’Anglure. He had many Inuit friends, and when two of them took their own lives, Guillaume responded by helping to create a circus troupe in Igloolik incorporating Inuit traditions such as throat-singing, juggling, and telling stories which illuminate traditional ways of life, including hunting and fishing. These Inuit ways had become threatened when children were isolated from their parents and grandparents in residential schools.

In 2008, Matchan took the idea to susan Gray, an award-winning documentary film director, writer and producer at Northern Light productions in Boston.

“Suicide does not just affect disadvantaged communities, it affects all of us,” says Gray.

At first it was difficult for Matchan and Gray to win the trust and confidence of Guillaume, who was wary of outsiders telling a story about Inuit people. But over the course of the seven years it took to make the film, the filmmakers forged a relationship of trust and respect with Artcirq’s members, whom they filmed in Igloolik, Ottawa, Montreal, and at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, where they performed.

The film crew was in Igloolik in 2011 when the Truth and reconciliation Commission arrived to take testimony from community members who had been impacted by the residential school legacy. Circus Without Borders contains footage of the hearing, conveying the emotion and distress of a community still very much affected by the school system which was introduced to Igloolik in the 1950s — much later than other Aboriginal communities.

The film also has footage shot by D’Anglure showing traditional Inuit life as it was lived 50 years ago — families building and living in igloos, heating them with blubber lamps, and hunting for seals on a frozen sea.

A central part of the film is Artcirq’s partnership with an African performing arts troupe called Kalabante, formed by acrobat and musician Yamoussa Bangoura, whom Guillaume had worked with in Cirque Eloize. In 2010, the filmmakers accompanied Artcirq to Guinea, and to their surprise, began to see parallels in their stories.

Inuit once lived in a more communal way before a Western lifestyle was imposed. The circle was central to traditional Inuit life: The seasons were cyclical, the houses were round, the life cycle of birth, death and rebirth were circles. Today Inuit live in square houses in isolation, and rely on TVs and electronic devices, much like the rest of the developed world, and a sense of community has been lost. In Guinea, where suicide is rare, life remains strongly communal, and the film shows this interesting contrast.

Members of Kalabante in Conakry, Guinea. photo courtesy of Northern Light productions
Members of Kalabante in Conakry, Guinea. photo courtesy of Northern Light productions

Circus Without Borders — which interweaves the stories of each circus — opened in Boston in the spring of 2015, and has screened in film festivals across the United states and Vancouver, and at arts festivals in Iqaluit and the Montreal First peoples Festival.

In October, it was the opening film of the prestigious Margaret Mead Film Festival in New York.

The filmmakers feel it’s important to show the movie to as many people as possible — particularly youth — to share its message of hope. “It doesn’t matter what community you are born into or the kind of challenges you inherit,” said Gray. “It matters that you retain the ability to dream of a bright future, and that there are people committed to teaching you the skills you need to get there.”

The Washington-based pulitzer Center on Crisis reporting sponsored an educational tour of the film in Washington, philadelphia, Chicago and St. Louis. The filmmakers, along with Yamoussa and Guillaume, appeared at dozens of schools to talk about the film and their work.

The documentary was selected as an in-flight film on Air Canada flights during November and December.

Kinosmith in Toronto and Journeyman pictures in England are distributors for Circus Without Borders (70 minutes).

Linda Matchan,
Producer Circus Without Borders