Of of the North: A Filmmaker’s “Vision of the Arctic from the Imagination” vs. the Reality of Post-traumatic Indigenous Experience

[This refers to the cut of the film that screened at the Rencontres Internationales de Documentaire Montreal and was briefly streaming online as part of its promotion. I understand that what screened in New York at the Museum of the Moving Image was a new cut of the film, to reflect Tanya Tagaq’s demand that the director remove footage of her used without her consent, and possibly other changes.]

In the weeks following Dominic Gagnon’s controversial documentary of the North’s two screenings at the Rencontres Internationales de Documentaire Montreal (RIDM) film festival, I saw a few film critics in Quebec describe the film — which revels in imagery of drunk Inuit who are often violent, self-destructive, and neglectful — as attacking colonialism, or imperialism, or capitalism. When I interviewed the RIDM’s executive director Mara Gourd-Mercado and artistic director Charlotte Selb for my article in the (Cree) Nation Magazine, both told me they had initially seen the film in that light. At the same time as they were meeting with me and Inuk cultural researcher/filmmaker/radio producer Stephen Agluvak Puskas, their communications department was sending out a press release arguing this point in the face of their critics. However, that reading of of the North relies on the same profound ignorance of the North with which Gagnon powered his film.

of the North is, after all, a film about Indigenous people by a white person who self-avowedly knows nothing about the North, made for a white audience who is presumed to know nothing about the North. Gagnon himself said that much of the footage is not from the North at all. (Puskas has combed through the footage and determined that the non-Northern footage — which comes from places as far flung as Antarctica, Texas, and Florida — constitutes roughly 30% of the film.) At the Q&A following the film’s second screening, Gagnon told the audience, “I don’t need to go there to understand. The idea is to provoke. […] It’s a fantasy. […] This is a vision of the Arctic from the imagination.”

The film, then, is very clearly not designed for Northern Indigenous audiences. But I’ll give Gagnon the benefit of the doubt, and take him at his word that he set out in this film intending to attack racism and colonialism, as his supporters at Voir and 24 Images and Magazine Spirale (all so far seemingly white men) believe he succeeded in doing.

With that in mind, here is the most profound thing the film could possibly be saying through its jarring shockumentary montage of footage of heavy industry along with breathtaking footage of the land, set against footage of inebriated Inuit out of control, and occasional footage of Inuit behaving like normal people:

“You don’t need to go to the north to understand how fucked up it is by colonialism. Just look at YouTube (and some porn sites)! Here’s this monumentally beautiful land, which is striking, but also harsh and dangerous — just like the people. It takes a lot to survive here. Take these Inuit — a lot of progressive types want to play down the existence of alcoholism in Northern Indigenous communities because they don’t want to focus on negative stereotypes, but alcoholism is widespread up there. So let’s really look at it, let’s stare it in its vomit-spewing face. Really get the camera right in there. And being an alcoholic makes you do bad things, like fighting police, or crashing ski-doos and four-wheelers drunk, or neglecting animals, or encouraging your child to run face-first into a door. Awful stuff, isn’t it?

“But hey, remember how Inuit are people and they’re resilient? Here’s footage of them dancing to a song about being proud to be Inuit (And dressed in cartoonish sumo suits, wrestling). We’ll put some traditional and modern music in to remind the viewer that there IS a vibrant culture up there, only I’ll use that as a soundtrack to more bad shit to remind you that vibrant culture exists in spite of the rampant alcoholism and chaos I suspect defines Inuit community experience. Now some bad stuff again — the bad stuff is the point. I’m not going to turn the camera away, I’m going to show you the ugliness of Inuit life, and I’ll explain it for you: see that oil rig? That giant extractive machinery? (Never mind nearly a third of the footage isn’t from the North at all, including industrial footage, footage of people fighting in Texas, and footage of a whiskey still in Florida.) That’s why these people are drunk — because their land is no longer theirs, it’s being exploited by capitalists, and that’s caused them so much sadness as a race that they fall into all these stereotypes that I’m not going to pretend aren’t real. That would be politically correct, and fuck that — my aesthetic is ugliness, so why shy away from presenting footage that makes Inuit seem as though the ugliest stereotypes against them are true?

