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Debate rages on over Dominic Gagnon and consent in the age of YouTube

Dominic Gagnon cobbled together YouTube videos for his Of the North film, which drew protests that it stereotyped Inuit.

In Of Montreal, Robert Everett-Green writes weekly about the people, places and events that make Montreal a distinctive cultural capital.

As Quebec film scandals go, the Claude Jutra affair was like an overnight conflagration, with nothing to do the next day but poke the ashes and consider how quickly an untested charge of pedophilia can destroy a reputation.

The Dominic Gagnon affair is more like a tire fire that keeps smoking and spreading as it finds more fuel. The fury that erupted in November over his film Of the North flares up anew as each festival screening approaches, with new skirmishes between Gagnon's many foes and his few supporters.

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For years, Gagnon has been making non-narrative experimental films with found footage, mostly taken from YouTube. His previous subjects have included right-wing conspiracy fanatics (in RIP in Pieces America) and teenagers obsessed with the apocalypse (in Hoax_Canular).

For Of the North, Gagnon processed and edited YouTube videos featuring or shot by Inuit people. Some of these clips show indigenous northerners in vulnerable or degrading situations, which was how Gagnon, previously known within a small subset of the film-festival circuit, became the most reviled filmmaker in Quebec.

Throat singer Tanya Tagaq led the media campaign against Gagnon's film, demanding an apology from Montreal International Documentary Festival, where it premiered in November. Of the North was denounced as "racist" all over social media, even by people who could not possibly have seen it. An online petition imploring other festivals not to show the film quickly gathered 1,500 signatures, including those of singer Nelly Furtado and filmmaker Marie-Hélène Cousineau.

"This film is a broken mirror that reflects a distorted and doctored image of Inuit," the petition charged, implicitly evoking a news-documentary standard of balanced presentation. Gagnon replied in interviews that that was neither his aim nor his duty: "I'm an artist, not a journalist," he said.

But the fracas about Of the North isn't just about what's in the film, but about how it was made. Gagnon didn't go to the North, and although he identifies each clip at the end of the film, he never tried to contact those whose footage he used; nor anyone who was pictured in it. He figured that if people had allowed YouTube to show their videos to all comers, no further consent was necessary.

He seems not to have noticed that "consent" is a very powerful word in indigenous communities. Consent is what governments and resource companies are supposed to obtain, but seldom do, when they want to intervene mightily on indigenous lands. The gold standard, as it appears in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, is "free, prior and informed consent," which was definitely not part of Gagnon's plan.

Stephen Puskas, the Inuk broadcaster who started the petition, tried to solve Gagnon's consent problem by plotting his video sources on a spreadsheet, then contacting the makers to tell them what had happened to their footage. Many asked that their clips be removed, just as Tagaq had demanded that her voice be taken off the audio track.

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This is the point at which Gagnon's larger project began to swing back against his detractors. The main themes of his work are self-presentation in digital media, and the controls that can be exerted on supposedly free networks. RIP in Pieces America was made from clips deleted by YouTube after the site's overlords found them to be "inappropriate." Now, Gagnon was in the same position, being asked to remove things because he had used them inappropriately. He did so in a way that dramatized the removal, by replacing the contested clips with black leader tape.

This is what was seen when the film screened in January at the Museum of the Moving Image's New Look festival in New York: a film that played like a document redacted by government censors. Gagnon's latest version – there are now six – is nothing but 74 minutes of black leader tape. It's hard to know whether this means the film is "dead," as its distributor said last week, or whether it has become, as Gagnon suggested to me in November, a conceptual art work that lives by protesting its own suppression.

Montreal's Rendez-vous du cinéma Québécois is the latest festival to participate in the film's disappearance, by removing it from its schedule last month. This victory for Gagnon's attackers prompted several Quebec filmmakers, including Denis Côté and Anne Émond, to publish an open letter in which they defended Gagnon's right to free expression.

"The film's unfortunate withdrawal recalls a not-so-distant time when censorship of art was imposed in the name of morality," they wrote in Montreal's Voir weekly. "In Quebec, we have come this way before."

This reference to generations of stifling thought control by the Catholic Church didn't make much of an impression on the opposition. The National Indigenous Media Arts Coalition fired back with its own open letter, signed by the likes of filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin and film critic Jesse Wente, saying that the defence of Gagnon's liberties by white artists was "indicative of a long-held sense of entitlement exhibited by settlers to Indigenous bodies, lands, and intellectual property."

That's where the matter rests, for now: in a bitter squabble between artists about when freedom of speech becomes an ideological veil for white privilege. Gagnon is no longer speaking about his film in public, and declined to be interviewed for this column. "I have been receiving threats and we are now considering legal action," he said in a brief e-mail.

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He did, however, send me a link to a recent report in which he wondered why Inuit artists are confronting him instead of those who could actually help fix the problems of northern communities. Of the North's next iteration, he suggested, might be one in which image software would replace every face in the film with that of Justin Trudeau. If the mirror of the film is truly broken, he seems to be saying, we may as well use it to reflect on the powerful.

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About the Author

Robert Everett-Green is a feature writer at The Globe and Mail. He was born in Edmonton and grew up there and on a farm in eastern Alberta. He was a professional musician for several years before leaving that task to better hands. More

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