Arnait Video Productions:
A Conversation with Marie-Hélène Cousineau


By Laura McGough

Madeline Ivalu and Marie-Hélène Cousineau / Courtesy: Arnait Video Productions


Formed in 1991, Arnait Video Productions is a women’s media collective based in Igloolik, an Inuit village located in Qikiqtani Region or eastern most region of Nunavut in Arctic Canada. Arnait, is the plural of arnaq which means “woman” in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit, and the name not only reflects the collective’s membership, but also their mission. Arnait produces video, narrative film, documentary, television, and internet-based projects that celebrate “the specificity of the culture of women in Igloolik” and honors their oral traditions.

The village of Igloolik is steeped in a rich media history that dates back to the mid-1970s. In 1975, and again in 1979, residents voted against accepting satellite television signals from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) because it did not offer any Inuktitut-language programming. It was only following the establishment of the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation (IBC) in 1982, which aired five hours per week of programming in Inuktitut via satellite, that the village finally agreed to receive a television signal. While village elders were debating the merits of indigenous programming with the CBC, Igloolik resident Paul Apak Angilirq was participating in the Inukshuk Project, a federally sponsored program established in the late-1970s that recruited and trained Inuit in six northern communities in the fundamentals of television production. Apak, along with Zach Kunuk, worked for the Igloolik-based outpost of the IBC throughout the 1980s producing local television programming. During this period, both men also created independent productions including Apak’s documentary Qitdlarssuaq Expedition (1987) and Kunuk’s historical drama, Qaggiq (1989). Apak and Kunuk eventually left the IBC in 1990 and went on to co-found Isuma Productions with the US-born, Canadian-based director/producer Norman Cohn. Best known for Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner, which won the Camera d’or at Cannes in 2001, Isuma also produced a 13-part dramatic television series, Nunavut Our Land (1995), as well as numerous documentaries. Isuma recently represented Canada at the 2019 Venice Biennale.

The Québécois video artist Marie-Hélène Cousineau arrived in Igloolik in 1990 to help establish the Tarigsuk Video Centre with Kunuk and Cohn. Arnait Ikajurtigiit (a.k.a. Women’s Video Workshop of Igloolik) was established a year later by founding members Madeline Ivalu, Susan Avingaq, Martha Makkar, Mathilda Hanniliaq, and Cousineau. Over the past 28 years, a number of women have participated in the workshop, including Mary Kunuk, Atuat Akittirq, Carol Kunnuk, Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, and Uyarak (Lucy Tulugarjuk). Some collective members are unilingual, speaking only Inuktitut, while others are bilingual, speaking both Inuktitut and English. Cousineau speaks both French and English. Video is the collective’s lingua franca.

 

Still from Qulliq (1992) / Courtesy: Arnait Video Productions


In their earliest works, Arnait utilized short format video to tell a range of women’s stories. In Qulliq (1993), for example, members of Arnait reenact a traditional women’s activity – the lighting of the qulliq, or the seal oil lamp – using song and words to tell its story. Attagutalak Starvation (1992), features village elder Rose Ukkumaluk who recounts the tale of Attagutaaluk, a woman who survived a winter starvation by resorting to cannibalism, and who went on to become an honored resident of Igloolik (both the local elementary and high schools bear her name). With Inuit Midwives (1991), one of Arnait’s earliest projects, the collective pioneered their unique use of the interview, which draws from Inuit oral storytelling traditions.

Arnait was also an early adopter of Internet streaming technologies, producing Live from the Tundra over the course of five days in August 2001. Intended as a “daily journal of life in a remote outpost camp,” the collective used satellite phone technology to upload video, photo, and text dispatches to the web for others to both view and respond to. More recently, Arnait have turned to producing feature films and documentaries (and changed their name to Arnait Video Productions), including the award-winning Before Tomorrow (2008) and the soon-to-be released Restless River (2019), and have served as co-producers on two television series based in the North – The Uluit: Champions of the North (2011) and Sivummut: Going Forward (2014). Despite these highly successful forays into more mainstream media production, Arnait has also embarked upon community-based cultural exchange projects in Oaxaca, Mexico and Nuuk, Greenland, extending their original mission to include the voices of indigenous people from outside of Igloolik.