“Also, this is all footage people shot themselves. Marvel at their foreign idea of self-expression and technology! What must they be thinking, I wonder? That’s probably not important enough for us to ask them.”

That’s the best I can wring out of a film whose movement is in the opposition of images, from the banal to the shocking to the kind of beautiful to the shocking to the shocking again to the normal to the beautiful. Some have commented that the film is about Indigenous self-representation, but really it isn’t, given that Gagnon told me himself that he began with 500 hours of footage of absolutely everything (since, like everyone else, Northern Indigenous people upload thousands of hours of their everyday lives to YouTube) and deliberately selected “the drunks, those who neglect their children.” This is a film about a white person selecting the harshest, darkest images he could find in self-shot footage — in some cases by Inuit, but in other cases by white southern Americans who lend helpful images supporting ideas of drunkenness and violence in Inuit society — to craft a film about the ugliness of a marginalized society that he admitted he has never visited and knows nothing about. (Seriously, why is that a thing we have to argue about being monumentally problematic in 2016?)

Montreal critic Jason Béliveau mounted a defense of the film in Magazine Spirale. His article is a series of appeals to nonsense like — my paraphrase — “Inuit artist Tanya Tagaq protested the film, but she has sometimes dressed ironically in costumes of racist stereotypes of Indigenous people, so how come a white person can’t edit together self-shot footage of Inuit living up to stereotypes?” This comes perilously close to the perennial bigot routine, “Black people call each other ‘nigger’ all the time, so how come I can’t call them that?” (To which Louis C.K. once replied, importantly, “Why do you want to?” That question stands here as well.)

What made the film exciting and daring for Béliveau was that, “The images chosen and edited by Gagnon are the symptoms of a deeply-anchored pain. […] The subjects in of the North, even if they are not in remission, therefore salvageable, do not have to be concealed. Upon contact, it is possible to feel pity for them, to be affected by their condition, to maybe even laugh (sacrilege!) at them. Is it politically correct? The visceral, even if it unseats or discomforts, need not be concealed.” Béliveau admitted in his piece that he had not actually seen the film, and addresses his readership as “us, the privileged whites,” so again we have a sense of who his debate is designed to impress.

Béliveau’s argument presumes that every viewer (even his readership of “us, the privileged whites”) is well-versed in Inuit life, and will therefore not see in these images any reinforcement or underlining of common prejudices (widely reproduced in the media) that Inuit are drunk and self-destructive, because they will be so familiar with Inuit and Inuit culture that they’ll understand these people do not represent Inuit despite being selected as examples of such by a white filmmaker for a white audience. Béliveau doesn’t mention any familiarity with the difficulty that Inuit face in finding jobs and apartments, or even shopping, in non-Indigenous communities where they (as well as other visibly Northern Indigenous people) are presumed to be self-destructive, thieving drunks and therefore followed around stores in many southern cities like Val d’Or, Montreal, Ottawa, Gatineau, and down into Southern Ontario.

Any sympathetic interpretation of Béliveau’s reading turns on the notion that the audience of the film is less ignorant than the filmmaker (who, again, literally and proudly announced he knew nothing at all about Inuit culture) — that they know about the history of Indian Residential Schooling, about the 1950s/1960s Sled Dog Massacre, about the fact that not being included in the (enormously problematic) Indian Act means that Inuit communities are left out of many of Canada’s (also problematic) initiatives to serve Aboriginal communities. Basically, a sympathetic interpretation assumes you understand how distorted the film’s vision of the arctic already is. It presumes the audience knows something, but the audience knows next to nothing at all, which allows (some facets of) it to receive this film and proclaim it’s “beautiful” (as NFB director for French Programming Colette Loumède called it, following its second RIDM screening, before telling a Q&A crowd “There’s no need to fall into moral judgement about it.”) while a chorus of Inuit filmmakers, artists, and activists (who were not invited to the RIDM screening) shout that it’s dehumanizing bullshit. (In the past two days, following the news that the film would be screened at NYC’s First Look festival at the Museum of the Moving Image, 1,100+ people to date, many of them Inuit, have signed a petition against festivals screening a film that demeans Inuit and their communities.)

