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NFB Project Resurrects Inuit Film Archive

July/August 2011 by Tim Lougheed

“Unikkausivut” means “sharing our stories” in Inuktitut, the name of a National Film Board initiative that is bringing Inuit stories to all Canadians.

The image is simple, arresting, and iconic. An Inuit hunter lies on the ice, spear tucked closely by his side. He croaks out a seal call, sounding authentic enough to earn a response from an actual seal nearby, perched next to a hole in the ice. Slowly, patiently, and above all seal-like, the hunter works his way toward the animal, which continues to answer his calls, and even raises a flipper when he raises his arm. Finally, the man’s gradual movements are rewarded, when he is close enough to rise up and capture his prey.

This entire drama, which took place decades ago, was captured on film in black-and-white. The camera work is plain and unremarkable, especially for anyone accustomed to the dynamic standards of today’s multimedia imagery. Given the quality of camera equipment that might have been available at the time, the harsh conditions in which that equipment had to function, and the sheer difficulty of getting it to the Arctic at all, the clarity of the finished product undoubtedly represents a monumental amount of effort. Even so, this work and many others like it have remained tucked away in a Montreal film vault, seldom, if ever, being seen by anyone.

Now this cinematic obscurity is coming to an end. Over the past year, such films have been systematically resurrected from the Montreal archives of the National Film Board of Canada (NFB). Seemingly straightforward scenes like the hunter on the ice have been bringing tears to the eyes of audience members young and old — kindling fond memories of a vanishing way of life, coupled with the pride of knowing the remarkable features of Inuit culture have been preserved for everyone to see.

NFB Assistant Commissioner Claude Joli-Coeur has repeatedly witnessed both the tears and the pride, which together have reinforced his enthusiasm for a project that is assembling an unprecedented collection of films portraying aspects of Inuit life, past and present. Documentaries, animations, and historical dramas of life in the North, from 1942 to today, will find new life on DVDs and the World Wide Web. A total of 110 movies, all NFB productions and co-productions, will become accessible in this fashion over the next few years. And future offerings from emerging Inuit filmmakers will likewise be added.

Joli-Coeur has had a front-row seat for the emergence of this ambitious undertaking. As a major production house that has turned out no fewer than 13,000 works since it was founded in 1939, NFB has built an unrivalled collection of films dealing with aspects of the country’s indigenous peoples. In particular, those dealing with the Inuit form what is arguably the most comprehensive such collection in the world.

The implications of this resource became apparent in 2009, when a new NFB account of the Franklin expedition premiered at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau. Those present included Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, who responded with her own recollection of watching the NFB’s Netsilik Eskimos series in her youth. She added that it would be nice to once again see these and other films showcasing the northerly regions she calls home. The timing of her comments was fortuitous, as the NFB had already been looking to new digital platforms as a way of making such works more widely available. A formal review of the archives followed, confirming what was there and what would be most worth showing. When more than 100 movies were deemed worthwhile, Joli-Coeur knew a big job lay ahead.

“We have a cultural treasure that we want to make accessible to the Inuit, and to all Canadians,” he says. “It’s a history of more than 70 years — filming of the Inuit, with or by the Inuit. This is invaluable.”

The undertaking was dubbed Unikkausivut, “sharing our stories” in Inuktitut. By the end of 2011, NFB plans to release a boxed set of three DVDs containing 24 films representing the four Inuit regions. By 2015, all 110 films should be available on-line. Making this happen will be far from straightforward, and financing partners are still being sought. Costs could run into millions of dollars as experts tackle some extraordinary technical challenges. Since the beginning of 2011, a diverse team at NFB’s Montreal headquarters has been coming to grips with the unique problems posed by turning old movies into 21st century media.

To begin with, the basic physical quality of the films had to be confirmed, and restored if necessary, in preparation for converting them to a digital format. Moreover, the original sound quality of those films can vary significantly, depending on the type of equipment that had been used by the filmmakers. Studio engineers therefore find themselves looking at ways of accurately preserving the content of these recordings while making them conform to the much higher standards of today’s sound systems.