Amidst all of this activity, Arnait operates an online channel on Isuma.tv, a remarkable internet television portal that enables indigenous media producers to upload and distribute programming free-of-charge. Arnait’s catalogue of video, film, and new media projects are now available on-demand to a worldwide audience via Isuma.tv. The collective continues to be innovative in their use of technology, giving voice to Inuit women on a global scale.

 

Still from Ataguttaaluk Starvation (1992) / Courtesy: Arnait Video Productions


Laura McGough:
Igloolik is a small village – the total population is less than 1,700 – yet it has produced an amazing body of film and video work over the past 30 years. The town also has had an interesting relationship with television and media dating back to the mid-1970s. Can you talk about this?

Marie-Hélène Cousineau: The CBC, or Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, asked the people of Igloolik if they wanted to receive satellite television but they said they would only receive the signal if there was some Inuktitut-language television. The elders in Igloolik were worried that if there was too much English-language television younger people would lose their language or there would be too much influence from the South. The Inuit Broadcasting Service, or the IBC, which broadcast in Inuktitut five hours a week or so, was created in 1982 and only then did the elders finally accept satellite television. At the time, most of the television programming was on IBC in English, but at least there was also some Inuit-produced television available.

McGough: It’s interesting that an extended conversation around television and its role in the community took place in Igloolik over the course of six or seven years. Do you think that those early discussions helped to frame how the women who became involved with Arnait thought about making media?

Cousineau: Well, I don’t know because I wasn’t there for the earlier discussions, but I would think that in a place where people understood the power of media that they would also be open to making it. They were already doing a lot of community radio in Igloolik – Inuit culture is an oral transmission culture – and they understood the power of words and language. They were not naïve about technology and understood very well that using media to talk to people in their own language is really meaningful.

McGough: Can you describe your arrival to Igloolik and the creation of the Tariaksuk Video Centre, a forerunner of Arnait?

Cousineau: I moved to Igloolik in December 1990 from Montreal. A few months before, I had met with Zach Kunuk in Montreal and he said, “We would like to start a video access center in Igloolik.” I was working at Main Film, a film access center in Montreal, and I was involved with video in Montreal. At that time, the Canada Council for the Arts was funding video access projects, giving money to create a space and buy equipment where people could practice video.

I went to Igloolik and my job was to put together this video access center – the Tariaksuk Video Centre. The “tariaksuk” are people who disappear when you approach them. That is what Inuit used to call the people they saw on the television: “the tariaksuk.” You look at them and then they are not there anymore. They are not real people. We were located in the Hunter’s and Trapper’s Office and then later we had an editing machine and space in the Adult Education Building. I tried to make contacts with different people in the town to create excitement and to share resources.

There was nothing in Igloolik at the time aside from the IBC, which was funded by the federal government. If you wanted to create a video as an individual, and you weren’t working for IBC, you couldn’t access an editing room or anything like that. Part of my job was to create a little bit of animation around making video. Some people in Igloolik already had their own video cameras and they were already filming. They would go hunting, for example, and film. So, I organized a “Best Home Video Contest.” Most were hunting videos or nature videos.

McGough: And Arnait (a.k.a. Women’s Video Workshop) grew out of the Tariaksuk Video Centre?

Cousineau: At some point, I gave a class through the Arctic College in Igloolik on how to make videos. I was already a feminist. I was interested in women’s work around the world and in my own country and local community, and I had had done women’s activism before going to Igloolik. I realized that in Igloolik the men were on one side and the women were on another side. I thought that maybe some of the women would want to learn how to make film, but if I just made a general call they might not come. So, I did a particular call to women. Four or five women came and we did our first video which was called Survey for a Woman’s Video Workshop (1991).

