Robert Flaherty's 1922 film Nanook of the North was initially promoted as a portrait of life "in the actual Arctic," even though its title character was invented and much of what he did was staged. These days there are many cameras in the actual Arctic, being used by Inuit people, some of whose footage has ended up in of the North, a film by Dominic Gagnon that ignited a firestorm of criticism after it was shown in Montreal last week.
Gagnon, who is celebrated in Quebec but scarcely known in English Canada, made the film from 500 hours of video that he found on YouTube. He has made several collage films this way, and they have been exhibited at festivals around the world, but none has ever been greeted with shouts of "This is a racist film!" which is what happened as the audience filed into a screening at the Montreal International Documentary Festival (RIDM).
Gagnon used and manipulated some live recorded music by Tanya Tagaq, without her permission. That was annoying, the Inuit singer said in a phone interview, but what really enraged her was the film.
"It's incredibly racist," she said. "He just found all the worst footage possible, of lots of drunk people falling down and barfing, and doing disrespectful hunts. I got really triggered and couldn't continue, but I saw a lot of it, and couldn't sleep that night."
She took to social media to condemn Gagnon and the festival, and to demand that her music be removed. Her fury gathered a crowd that included Nunavut singer Kelly Fraser (who is shown performing) and other Inuit artists, and within a few days the effects were roiling RIDM, Gagnon and an NFB producer who wasn't involved but defended the film after the screening. Tagaq threatened to sue, and a screening next week in Gatineau was cancelled.
The accusations "went straight to my heart," Gagnon said, in his tiny studio in Montreal. "To be called a racist, a white supremacist, an imperialist – all the things I wanted to denounce. This has been the toughest week of my life."
The road to that toughest week has been nothing if not methodical. Gagnon has made several YouTube-based films since 2008, amassing footage on a given theme, then editing down to a disjunctive collage with no narrative or leading characters. RIP in Pieces America focused on paranoid survivalists whose rants were removed from YouTube as "inappropriate." Hoax_Canular looked at teens who posted their feelings about a short-lived prediction that the world would end in 2012. The film won a Grand Prize at RIDM in 2013.
Gagnon made his Arctic collage in the same way, after discovering how much video was being posted to YouTube by Inuit in the north. His title clearly alludes to Flaherty's film, minus the fictitious Nanook, whose real-life descendants now hold the cameras."My project was about people who film themselves and share it online," he said. "I've made films about all kinds of people, mostly marginal people, who are pushed in the background, who are not loved. I always kept in mind that they are human beings who are suffering." In any case, he said, what ended up in of the North was not nearly as bleak as a lot of the material he decided not to use– and which was already available to anyone with an Internet connection.
The film features many desolate scenes, including a shot of guys feeding sewage to caribou, and a charged encounter between a clothed white man and a naked Inuit woman who tells him she is "nothing different than any other race" – a statement that shows her power, Gagnon said, and not any kind of abjection. Intoxicated people reel through the film like the repeating chorus of an unhappy song. There are also scenes of people dancing or cutting up a whale on the beach, and of kids playing.
"All I do is take things from the public realm, remix them and put them back in front of the public," Gagnon said. "I try not to censor myself, not to be politically correct, and also not to judge those people morally, or to protect them in a paternalistic way."
But unlike the first-person paranoiacs of RIP in Pieces America, not all the people shown in of the North had control of the camera. Many were filmed by others, and none of the parties were consulted about Gagnon's recontextualized use of their images, though he lists his sources at the end.
Norman Cohn, co-producer of Zacharias Kunuk's landmark feature film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner and a co-founder of Igloolik-based Isuma TV, said in an e-mail exchange that there's a long tradition of "re-representing Inuit by 'sympathetic' foreign filmmakers with the 'best intentions' and, despite these, all those films perpetuated racist and demeaning stereotypes, starting with Nanook of the North." Gagnon's mistake, from this perspective, was to decide that he could fairly re-represent his Inuit subjects without speaking with them or even travelling to the north.
In a way, Gagnon and his film are the nightmare of the likes of Cohn, Kunuk and members of Nunavut's Arviat Film Society who have been promoting film and video-making as an avenue to creativity and renewal for the northern Inuit. Gagnon just reached into the common video stock and made a free-wheeling mashup of whatever he thought would make an arresting film.
"So many Inuit are trying to make things better for our people," said Tagaq. "It's very irresponsible to shine such a negative light on addiction or on trauma, which is part of the post-colonial fallout from residential schools. It's like if you made a film about veterans, and only showed the homeless puking veterans, instead of showing the spectrum of how people are trying to survive trauma. If I had my way, that film would never be shown again."
Gagnon said she would have her way, to the limited extent that he will remove her music, and anything else 'anyone objects to. But the film will survive, he said, even as a ruin.
"It's becoming a conceptual art piece, because I'm willing to take out all the material that gives anyone problems," he said. "If I end up with 74 minutes of black leader silent film, then it will be a meditation on what happened."
The disappearing artwork that becomes a silent, image-less reproach may be the ultimate jiu-jitsu move in this battle between artists. But there may be many more volleys before the end of this story: Vidéographe, the film's distributor, says it is planning "a screening debate of the new version of the film to address the questions it raises about representation and colonialism." Expect no simple answers.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misidentified the sponsor of a planned "screening debate" of Dominic Gagnon's film of the North.