Béliveau argues under the belief that the average audience wears “candy-pink blinders” because films of Indigenous people cater to the “snowflake sensitivity” of “official speeches.” Which official speeches these are I’m not sure, but I have a sense he’s referring to speeches by Inuit leaders asking that they not be stereotyped as a bunch of self-destructive drunks. To which Béliveau’s argument seems to be, “But that’s what you are!”

Arguing on a friend’s Facebook wall, a liberal Quebec journalist told me, “Most non-Indigenous artists and intellectuals (of the left) know about the history of why those problems exist. […] There is still ignorance of the culture and history, for sure, but the general idea that they have been exploited and are marginalised still today by the ‘modern’ society is known in those circles.”

This notion — that having a vague sense that colonialism took place in the north, that it was bad, and that it left people fucked up means one understands anything — is itself an expression of the same vacuous naiveté that produces shock-documentaries meant to encourage the belief that extractive industries cause alcoholism and addiction in northern communities.

The cause of addiction, pure and simple, is trauma. The vast majority of trauma inflicted on Indigenous communities in Canada has been both the direct and the indirect product of policies of the government of Canada (as well as provincial and territorial governments), which has since its beginning worked pretty steadily on destroying Indigeneity in this country. There are a disturbing variety of ways this has taken place (right up into the continuing present), but the most widespread and easy to explain would have to be the federal government’s Indian Agents, for over 100 years, taking as many Aboriginal (Native, Inuit, and Métis) children as they could find, sometimes at gunpoint, from their homes and sending them to Indian Residential Schools (the last of which closed in 1996), where too often the only “affection” they experienced to replace parental and familial love came in the form of rape and sexual abuse.

The purpose of the schools, which were much more like communist re-education prison-camps and paired slave-labour with indoctrination, was to teach Indigenous people to hate everything to do with their cultures and languages and ancestors. The schools didn’t actually teach very much, but they sure beat and tortured kids a lot — especially for doing things like speaking their own languages, the only languages they knew how to speak on arrival. That was before the extracurricular rape and sexual abuse by the people who ran the places.

Indian Residential Schools weren’t interested in teaching kids how to be well-prepared as citizens, workers, and parents — they focused mainly on cramming Jesus and Canada’s two European languages into Indigenous people, while they made certain to let the kids see their families as little as possible so that they wouldn’t find any antidote to self-hatred and hatred of their cultures among their own people and histories. In the process they left thousands of kids to die of neglect and malnutrition, while some also used hundreds of unknowing and starving kids as medical guinea pigs in nutrition experiments.

(I strongly encourage readers, even those who feel they are familiar with the history of what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada called the “cultural genocide” of Indian Residential Schools, to both read the summary of the executive summary of the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and also to consult the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation’s extensive documentation charting each individual school and the events that occurred there.)

Coming out of those “schools,” thousands and thousands of young people did the thing any sensible people would do, and which I would certainly do: they looked for anything they could find to take away the pain of having spent most of their lives physically and sexually abused and beaten and told to hate themselves and their families and their cultures for who they were. For many, relief came in the oblivion of intoxication.