I went around town with a woman named Celina. She was a translator who spoke both English and Inuktitut really well. I asked her to find different women that we could interview for the video. Selina found ten women and we went to their homes and asked, “Do you think it is a good idea if there is a video workshop for women where we can learn how to make video?” Everyone said, “Yes, this is a good idea because we can talk to kids, we can teach them traditions and stories.” They knew very well what they wanted to do with it. I edited this video and sent it to the Canada Council and said, “Ok, this is what the women who are going to be part of this project think and this is what they want to do. We need money to do this and money for equipment.” That’s the first video we did as a group. Then we started meeting every day! It was intense.

McGough: Did the women receive training before this? How did they learn to make video?

Cousineau: I went to their sewing meetings and I was documenting them and then showing it to them. Marta Makkar, who was a younger woman, was the first who was willing to take the camera. Susan Avingaq and Madeline Ivalu were less comfortable with the object and filming, but Marta was comfortable. I also taught Marta how to edit with a little 8mm editing deck.

I would also show films and videos made by other women and we would analyze them. I remember I was showing a film by Colette Loumede, who had been to Mexico and made a film with women whose houses were going to be destroyed and who were fighting for their right to stay in their houses. It was in Spanish with subtitles in English. Madeline and Susan, who were early members, didn’t read English, but I was explaining what was happening and we had a translator from English to Inuktitut. And my English was not as good back then! We talked about film together in this weird language which is translation.

I remember Susan said, “Oh, women can make this?! They can make whatever they want?” It was very surprising to her. She came from a more traditional place and her husband was very controlling and she was already in her early-50s and starting a completely new thing. The content was very, very important to her.

 

A qulliq, the seal oil lamp / Courtesy: Arnait Video Productions


I was trying little-by-little to teach them, not aesthetics, per se, but how to follow your own process. How do go from an idea to a video? What are the steps? “Ok, I want to show a qulliq.” “So, what do you need?” “Well I’d like to see it in an igloo.” “Ok, so what are you going to do?” “Well we’re going to go outside the igloo and we’re going to build a platform.” “And how are you going to be dressed and what are we going to hear?” “Oh, I’m going to tell the story and I’m going to sing a song.” Then, we would do some storyboarding. It was more about learning how to express your ideas, writing them down or drawing them, and then deciding what you wanted to record to make those ideas visible. I was not going to teach them real technical stuff like “you need to white balance.” I didn’t want to do that. I thought that it was not the time and it was not that important and that they could figure it out by doing it and by talking after we looked at what we recorded. Maybe next time we’d do it differently.

McGough: So, you were engaging in real hands-on learning together.

Cousineau: Yes. The women really knew the content that they wanted to share. We made the first few videos and showed them in town and then I applied for an Oral Tradition grant from Northwest Territories Arts Council and we recorded the midwives’ stories in an archive we called Women/Health/Body stories. After that, we went to Pond Inlet by dog sled and filmed that and also filmed interviews. We did a video called Woman’s Hands (1991) where we were just showing woman’s hands working on stuff.

McGough: It was such an active time – Arnait was producing a lot of work! I’m curious about the series of interviews with Igloolik midwives that you just mentioned. It was a massive undertaking for an early project. How many hours of interviews did you record?

Cousineau: The project was nine hours of videotape interviewing Igoolik midwives. The interviews were later transcribed and translated into English. We put some of the interviews and transcriptions on our website a few years ago.

McGough: The interviews aren’t edited and Arnait didn’t make a traditional documentary from the recordings. Were you thinking of this project as more of an archive of traditional knowledge?

Cousineau: Yes. The Oral Tradition grant was money to archive oral histories. At the beginning of our working together, there was a lot of interest in wanting to record oral traditions and stories, but with a video camera. There was the understanding that it was important to see the person telling the story and not just hear the stories. Most of the women we interviewed have passed away since then – this was 28 years ago, now, and they were already elderly. This knowledge was from before women went to the hospital to give birth; they gave birth on the land like their mothers and grandmothers. Now this knowledge and this experience is gone.

McGough: How did Arnait work structurally? Did individual members contribute ideas for projects that you all worked on together or was it by consensus?