Even the legal status of some films can be no less problematic, depending on whether filmmakers are still alive and willing to grant NFB the rights to distribute their work in new formats. Nevertheless, the greatest challenge is likely that of ensuring that each film is entirely dubbed in Inuktitut, so that the complete contents of these stories will be available in the Inuktitut dialects of the four Inuit regions. Since direct translations into that language often run much longer than the French or English equivalents, the Inuktitut version must be carefully composed and spoken so as to coincide with the correct images on the screen.

Joli-Coeur notes that this daunting task and many others have been overcome through a rewarding partnership with the Inuit Relations Secretariat (IRS), created in 2006 within the department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada as a focal point for a federal body created in 2004 specifically to provide a voice for various Inuit governments and other organizations. The NFB and IRS formed an Inuit Advisory Committee composed of representatives from the major Inuit organizations, who together will guide the project.

“These organizations have the expertise and knowledge to make this project a success,” he concludes. “From the name of the project to the selection and translation of films, we have relied heavily on their guidance.”

Christopher Duschenes, the Secretariat’s Executive Director, acknowledges the many technical complexities generated by Unikkausivut. At the same time, like Joli- Coeur, he has met with the powerful emotional currents this project has already stirred up. Those same currents have likewise drawn in a variety of supporters from governments, NGOs, and the private sector, as part of a strategy to make the outcome more inclusive than if funding were only to come from public sources. Each of the major Inuit organizations has signed enthusiastic letters of endorsement signalling their support and encouragement for others to join the project.

“It’s a multi-partner approach,” he says. “It does make the process more complicated, but the end product and the needs that it meets are much more satisfying.”

Among those who should find it exceptionally satisfying is Martha Flaherty, an Inuk living in the National Capital region who speaks several Inuktitut dialects and has a demonstrable talent for the kind of skilled narration that Unikkausivut would demand. In addition to providing the essential narration for many of the older films, her own story has already provided the basis for one of the NFB’s latest offerings. She is the granddaughter of Joseph Flaherty, who in the 1920s produced the famous film Nanook of the North, which provided the world with one of the most enduring — if occasionally exaggerated or downright erroneous — depictions of Canada’s North.

The filmmaker never acknowledged fathering a child while he was in the Arctic, nor did he ever return to the region to confirm that he might even have known about any offspring. That child, Martha’s father, established a family that subsequently entered one of the darker chapters in the modern history of Canada’s North: the relocation of communities from northern Quebec into the more barren setting of Ellesmere Island in the 1950s.

In a 2008 film, Martha of the North, produced by Les Productions Virage in association with the NFB, she recounts the devastating impact of this transition on her family and others. The account offers a powerful testament to the Inuit role in an historic episode that could well have remained forgotten. And that account will become even more powerful within the context of Unikkausivut, which will present films embodying the colonial regard that Canada adopted toward the Inuit in the 1950s.

As difficult as it may be for contemporary Inuit to face past injustice or prejudice, educators in the North are welcoming the opportunity Unikkausivut will allow to do that and much more. Cathy McGregor, who has taken part in Arctic education for 38 years, is anticipating these films as eye-opening experiences for students.

“They don’t know how their grandparents lived; they have no idea because they don’t live that life,” she says, pointing to the example of hunting by posing as a seal on the ice. “There’s all kinds of very important values and lessons in those films, beyond the specifics of what they’re seeing.”

McGregor now serves as Executive Director of Curriculum & School Services for the Government of Nunavut Department of Education, which has become a partner in Unikkausivut. She can envision teachers extracting lessons about how Inuit traditionally solved critical problems of survival with ingenious use of available resources. In a harsh, unforgiving setting, she explains, these people were forced to adopt principles of sustainability that the rest of the world is only beginning to consider.

“Young people can understand that what is core to that old way of life actually gives Inuit an advantage for the future,” she explains. “Because they have lived a sustainable lifestyle, maybe they can teach people in the rest of the world how to be more sustainable in their lifestyle.”