Featured in
Issue 203

Life in Film: Zacharias Kunuk

Ahead of representing Canada at the 58th Venice Biennale, the director discusses his 30-year career making films about Inuit life

BY Zacharias Kunuk in Critic's Guides | 02 MAY 19


I grew up living off the land until 1966, when the Canadian government forced me to move to the small town of Igloolik to attend the Igloolik Federal Day School and learn to write and speak English. Before that, in my community, I used to hear Inuit folktales as bedtime stories told by parents and other elders. When I arrived in Igloolik, I realized that listening to them was just like watching a movie. 

At the time, Igloolik had a community hall where they would screen 16mm films once a week – old westerns, cowboys and Indians, John Wayne, that sort of stuff. At first, I would sneak in; you had to be 16 years old to attend. The adults in the theatre were Inuit people who didn’t speak a word of English: no one understood the dialogue, so they would talk over the film in Inuktitut. But they’d understand the essence of the story: the plots and structures of those films are older than Hollywood; we had them in our own culture, in shaman stories. When I began watching films that depicted the Arctic, Inuit people and igloos, I noticed mistakes had been made. I wanted to produce films from the Inuit point of view; I wanted to provide an accurate representation of our culture. Before Europeans ever stepped foot on this part of the continent, there was a way of life here.

I became interested in film or, rather, video in 1981, when I acquired my first camera. I had heard anyone could own their own film camera and I wanted one. I began carving and selling soapstone sculptures at town film screenings. Eventually, I had enough to fly down to Montreal and buy a Sanyo colour video camera – a Portapak – as well as a tripod, television and VCR. I owned one of the first televisions in Igloolik. 

Zacharias Kunuk, Maliglutit (Searchers), 2016. Courtesy: Isuma Distribution International, Montreal

Of course, I had to teach myself how it all worked. I had finished grade eight at school, and understood enough English to read the manual, but I had no technical experience. My camera was full-colour, but the images appeared in black and white on my television, so I couldn’t troubleshoot the colour balance. I learned how to do that, like everything else, through trial and error.  

I didn’t know at the time that anybody with the right equipment and the right idea could apply for funding to produce a film. In 1985, I met the filmmaker Norman Cohn and learned that I could submit a proposal to the Canada Council for the Arts, which distributes grants to filmmakers and artists. I applied and got into the system. What I wanted to produce were dramas, but we didn’t follow a script: we just told the actors what we wanted and they would improvise their lines; if we were lucky, something special would happen. There was a lot of improvisation in those days. A man would go out hunting and we would jump on a dog sled and ride a few steps ahead of him, whether he caught any game or not. We made a lot of mistakes, with balance, especially with sound. I finished my first drama, Qaggiq: Gathering Place, in 1988, using local people as actors. In Inuit culture, we don’t have a traditional writing system, so all deals are made in our heads; nothing is recorded on paper. I wanted to capture an Inuit marriage proposal and wedding ceremony – to see a young man consult his parents, followed by the suspense of whether or not the woman would accept. 

When I started making films, since nothing had been recorded in my community, I had to re-create many scenes from memory that I felt were important to document, for the preservation of Inuit culture and for the education of future generations. These ranged from the stories of elders and their hunting days to the techniques we used before it was possible to check the weather report online. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to teach my grandchildren about Inuit culture: how do you build an igloo? How do you travel by dog team? In 1992, I made a short documentary about how Inuit songs are composed; I sat down for two weeks with the elders and recorded them singing ajaja songs. Today, I look at that video and they’re all gone – every one of them. But that information has been preserved for the future. 

My passion has always been for drama, but I love making documentaries. It’s like detective work. In feature films, the script is already finished once you start shooting, so everyone already knows what their roles entail: it just requires time and energy. With a documentary, though, you never know where the hunt will lead you. 

I founded Igloolik Isuma Productions with Paul Apak Angilirq, Norman Cohn and Paulossie Qulitalik in 1990. In Inuktitut, isuma means ‘to think’, to have an idea. We do production, planning, script-writing; we select actors and host auditions, line rehearsals. When you make a film you have to envision everything before it happens. That’s why we named our company Isuma, because there’s a lot of thinking involved. 

Zacharias Kunuk, Maliglutit (Searchers), 2016. Courtesy: Isuma Distribution International, Montreal

There aren’t many of us here in Igloolik, so we needed to make our own company our own way in order to get the job done. When we began working on Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001), Nunavut had yet to be carved into the Canadian map; until 1999, it was considered part of the Northwest Territories. We thought it would be wonderful to create an epic film that would show a wider Canadian audience the way life is here. English and French are the dominant languages in Canada, and there had not been a feature film entirely in Inuktitut before. There was a very small pot of money available for films in aboriginal languages, so we applied for the English category and produced the film in our language, with subtitles – qualifying through the backdoor. 

Here in the Arctic, we do things differently; we are a small community, with limited resources, so we operate more horizontally than hierarchically. I will sit down and discuss creative decisions with the film crew, my cameraman and my assistant director, then we try things out and see how they work. It takes a long time. When we go into casting, we look for particular kinds of actors, and have a particular way of making collective decisions. Some of the young people we work with as actors are very, very camera shy. We have to tell them we are doing this for the future of our culture. 

When I started, I was the only aboriginal filmmaker in my province; it was very expensive to operate up here. Now there are many more Inuit filmmakers – still few, but our numbers are growing. I have my own style and so do these new filmmakers. We’ve learned the hard way that there is a finite amount of funding and, when you get some, it’s just a slice of the pie – it means that someone else isn’t getting any. Just getting a slice requires quite a lot of hard work. 

Even though I have focused on making drama and documentary, at Isuma we produce many different films, videos and television programmes – some for children, some live and others with animation. The internet has changed the way we can share them; many of them are now available on our website. 

Right now, I’m working with an animation company to produce a short, stop-motion film about a shaman’s apprentice. We’ve given them our script and they’re working with miniature dolls dressed like Eskimos. Puppets are an old story-telling method but, with film, I think we might be able to do something new. We also just finished a film that we’re presenting at the Venice Biennale, One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk, which takes place in 1961, when the Canadian government ordered our people to leave the land and move into communities to attend English-language federal day schools. It’s an important part of our history and one I’ve been able to tell from my own personal perspective. I hope that by making such films, other Inuit filmmakers can interpret these stories in their own way – maybe even with digital animations.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 203 with the headline ‘Life In Film: Zacharias Kunuk’

Main Image: Zacharias Kunuk, Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, 2001. Courtesy: Viviane Delisle and Isuma Distribution International, Montreal

Zacharias Kunuk is an artist and filmmaker based in Igloolik, Canada. He is the founder of Igloolik Isuma Productions, the first Inuit film studio, and IsumaTV, the first website for indigenous media art. He is representing Canada at the 58th Venice Biennale, Italy, which runs from 11 May to 24 November.