Cousineau: People just brought forward ideas. Susan said, “I’d like to make a film about the qulliq – it’s so important” and everyone agreed. No one argued. It was always amazing to me to that the women even came to the workshop. There was a fragility to the workshop. Everyone was so busy with their lives, their children and their life condition, and we didn’t have an office or much equipment, so to do this work was very delicate. It was strong, but delicate at the same time. It was something that we needed to really pay attention to because if we stopped, it would be nothing. People would still live and tell stories but it wouldn’t be on video. To make it work, it needed a lot of attention.

McGough: I was looking online recently at the earliest videos that Arnait produced. I forgot just how diverse the work was. So many different styles and methods and technologies were used to make each piece – oral histories, animations, animations inserted into storytelling videos, historical reenactment. You can clearly see that workshop members were actively exploring of all the diverse ways you could use technology to tell stories and share Igloolik culture and history visually.

Cousineau: Well, one form would have been really boring. We didn’t have a big budget to do more conventional things – we didn’t have a studio. We were really light!

 

Still from Piujuq and Angutautuq (2005) collaborative direction, Susan Avingaq and Madeline Ivalu / Courtesy: Arnait Video Productions


McGough: One of my favorite early Arnait videos is Piujuq and Angutautuq (1994) in which Madeline Piujuq and Susan Angutautuq tell stories and perform songs using CB radio. The video also contains footage of them both engaging in community events as well as computer drawings by Mary Kunuk. There are so many layers of technology and tools at work in this piece – it’s really a genre-bending work – not a traditional oral history or storytelling piece, not a traditional documentary. It’s incredibly experimental in form.

Cousineau: The technology you see being used in Piujuq and Angutautuq was low-tech communication technology – like the CB radio – and at the same time it talks about the environment which we were in, because the environment in the North did not allow just any technology to work there. The internet took a very long to come to the North. It’s what technology works here, in this environment. In the video, we see what older technology works (CB radio) and what newer technology works (video).

McGough: Piujuq and Angutautuq really illustrates the concept of appropriate technology – using the appropriate communication technology for the environment. Using what works.

Cousineau: Exactly. That’s also how we got work on cable television and got a community cable channel in Igloolik. How could we show our work? The internet is so slow in Igloolik, so it is much better for anyone with cable to watch the work on television. There is cable television in Igloolik and there is now a community cable station. They have to provide this by law in Canada.

McGough: The cable franchise has to provide it? That’s also the law in the US for communities with more than 3,500 cable subscribers.

Cousineau: Yes, the cable company has to provide it by law. In the North, no one was saying, “You have to open a studio,” but actually they do. We told them, “you have to give us access” and now when you go to Channel 12 you see community work. We showed a lot of work on that channel.

McGough: When Arnait was first starting out, who was the audience you were trying to reach with your work?

Cousineau: Just local, at first, and then Inuit outside of Igloolik. It was just after we started to show in Buffalo at Hallwalls in 1992 – Marta and I – that was the first time we went anywhere with the work. Then, we showed the work in Toronto and Peterborough in 1994, and then a year or so later I organized a screening of the work in Montreal at Maison de la culture de Côte-des-Neiges, which is a public library. Susan and Mary Kunuk were there for that. People came to see the work at all of these places and we realized that people outside of Igloolik were interested. We started to also show in Europe as well.

McGough: In 2001, Arnait moved away from short tape format and created Live from the Tundra, an extended internet project documenting life in a remote Northern outpost camp in real time. Was that the first experiment you did with creating content purely for the internet?

Cousineau: Yes, it was our first internet project. We had a small grant to do this project, but it was so expensive to upload video via satellite phone – like $10 a minute! The project took place in a very remote place, outside of any village, in a camp on the land and the internet was only accessible through a satellite phone. That’s true even now.

Live from the Tundra took place before Facebook and YouTube. The idea was that we would upload video from the camp and people could ask us questions and interact with us. This was very extraordinary at the time. Now everyone is on Facebook, even in the North where the internet is slow, chatting, asking questions and posting photos. But when we did it, it was like, “Wow – you can actually talk to people directly online!” In 2001, this was a very new idea. 

McGough: Did opening up Arnait’s production process to audience participation change your way of working?

