‘Angry Inuk’ and the Other Side of the Seal Hunt

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Pacific Standard chats with director Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, whose new documentary is making waves in the film circuit.

By Eva Holland

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Isuaqtuq Ikkidluak out on the seal ice while seal hunting. (Photo: Alethea Arnaquq-Baril)

We’ve all seen the posters, the pictures, and memes: white-coated baby harp seals blinking their big, black, dewy eyes, below a plea to “STOP THE SLAUGHTER.” For decades, animal rights activists have been waging campaigns against the Canadian seal hunt. When activist groups acknowledge the Inuit at all, they tend to claim to only target the “commercial” seal hunt, and not “traditional” Inuit activities. But the reality is that, in the Arctic, there is no neat divide between the commercial and the traditional, and you can’t destroy the market for sealskin without affecting the economy of Inuit communities. Nor can you conveniently separate the effects of the campaigns from the issues that plague too many Inuit households: poverty, food insecurity, addiction, and suicide.

In her new documentary, Angry Inuk, filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril tells the story of the effects of those anti-sealing campaigns, and of the ways in which she and her community are pushing back against them. The result is a powerful and personal film that’s currently making the rounds on the festival circuit, picking up a pile of audience choice awards as it goes. Angry Inuk makes its North American debut at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival this week before heading to Berlin, Montreal, and Quebec City beginning this weekend.

I emailed Arnaquq-Baril (whose tweet was featured in my column about the #sealfie movement) to talk about the film and its reception so far.

The film itself spans several years. How long ago did you get the idea to make a film about the impact of the anti-sealing campaigns, and how long was Angry Inuk in the works for?

The idea was rolling around in my head from the very beginning of my film career back in 2003. But I didn’t really start writing it and pitching for funding for it until spring of 2008. In the end, it took eight years to make, almost to the day because I first pitched it at Hot Docs, and I premiered it at Hot Docs.

One of the underlying themes of the film is that Inuit express their anger differently — more quietly — than other cultures, and so, too often, they go unheard. Are there ways for Inuit to make themselves heard without adopting the louder tactics of other groups? And are there ways to convince the outside world to listen better?

Part of the reason I chose the title was to bring attention to the fact that Inuit tend to express anger more quietly than Western society. I wanted non-Inuit to learn about this so that, when we advocate for ourselves, people who know this about us will listen a little harder, and not underestimate how upset we might be. However, I also wanted to bring this to the attention of Inuit, so we could be conscious of the fact that our anger is often underestimated. I think at times we should be a little louder, just so we will be heard. I think in this huge and globally interconnected world, we as Inuit have to be more willing to translate our anger and be willing to be a bit more confrontational. It’s a fine line to speak more loudly and still be true to ourselves and our principles, but it’s possible. That’s what my film tries to do.

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Alethea Arnaquq-Baril. (Photo: John Burridge)

I was struck by the disconnect between what people like Aaju Peter are asking for in the film — namely, the ability to make even a modest living from their local, sustainable resources — and what most outsiders were willing to concede: “subsistence,” or “traditional” uses of seals. Is that one of the hardest points to get across — that Inuit people don’t just want to subsist, they want to participate in a modern economy, just like anyone else?

Absolutely. This is why stereotypes are so harmful. People have a really, really hard time getting the romanticized image of old-school traditional “Eskimos” out of their head, so it doesn’t occur to them that we might need to pay rent and buy all the same things they need to go about their daily lives. Screw subsistence, why shouldn’t we be allowed to thrive?

What has been the most frustrating aspect of this process, of trying to raise awareness of the repercussions from these campaigns?

The sheer size of the bank accounts that these anti-seal hunt advocates have at their disposal. They are masters at spinning the image they want to portray, an image that Inuit have been erased from, and they have hundreds of millions of dollars a year at their disposal to spread that image far and wide. They’ve kept consistent messaging for decades, and that’s really difficult to undo. It’s almost like I have to tell people the same facts 10 times in a row before they’ll believe it. It’s just hard to accept that something you’ve been told for so long is untrue.

And, to end on a happier note, what has been the most rewarding? What, if anything, has happened while you were working on the film or since its initial debut that gives you hope?

Screening it at home [in Iqaluit, Nunavut] was really emotional. Outside my home, people come out of the screenings shocked and horrified at how we’ve been treated, but they are energized and want to help. The tone coming out of those screenings is so positive it’s almost jubilant. However, when I screened it at home, the tone was very different. There were a lot of tears, because people know this story, and watching it is essentially reliving that trauma and shame. It’s hard for Inuit to watch, but they have been so very grateful for the film. Many Inuit came up to me, almost speechless, barely able to squeeze out the word “nakurmiik” [thank you] before walking away. And I just know they’re thinking of their own stories of poverty and shame, of how hard it was for them or their parents to struggle to feed their children. They are grateful that this story is being told and that people are hearing it and accepting it and supporting us. The gratitude of my own people has to be the most rewarding thing.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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