This theme focuses on the ways in which Aboriginal peoples have been represented in NFB documentaries. Film excerpts illustrate how the representation of Aboriginal peoples has evolved over the last fifty years.


An Inuit Perspective on Movies and Film
by Zebedee Nungak

Inuit were still living in igloos in the 1950s when they saw their first films. They were delighted by the novelty of moving pictures, however difficult it was then to make sense of what was real or not in images from literally another world. From the first movies they saw, Inuit have travelled great cultural distances in a short span of time, to the present age of the satellite dish and DVD.

The powerful influence of moving pictures became quickly evident as Inuit kids started to play good guy/bad guy in the snow. Index fingers served as pistols, and swords were fashioned out of pieces of wood, a relatively rare commodity. Inuit children play-acted these roles, blissfully unaware of the incongruity of doing this while still living in igloos!

The closest thing to themselves Inuit found on the early silent screen were Indians, with bows and arrows, being clobbered by the United States cavalry. Even when sound came to the movies, Inuit struggled to process the mysteries of the film world. They held serious discussions about how the hero, who was killed in last month’s movie, miraculously came to life again, to do battle with yet another set of bad guys!

Among Inuit, the all-time favourite film was Nanook of the North, shot in 1920 around Inukjuak by Robert Flaherty. People on the Hudson coast of Nunavik were familiar with the main actor, named Alakkariallak, who tested the edibility of a record for a wind-up gramophone with his teeth. Thereafter, innocent ignorance of newfangled gadgets became known as Alakkariallaujarniq, or, “being as unfamiliar with a new thing as Alakkariallak.”

Nanook of the North introduced Inuit to the fact that filmmakers can fake, or stage scenes, which Inuit knew could not be real. They roared with laughter as Nanook struggled in Eskimo slapstick with a harpoon line supposedly attached to an ugjuk, a bearded seal. They roared again as Nanook plucked out ten or twelve people from inside a qayaq. After the laughter subsided, they would ask, quite solemnly, “We’ve never seen that in real life! How did they do that!

The Harpooner (“Nanook” in Flaherty’s film), 1920-21
The Harpooner (“Nanook” in Flaherty’s film)
, 1920-21
McCord Museum of Canadian History, Canada MP-0000.596.1

Let us move to some documentary films made in various parts of the Canadian Arctic from the 1940s and 1950s, to more recent years. With time, Inuit adjusted to being willing participants in filmmakers’ projects, with themselves as subjects. They became unique contributors of realism to a medium that had once baffled them. In The Living Stone, shot in Cape Dorset in 1958, the storytelling scenes take place inside what, to an Inuk, is obviously a fake igloo. The Inuk artist sweats profusely enough to have to wipe his brow. But, such telling details do not diminish the substance, or the audiences’ enjoyment, of the story.

That this film was made by non-Inuit is graphically clear. The name of the sea goddess is phonetically butchered as Nuli-AQ-juk, when it is Nulia-yuk, while the word for sun, siqiniq, is mispronounced as SOAK-in-NACK. The names of some Inuit are tortured: MO-anamee for Manumi, and Kuyuk for Quu-yuq. The wrist tattoos on some people are several shades too dark to be real.

Inuit would dearly wish for the actual music of the accordion player to be on the soundtrack. Credit must be given here in that all the actors in the film are Inuit, and not other people pretending to be Inuit. (That would come later!) But, hey! These were early days in the junction where Inuit met filmmaking.

Eskimo Arts and Crafts (1943) is another film that may be described as innocently stereotypical, with the opening line in its narration asserting, “Eskimos are habitually a happy people…and very resourceful.” Inuit will note that caribou skin clothing, designed for winter, is used by some of the Inuit in summer scenes. Some questionable statements are made, such as “giving a new qayaq a drink of water for good luck.”

Such faults are excusable for they were made by non-Inuit portraying Inuit through a slightly distorted lens. This film remains a valuable cultural snapshot depicting what were then universal skills shared by Inuit men and women in the conduct of everyday life in 1943. The mixture of modern and traditional in people’s clothing is not contrived. The use of Stone Age bow drills alongside manufactured hand-held crank drills is as real as it was then.

Inuit will smile at the news that traditional Inuit wrestling is “an Oriental form of wrestling, a primitive ju-jitsu, which came with the Eskimos when they came from Siberia.”

The short film, How to Build an Igloo (1950) is a straightforward primer on the genius of Arctic housing construction. One of the narration’s basic assertions is, “From a lifetime of living with it, the Eskimo knows his snow.” Sadly, as a result of the tremendous changes that have taken place in the last fifty years, this statement is no longer quite as true as when this film was made.

Land of the Long Day (1952) is a classic record of the last days of genuine out-on-the-land life, as Inuit lived it in the period prior to becoming permanent townspeople. The air of joyous renewal and rejuvenation surrounding aullaat, the whole camp moving to new grounds, is portrayed in its splendid fullness. The excitement and high drama of the whale hunt is also captured accurately.

The Harpooner (“Nanook” in Flaherty’s film), 1920-21
Filmmaker Bobby Kenuajuak Filming an Inuk Fishing, 1999
My Village in Nunavik, 1999
. National Film Board of Canada

In My Village in Nunavik, a young Inuk filmmaker conveys life as it is now, with no pretenses. He risks being ordinary to the point of being bland. By this time, 1999, film is no longer mysterious to Inuit, and they have started to excel in producing their own documentaries. The pronunciation of names of people and places is not butchered. There are no unintentional distortions in portraying how greatly life has changed. And that is the way it ought to be!

Zebedee Nungak

Zebedee Nungak
Hans L. Blohm

Zebedee Nungak was born at Saputiligait, on the eastern coast of Hudson Bay in 1951. His early formal education was in Puvirnituq, followed by an experimental academic education program in Ottawa for young Inuit. He lives in Kangirsuk, Ungava, with his wife and seven children.

Mr. Nungak’s Arctic political engagements span three decades and include negotiator and signatory to the 1975 James Bay Agreement; Vice President of Avataq Cultural Institute; Co-Chairperson of the Inuit Committee on National Issues during the Aboriginal Constitutional conferences, 1984-87; Vice President of Makivik Corporation from 1988 to 1995, then President until 1998.

Mr. Nungak is a media writer, commentator and co-author of Unikkaatuat: Inuit Legends. He is presently a freelance speaker, translator and consultant on the topic Qallunology: the Inuit Study of White People. His latest major translation is the Report of the Nunavik Commission “Let Us Share: Mapping the Road Toward a Government for Nunavik.” He is also an accomplished musician.

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