Cousineau: Well, the medium was very, very different. It was not video. It was more like a communication project – a two-way exchange – unlike film or video. At the time, it was interesting to figure out how to keep communicating with people and how to do something interesting with two-way communication. We were actually talking to people who wanted to learn from this experience and we did as well. The challenge was how to create something meaningful day after day.

McGough: Not too long after this experience, Arnait shifted to making feature dramatic films, feature documentaries, and television series. What precipitated this change?

Cousineau: This all came about when Nunavut separated from the Northwest Territories (NWT) in 1999. The NWT was an established government and there was funding through the NWT Arts Council and Oral Traditions project funding. When Nunavut came, all of this funding disappeared and, at the time, there was nothing to replace it. The Nunavut government had a lot of work to do – schools, fisheries, mining – and the arts were left in the fog. That’s why we needed to shift. TVNC – Television Northern Canada – was also gone and they also provided some funding for our work. It was all moving quickly and we needed to find more money to keep making films. We also needed the challenge and wanted to talk to a larger audience. Isuma was getting money to do a television series – Nunavut, Our Land – and we were like, “Let’s do it, too!”

McGough: Arnait/Women’s Video Workshop changed names around this time as well.

Cousineau: We were called Arnait Ikajurtigiit – which translates to “women helping each other.” Arnait was very loose, there was no need to be a member, whoever came was part of the group. It was project-by-project and some of the same women would come back. We registered originally as a nonprofit organization. Susan, Madeline, and Mathilda Hanniliaq, all women from Igloolik, signed for that. Later, we had to incorporate as a for-profit company to have access to financing. Susan, Madeline, and I were the partners in the company, Arnait Video Productions, Inc. That was maybe 20 years ago. We used the for-profit to access funding from Telefilm Canada and the Canadian Media Fund, which funded the first fiction short film we did. It was completely another way of working, from being artists, being nonprofit, getting funding from the Canada Council. It’s much more complicated now!

McGough: Did you decide to make that shift because your work was changing or because more funding became available?

Cousineau: Well, on the one hand, I think it was a normal transition for us. You start with smaller budgets, make shorter works, and then you become more ambitious and you want to express your ideas more in-depth. But I think this shift was also related to a change of audience. When we started the workshop, the audience was just the people of Igloolik. Then we started to go to Buffalo and to Montreal to show our videos and realized that people were really interested in this work. Qulliq, this very short video shot with a little consumer Video8 camera, was shown in many, many festivals, museums, and art galleries. For me, Madeline, and Susan, the question became: how can we actually extend our audience? We knew that people were interested in seeing work made by Inuit women, about Inuit women, made in Igloolik, about Igloolik, our issues, in our voices. To reach a wider audience we needed different tools. We needed to access money that would allow us to do film or television projects like other Canadian producers and not just small art projects. We decided to try and do this full-time and not just a small project here and there.

McGough: Did any of you have experience with feature productions prior to this?

Cousineau: Not really. Mary Kunuk was more involved with Arnait at this time and we did Anaana (2001), about her mother, and the fiction Ningiura (2000), which were longer projects. Then, Isuma did Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) in 2001 and everyone was involved in that. Madeline was acting in it, Susan was making the costumes, and I was involved in the production. That shifted our thinking a lot about what Arnait could do and what people wanted to see. It was fun to make a big film!

McGough: Is that when you started working on your first feature film Before Tomorrow?

 

Still from Before Tomorrow (2009), directed by Marie-Hélène Cousineau and Madeline Ivalu / Courtesy: Arnait Video Productions


Cousineau: Yes. Isuma asked us write a film – a feature film. Isuma had money to develop other projects because Atanarjuat was so successful and they asked different people to write scripts which they would produce. I had read Before Tomorrow (Før Morgendagen) by the Danish writer Jørn Riel. I talked to Susan and Madeline and we worked on the script. Stephane Rituit, who was working with Isuma, produced it. It was a 3.6 million dollar film – crazy! We shot it in Nunavik in Northern Quebec.

McGough: It’s interesting that you not only shifted to working in feature film with Before Tomorrow, but that the location of your work changed as well. Your work before this took place in Igloolik and was about Igloolik women and their stories. What lead you to venture outside of Igloolik?

