Interview: Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, Angry Inuk Director

With thanks to Nathanael Smith

Angry Inuk is a controversial documentary that defends seal hunting and confronts the predominant animal rights narratives that have systematically made life worse for Inuit communities. Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s film, however, is not as angry as the title suggests, taking a level-headed look at a multi-faceted issue. While it may not be bubbling with rage, it is a film driven by passion, and that passion was even clearer when I met the director to talk about her film.

This film takes place over eight years – how did it start? Did you think you were going to tell a story over eight years?

God, no. If I’d known it would take that long, I probably wouldn’t have started. Originally, I had intended to make a film about Aaju Peter, the lawyer in the film, and her life’s work on this issue. It was going to be about how the 1983 ban on seal products in the EU had affected Inuit and that much of the problems we face today in our communities could be traced back to that ban.

However, right when we started pitching for money to make this film, the EU announced that they were proposing a new ban. Suddenly it became a contemporary story that was unfolding before our very eyes. It became bigger and more complex than I thought it would be.

Also, as an Inuk, I’m not just an outside filmmaker covering this issue; it’s important to me that people know what’s happening. My hope is that this film can contribute to getting those bans repealed. I felt it was important to cover the new ban, how that was happening and how these groups talk about the issue very deliberately to erase Inuit from the picture.

It’s quite a controversial topic. Have you had any pushback on the film so far?

I have, but only from people who haven’t seen it yet. Paul Watson, from the Sea Shepherds Society [who features in the film], for instance.

One of the things that struck me was that the arguments of the anti-seal hunting campaigners are based on emotionalism rather than facts. Do you think that, although it predates terms like “post-truth”, such tactics fed into an anti-facts world by targeting how they could make you feel?

In this political climate, a lot of people are really shocked at how much Trump has been able to get away with and it feels like this post-truth thing is new to everyone. But for me this has been a reality for a long time, it’s what I’ve been fighting against for a long time. To me, it’s nothing new.

I saw a great article about people of colour in the US not being as phased as white liberals are, because it’s nothing new when you’re a minority that’s oppressed. Because you’re constantly trying to present people with facts and people are constantly ignoring them. That’s been my life experience.

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One of the things that fascinated me was how Inuit people express their anger, seeking to dispel it through singing songs about one another. Although there’s much to be angry about, the film is very even-tempered. Was the title Angry Inuk an ironic one?

Yes, that was the point of it. We had a lot of debates on my team whether to keep that name. To the very last minute I wasn’t sure whether to keep it because in a Canadian context, a lot of indigenous peoples have held protests and shut down highways. What’s happening with the Dakota Access Pipeline now, that’s happened in Canada many times over and it’s still happening now.

So, indigenous people in Canada are often portrayed as angry, but if you know anything about indigenous people in Canada but you don’t know this aspect of Inuit culture about how we express anger more quietly, the title Angry Inuk could play into that stereotype very easily. So, it was a tough decision to make: do we speak to people who know nothing about Inuit at all, or do we use this as an opportunity to teach people about how we express anger? I still wonder if another title would have been effective, but it is meant to be ironic.

Inuit culture is not something I knew much about before watching the film, and one of the recurring themes is about Inuit not being heard or known. Do you think the film has given you a voice?

I think it has. The film is doing well, it’s travelling. But, you know, you can’t just measure it by how well it does in film festivals and I really wondered how much is translating to the general population in Canada at least. Until a couple of weeks ago, it only played in Canada and it has only just begun its tour in Europe and the US.

There was a moment that really showed me that it really has been reaching the general public. The cosmetics company Lush, back in 2009 when the new ban was passed, they had put out an ad campaign against sealing, they donated the proceeds from one of their campaigns to the Sea Shepherd Society, at the time I wrote them a letter and explained that Inuit are sealers and that they’re indigenous people living in poverty. Of course, I didn’t get a response and people didn’t care back then.

Just a few weeks ago, they revived that campaign and were again going to donate the proceeds from a product to the same society. I logged into my Facebook and I was all prepared to write them a letter, the letter that I’ve been sending organisations and companies for many years now, saying the same things over and over again. I was stunned to discover that hundreds of hundreds of people had left them comments already, sometimes quoting, word-for-word, arguments from my film. It was just such a wonderful thing to not have to fight that one little battle for once.

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 One of the most galling aspects was the idea that animal welfare groups are making money from anti-seal hunting campaigns because seals are cute. Were you tempted to pull on that thread some more?

Absolutely, but I just wanted to allude to it and let people look it up themselves and make people aware of it, but that’s a whole other thing. I really think that animal rights and welfare groups, what was a movement has become an industry. It needs to be shaken up a bit. I hope that the people that work in that world will see this film and see that there needs to be a lot of work done. The horrible thing is that they’re not just bringing in so much money, they’re also ignoring other very real animal and environment issues that need to be addressed.

What do you make of Greenpeace’s apology to Inuit communities now?

I really have to look up what their site currently says, but even after they apologised… first of all, they initially apologised back in 1984 after the initial ban. They saw the destruction immediately in Inuit communities and apologised and committed to reverse the damage. They did nothing then, from 1984, to 2015 when they reissued the apology. It’s now been another couple of years since they reissued the apology and they still haven’t done anything to reverse that damage.

I think apologising is a way for them to deflect negative attention when people are criticising them for how they’ve affected Inuit communities, but it means nothing to me. Pity doesn’t put food in children’s bellies. It doesn’t do a damn thing, really, except make them feel better about themselves. So, I’ll be happy when they’ve put some work into reversing the legislation.

I loved the music in the film, a combination of a beautiful score and some Inuit throat singing.

I’m very proud, also, of the songs that are peppered throughout. The film opens with a very old Inuit country song and it’s over this beautiful vista of the sea ice and the water. Everyone who wasn’t from the North on my team went “oh no, I think it should be quiet, it’s such a peaceful scene.” To me it was extremely important to include the Inuktitut music because I’ve seen the Arctic portrayed as a vast, empty space for so long and people think of the Arctic as a whole wildlife refuge, and they forget that there are people there. So it was extremely important to start the film subconsciously sending the message that this place is inhabited by people. The song is all about springtime and the beauty in hunting season. The film starts in spring, so that was important.

Then there’s a fantastic young band in my hometown called the Jerry Cans who have been very strong advocates on the seal hunting issue. One of their songs appears in the film and it’s called Mamaqtuq, and the whole song basically is singing “seal stew is delicious.”

So, there are all these shout-outs to my home community that won’t mean anything to the people of the south but it adds to the texture of the film that we have our own rich culture and music.

Finally, is there any hope?

Absolutely. My friend Aaju says “if you don’t have hope, you might as well lay down and die.” I have more hope on this issue than I ever have done before and even if this was truly a David and Goliath fight and it felt impossible… the sense of pride I’ve seen when I screened this film at home, and Inuit being seen around the world and people siding with us, there’s dignity in that. Now, even if we continue to be attacked… knowing that there are people out there who don’t expect you to be ashamed of who you are, even that’s just been such a weight off our shoulders.

Nathanael Smith

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