Marie-Hélène Cousineau began making film and video in Igloolik by going on community radio. Her pitch was charmingly simple.
"I said, 'I'm here, I have a little grant from the Canada Council to make films, and anyone who is interested should come to my house," says the Montreal filmmaker, recalling the start of her Northern adventures in 1990. Among the first to show up at her door were Madeline Ivalu and Susan Avingaq, who had never filmed anything. They spoke no French or English, and Cousineau had no Inuktitut. But the three have since made two feature films together: Before Tomorrow, a historical drama that won the award for best Canadian first feature at TIFF in 2008; and Uvanga, which opens today in Toronto and Vancouver.
Like Cousineau's pitch on local radio, Uvanga is closely connected to a particular Northern community. Its plot has to do with the fictional homecoming of a boy and his mother, but the turbulent social background is drawn from life in Igloolik. Characters get violently drunk, gamble, and threaten each other. The town is shown as an often tense environment, from which people escape onto the land to hunt.
"Uvanga was a difficult film to make," says Cousineau. "It was the first time we were shooting in town, in a contemporary situation. We were not isolated from the life there. When you make a historical drama, you go out on the land, and it's hard, but you have that exaltation, of being among the most beautiful aspects of the North. But in town, we were confronted with the social problems and the poor housing. Some of us had to billet in houses that were mouldy and made people sick. And still, we had to concentrate on the work every day."
Ivalu co-directed and played a grandmother, repeating in a more limited way the twin jobs she performed in the first feature.
"Before Tomorrow was very demanding for Madeline," says Cousineau, "because she was the main actress and was in almost every scene, and she was directing her actual grandson, in Inuktitut. I was directing from an outside point of view, and taking care of the more technical things. We had to trust each other, that we were going in the same direction."
This time, the challenge was to decide how much of the harder side of Igloolik life to show. "Madeline had never represented that, and she was a little ill at ease and afraid of what the other elders would say," says Cousineau. But after the first community screening, the other elders approved.
In a way, they were giving their consent to the closing of a circle that began to be drawn when Cousineau first went on Igloolik radio. Her initial goal in the North was to make available the means for documenting the stories of Inuit women. "I didn't want to impose any narrative structure. I didn't feel I had to teach them how to make TV or film the way it's 'supposed' to be." She and several Igloolik women formed a collective called Arnait Video Productions, and for the next 10 years, they experimented with short documentaries and interviews.
Cousineau took a few of their works to galleries and universities in the south, and discovered a lot of curiosity there about the voices of Inuit women. Atanarjuat, Zacharias Kunuk's ground-breaking historical feature, appeared in 2001, and suddenly there was a flood of interest in Northern stories. Isuma, the Igloolik-based production company behind Atanarjuat, also produced Arnait's first feature.
Ironically, Before Tomorrow was an Inuktitut adaptation of a Danish novel by Jorn Riel. Uvanga has an original story, but was mostly shot in English, which isn't the first language of most people in Igloolik.
For both films, Cousineau says, the work followed the same team-based collaborative method developed during years of video-making. Avingaq was the designer for both productions, and helped with the script of Uvanga, but like everyone else, she contributed ideas about all other aspects. If something happened outside the film that could disrupt the work, the elders on the set took it in hand. "Susan and Madeline were able to solve any situation, because of their authority in the town," says Cousineau.
Like the southern white mother in her film (played by Marianne Farley), Cousineau has an Inuit son, but she says the film is not autobiographical, and her adopted boy was never alienated from his Northern heritage the way the film's Tomas (Lukasi Forrest) is at the start of the film. "He knows his Inuit family, his parents and siblings. He has been back to the North maybe a dozen times."
The hard realities of Northern life came home to Cousineau with particular force months after the crew of Uvanga left the house in which the interior scenes were shot last summer. "Eight months after we finished shooting," she says," a guy was murdered in that bedroom by his wife, in front of his kids.
"The situation up there is really tough," she says. "I have a lot of admiration for those who are able to keep their spirits up and keep doing things. To do any kind of creation up there is a big challenge."