Cousineau: The novel takes place in Greenland so there are cultural differences – the nature is not the same, there’s no sharks in Igloolik, etc. At first, we didn’t think that we were going to film outside of Igloolik, for practical reasons. We wanted to shoot it in Igloolik but we couldn’t put together the budget, the funding, just in Nunavut. It’s a co-production between Nunavut and Quebec, so we could access money from both. So, that was a good reason to shoot in Puvirnituq, Nunavik, which is in Quebec!

We also needed boats and kayaks to tell the story, including umiaqs, and there was no one in Igloolik who knew how to make those, anymore. Madeline had made a small documentary about a group of elders building an umiaq, but the boat they made didn’t look like one from 1850, which needs to be covered in walrus or bearded seal skin. Making that takes like a year, really. You need all the animals and have to cut the skins and dry them, and it was impossible to do that within the time we had to shoot the film once it was funded. In Puvirnituq, there was a guy that was making kayaks with Inuit kids from new materials that we could paint to look like seal skin. So that’s another reason why we went to Nunavik. When we arrived in Puvirnituq – and Susan and Madeline and I went there often to look for actors and to look for costumes – we realized that the women there did not know how to make traditional clothing anymore, so we had to have all of the clothing from Atanarjuat and from Igloolik brought into Puvirnituq! It was really an exchange between these two communities, and it was really fun for both communities, I think.

McGough: How do you and Madeline and Susan communicate? You’ve written scripts together, directed films together. The three of you have been the core of Arnait for almost 30 years, but do not share a common language!

Cousineau: How do we communicate? Hm… by telepathy.

McGough: It almost seems that way. I’m not at all surprised that you said that!

Cousineau: Yes – a little bit. I’m joking, but I’m not at the same time. Susan was here, in Montreal, for a week recently and stayed in my house and we didn’t have an interpreter. What’s going to happen? Do you need words all the time? I’m here, she’s here. We’ll each say something and sometimes we’ll understand. I can’t translate it, but I know her intention. If it’s too complicated, I take the phone and call Lucy Tulugarjuk, who lives in Montreal, and she’ll translate. When we worked on Before Tomorrow we had Carol Kunnuk, who is a really good interpreter, and Marta used to also play that role as well. So, the younger women would be interpreters when we needed to understand something very precise. Otherwise, Susan and Madeline both understand a bit of English and I understand a bit of Inuktitut.

I like it because we don’t need to talk all the time. Madeline was sick – she almost died a month ago – and I called her and I said, “Its Marie-Hélène, I love you. Are you ok?” and she says a few words and that’s it. She knows I’m thinking of her, she tells me, “I love you” and I tell her, “I love you.” What else is necessary? We communicate emotions and for the practical things, like contracts, we obviously have translators. I know it sounds corny.

McGough: I don’t think it’s corny at all. Almost 30 years without a shared language – that’s really unique.

Cousineau: It really is. But Susan does love to have a good translator when we are speaking before an audience. She loves to be well interpreted. Whenever I hear Susan talk about our collaboration in English it is always very moving to me because I can feel it. She is so devoted.

During the discussion that was part of Arnait’s exhibition at York University, I told Susan that I found it amazing that she started to work with us. She must have been 52 or 53 and had 11 children and she started to make video and didn’t know anything about that technology. And Susan said, “Well, first of all, I had nine children and I found YOU amazing, wanting to come up here in the North when you didn’t know anything about the North, and just wanting to work with us.” So, there is this really deep respect between us.

This is why I like to work with Susan and Madeleine – there is no one I’ve met like this after. If it was just to work with Inuit women, maybe I would have done it in Igloolik for five years or ten years and then it would be done. I would move back to Montreal and be working on something else. I kept working with Susan and Madeleine because it was Susan and Madeleine. They were my friends, I trusted them, they trusted me, and we had a connection. It’s like a music group. Susan and Madeleine are two people who are very rare.

McGough: This connection has taken the three of you in some interesting directions. I recently watched the television series that Arnait produced, The Uluit: Champions of the North, which follows an all-female Inuit hockey team over the course of a year. I can see how this program would appeal to younger viewers, especially young women. 