Many Residential School survivors had kids, but they had largely not been parented themselves — they’d received the opposite of parenting, which is government-mandated barbarism. They had no idea what parenting was like. Some who had sustained abuse repeated the pattern of victimization with their own children, while others simply didn’t express love because they didn’t know how, or because they associated affection with sexual abuse and didn’t want to go anywhere near that again for fear of making their children feel the way they did when they were raped or molested. (In the Cree communities I serve as a journalist, this problem is widespread enough to be considered common knowledge not requiring further explanation when it’s come up in discussions.) That meant that many children of survivors grew up feeling unloved and alienated by parents who carried the burden of Canada’s genocidal trauma. In Indigenous communities the term “intergenerational trauma” — which describes this process — is something most people are pretty familiar with.

Outside of Indigenous communities, the notion of “intergenerational trauma” is hardly commonplace, because what other groups in Canada really care enough to look deeply at this history? Certainly not what that liberal Quebec journalist imagined as “Most non-Indigenous artists and intellectuals (of the left).” At the Montreal (2013) National Event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I was surprised to see almost none of the people I identified as local leftists. (I also attended the TRC’s Closing Event in Ottawa last spring and interviewed survivors for the Nation magazine.) Bearing witness to the torment of colonialism in the form of hearing from its victims in their own voices didn’t seem to be a high priority for many liberals. (Though the Montreal event was held during the day: it’s possible people couldn’t get the weekdays off, and already had plans on the Saturday?)

So a lot of Residential School Survivors drank because their post-traumatic lives were lives of agony, and many of their kids, who felt unloved by parents who’d never been shown love themselves or were terrified of showing affection, drank also (again, like most of us non-Survivors would, because they’re human, like us, not cartoons of dead-NDN/Inuit nobility). That’s one of the huge reasons there’s more drinking in some Indigenous communities than in some non-Indigenous communities. It has nothing to do with heavy industry.

It is absolutely true that heavy industry sometimes has an exploitative relationship with Indigenous communities (particularly in the ongoing battles between First Nations and billion-dollar petroleum companies over pipelines). Yet heavy industry, in fact, is also sometimes welcome in some Indigenous communities — provided that it has arrived as a result of an agreement between an Indigenous government (not acting under duress) and the company at hand, providing compensation for profiting off of Indigenous land, and providing jobs set aside for Indigenous people so they don’t have to leave their communities and go south to find more remunerative work.

This is certainly not the case in every Indigenous community, by far (some companies simply fly up non-Indigenous workers to exploit Indigenous land). But because I work as a reporter in the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee, whose communities have signed a variety of mining agreements (mining is less damaging to traditional lands than hydroelectric development or forestry), I am used to recognizing that heavy industry on Indigenous land sometimes actually equals funding and jobs for a community. Mining can provide very well-paying and desirable work, especially in Northern Indigenous communities who have signed agreements guaranteeing employment to their people. As a result, some mines offer jobs that many people who have struggled with addiction fight hard to get sober for — which is the exact opposite of the simplistic implication Gagnon’s film makes. (I know several people who kicked their drinking and drug habits so they could get jobs working in major industry to support their families, and that feeling of being supportive seems for some to have filled the void that intoxication previously papered over.)

You don’t get any ideas about the complicated interaction of industry and community in Inuit and Native cultures from Gagnon’s film. Rather, you get the idea that there’s some causal connection between heavy industry, representing capitalism, and Indigenous addiction and despair. That connection doesn’t exist.

Sometimes the two things are present side by side, specifically because the whole nature of Indigenous communities in Canada is post-traumatic, because of the long and still-ongoing project of assault and assimilation known as colonialism. In cases where extractive development projects are imposed on Indigenous land either without permission or because communities have been forced under duress to approve them, protests outside of Indigenous communities are few, because non-Indigenous people largely don’t value Indigenous lives very much so few southern liberals will fight to support an impoverished community whose land no longer belongs to it. It’s far easier to enlist allies in fighting for environmental causes to save the land, particularly when you can paternalistically call upon Indigenous people as “stewards of the land” to do the heavy lifting, than it is to fight for the people who had the land of which they were stewards stolen from them, and then were tortured for generations by our government. Why fight for a society that the public has been told time and again (by even liberal-leaning media outlets) consists of a bunch of self-destructive thieving drunks, anyway? The unwelcome mine or oil rig is a symptom not of capitalism ruining lives but of colonialism ruining societies and capitalism arriving later to scour the wreckage for profit.

