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Vivid documentary at ImagineNATIVE captures Inuit whale hunt

In Hunting With My Ancestors, Atanarjuat director
Zacharias Kunuk captures the practices of his people
in a moving, apolitical manner

The first series episode, co-directed by Carol Kunnuk, documents a bowhead-whale hunt that took place in the summer of 2016.

In a trailer for his new TV series , Hunting With My Ancestors, Inuit film director Zacharias Kunuk introduces himself: "I'm a hunter, and a filmmaker." The order of his description is deliberate. Kunuk's films include Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, which won a Caméra d'Or at Cannes in 2001, and which many regard as the best feature ever made in Canada. But Kunuk never abandoned his Igloolik home for a bigger film scene elsewhere, and is intimately involved with his Nunavut community and its hunting practices.

The first series episode, co-directed by Carol Kunnuk, documents a bowhead-whale hunt that took place in the summer of 2016. The ImagineNATIVE film festival will show it in Toronto in an English-subtitled version on Thursday (the program is mainly in Inuktitut).

Seals can be taken by one or two hunters, but a whale hunt requires a large team. The first part of the show is taken up with organizational meetings, including a workshop with a man who demonstrates how to arm and fire penetrative grenades. The hunters would prefer to kill the whale in the traditional way, with harpoons only, but the conditions of their licence require them to use the principal killing method preferred by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and fire a small bomb into the whale's brain.

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The hunters spend several days camping in tents by the ocean, sharpening their weapons, fishing for camp food, waiting for the right conditions. The women in the camp are shown dressing fish fillets and hanging them up to dry in the cold summer wind. Three more days pass in fruitless boat patrols, looking for the bowhead.

Another licence condition was that Kunuk's film crew had to stay well back once the hunters started taking on the whale. When prey is sighted on the fourth day, we see the action mainly as a cluster of boats in the distance. The news that a harpoon has been thrown is conveyed like offstage action, by a small boy. Unusually, the whale does not bolt after the first strike, and as Kunuk's boat draws nearer we see a hunter hurl another harpoon, and hear the boom of the grenade.

The cheers, hugs and even tears that greet the success of the hunt are moving to witness.

The hunters celebrate the kill on their boats, and then tow their prize to shore, where the whole community is waiting, though it is past 2 in the morning. The cheers, hugs and even tears that greet the success of the hunt are moving to witness. People clamber onto the carcass and begin carving it into pieces that everyone will share. Kunuk doesn't say so, but the pictures tell you that for the northern Inuit, "the hunt" is practically synonymous with "the community."

All this is shown with minimal descriptive commentary by Kunuk. He doesn't go into the politics of whaling, or the obsessive need by the Canadian government to control how the Inuit feed themselves and maintain their culture. His whaling episode is the low-key counterpoint to Angry Inuk, Alethea Arnaquq-Baril's impassioned cinematic plea for less meddling in the sustainable, economically important Inuit seal hunt. The nub of Arnaquq-Baril's case – that anti-sealing activism is discriminatory and harms the Inuit – recently flared in a social-media ruckus over seal meat on the menu of a Toronto Indigenous restaurant.

Angry Inuk was made to catch the world's attention, while Kunuk is mainly documenting the practices of his people for their own benefit. His bowhead episode is somewhat related to Pour la suite du monde (1963), the "direct cinema" landmark by Michel Brault, Marcel Carrière and Pierre Perrault, which documented the revival of a form of whale trapping practised by the inhabitants of Ile-aux-Coudres, an island in the St. Lawrence River. But the Ile-aux-Coudres hunt was more about recalling lost folkways than acting on real need. The hunters in Kunuk's film are hunting to stay alive, in every sense of the word.

For centuries, bowhead whales provided Inuit communities with fresh food, fuel, clothing, tools and structural materials. Commercial hunting decimated the stocks in a few decades, and all bowhead hunting in Canadian waters was banned by the late 1970s.

Bowhead hunting became legal again when Nunavut was created in 1999, by which time the whale's numbers in the Eastern Arctic had rebounded to at least 10,000. The tight conservation controls exerted by FOC and the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board guarantee that the bowhead will not decline again because of overhunting.

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For centuries, bowhead whales provided Inuit communities with fresh food, fuel, clothing, tools and structural materials.

Environmentalists and animal-rights activists, however, have tarred all whaling as cruel and reckless. Ironically, the current threats to bowhead survival aren't hunters, but climate change and toxins that blow in from the south.

One of the first broadcast outlets for Hunting With My Ancestors will be IsumaTV, the online northern network that, in the bandwidth-starved north, transmits its programs through local high-speed media players. The show's screening at ImagineNATIVE is part of Channel 51 Igloolik, a tribute to 30 years of Inuit video, which also includes an exhibition at Toronto's Trinity Square Video – one of eight festival exhibitions in seven galleries.

This year's ImagineNATIVE, which began on Wednesday night, features more than 100 films and videos of all kinds, nearly two-thirds of which were made by women. The festival also includes A Wall Is a Screen, a walking tour of outdoor projections of Inuit film art through the city.


Hunting With My Ancestors screens at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox on Thursday afternoon. ImagineNATIVE continues at various Toronto locations through Oct. 22 (imaginenative.org).

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