Colonialism is about land, yes. But it’s also about destroying people and cultures in order to get to their land — making it impossible for them to resist the land-grab — so reading destruction of land as equaling the destruction of people gets the project backwards. The first step of European colonialism in the Americas was to attack, belittle, and simplify Indigenous peoples and cultures, in order to make those cultures seem more worthy of massacre, deliberate starvation, and destruction. Yet attacking, belittling, and simplifying Indigenous societies is also what non-Indigenous people who have never been to Indigenous communities or met Indigenous people do when they make shock-documentaries full of stereotypes of Indigenous people in unexamined pain cut against industrial machines as though to suggest the machines have caused that pain. Arguing that of the North is an attack on colonialism is laughable: it is, instead, a product and expression of colonialism.

Attacking, belittling, and simplifying Indigenous peoples and cultures is also what non-Indigenous people do when they imagine they have even the faintest grasp of the history of colonialism because they’re able to say, as that liberal Quebec journalist argued to me on Facebook, “There is still ignorance of the culture and history, for sure, but the general idea that they have been exploited and are marginalised still today by the ‘modern’ society is known in those circles.”

If you’re ignorant of the culture and history of the colonization of Indigenous communities, you’re just ignorant. You don’t get to be anything else, you don’t get to comment on the culture, and above all you don’t get to excuse others entering into the discussion of that culture and history and saying offensive, uninformed, and simply stupid things — your only job is to shut up and listen. I’ve been serving the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee pretty much full time for over four years as a journalist and I learn more about Cree life, culture, history, traditions, and society every single day. To most Eeyouch (Crees), I probably know next to nothing. That’s fair, because cultures are vast, especially when you don’t speak the language (I can say maybe 30 words in Iiyiyuuayimuwin: it is not an easy language to learn). Four years looking in on a very different culture from your own does not make you a part of it, or an expert on it. And I still know more about Eeyou culture than about 99.9% of non-Indigenous people.

That doesn’t mean I know anything. It just means that other non-Indigenous people know even less — in my case, about Eeyou culture, and in the case of critics of Dominic Gagnon’s breathtakingly ignorant film (ignorance echoed in the chorus of clueless, entitled praise from well-intentioned and gormless white male film critics) about Inuit culture. I know almost nothing about Inuit culture, though I know enough to be certain that a parade of Northern Indigenous stereotypes isn’t actually helping anyone, anywhere, to understand Inuit better. At the same time, I understand that supporting those stereotypes will encourage non-Indigenous people to continue denying jobs and apartments to Inuit (and Crees and other Northern Indigenous people), will encourage an attitude in which Inuit and Northern Indigenous people are presumed to be drunken criminals, followed around stores, and told (as has happened to my friends) “Are you really supposed to be drinking that?” when they try to buy a bottle of wine to bring to a friend’s dinner party. This film and its acclaim were like a performance piece of ignorance sailing obliviously back and forth between people who believe they obviously know better. They don’t.

Colonialism causes trauma. Trauma causes addiction. Addiction, in this case, causes shocking images that a crowd of white filmgoers applaud and call beautiful.

But it’s ignorance and entitlement that cause colonialism, and sustain it, even today, even in comfortable circles of liberal filmmakers, film festivals, and film festival attendees. If Gagnon and his defenders really want to look closely at the legacy of colonialism, they should pay closer attention to their own arrogant dismissal of Indigenous protests, and their clownish arguments about a concept — colonialism — the specifics of which they admit they don’t understand. In a fitting tribute to Gagnon’s film which claims (very problematically) to present people “looking at themselves” through the camera’s lens, they wouldn’t even need to leave home to find the subject of their study.

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