Cousineau: About half of the Inuit population is under 18, and I think the program is a reflection of the population. If you’re not working with elders you’re working with young people. There are just a lot of them!

The Uluit: Champions of the North was made in a different context from how we usually work. We co-produced it with Ari Cohen, who is a director from Montreal. The Uluit are an all-woman Inuit hockey team located in Inukjuak, Nunavik. Ari wanted to do a project about them and found us on the internet and thought, “A group of Inuit women producing media! They should be our co-producers.” This was the first time that someone came to us to do a project outside of Igloolik. We were not involved as writers and directors, but we decided it would be okay to share our experience working in the North and saw it as an opportunity to expand our horizons. It was interesting for us because the series is set in Nunavik, which is a different region from Nunavut, but which we were familiar with because we shot the film Before Tomorrow there. Madeline and Susan were also involved as executive producers, which was a much different role for them.

What was interesting for us was that while we were producing The Uluit: Champions of the North we were also touring villages in Oaxaca, Mexico showing our film Before Tomorrow. We were discussing our experiences with Indigenous women from Mexico and also listening to their experiences and filming these discussions and uploading them to Isuma.tv. We have been able to have a range of different kinds of experience, whether it’s producing a television series, or participating in a cultural exchange in Oaxaca.

McGough: How did the idea of doing these sorts of exchanges come about? Arnait had participated in Video Correspondence: Igloolik-Montreal-Montevideo, a video letter exchange project, but actually traveling from Igloolik to Oaxaca is quite different!

Cousineau: We went to Mexico in 2010, maybe a year after Before Tomorrow was released. I had been there a year before and met with Ojo de Agua, a media collective in Oaxaca. Guillermo Monteforte, who had been in Canada, was working with Ojo de Agua. They were very political and involved in Indigenous rights and Indigenous media. They organized the trip and took us on a tour of villages in Oaxaca and we met with people who were wanting to create their own media and use video and radio. There were also similar issues in this region as there was in Baffin Island with mining and the exploitation of the land, as well as cultural issues, language issues, and justice issues. We traveled with Artcirq, a group of young Inuit from Igloolik who had started doing circus performance. They were already traveling in Mexico and we met-up and went to Oaxaca together. We were like 20 people from Igloolik traveling together! Madeline, Susan, Carol Kunnuk, and I were from Arnait and also Lucy Tulugarjuk, who was with both Arnait and Artcirq, which she helped to found. A lot of young people and the elders, Madeline and Susan. We would stop in different villages and show Before Tomorrow and other films and Artcirq would perform.

McGough: Around this same time, you also produced Show Me on the Map (2010), a series of interviews with local residents focusing on mining in the Baffin region, where Igloolik is located. I saw this work when I visited Arnait’s exhibition at York, earlier this year. It made me think of another Arnait work, Ravens and Children (2015), which deals, in part, with issues related to climate change. These two films seem to signal a change in focus from conveying women’s knowledge and stories to talking about vital contemporary issues like mining and climate change.

 

Marie-Hélène Cousineau / Courtesy: Arnait Video Productions


Cousineau: Show Me on the Map came about because, at the time, the Mary River Mine project was a huge discussion topic in Igloolik and the Baffin Region. It is still. It was a very important subject in town. I don’t think it’s a shift. I think we were maybe a bit more confident in ourselves to extend the voice and to talk about something that’s touching everyone, or touching the economy, or touching job issues, and is more political. Maybe it is a step that we’ve taken forward to say that we could now do this, and we can record it and share it.

McGough: In recent years, there have been calls to decolonize media and film. How do you see Arnait fitting into this discussion? You are clearly part of a group of Indigenous media makers coming out of the 1980s and 1990s – including filmmakers associated with Fourth Cinema – that have presented models of what a decolonized media practice might look like.

Cousineau: Yes, obviously, but we also used a more economic frame when talking about colonization – it was political, it was economic and, maybe, less about identity. Obviously, when I said that we didn’t want to make films like mainstream films, I am saying we wanted to participate in the decolonization of film. We knew that mainstream media was capitalistic and linked to power and place – especially with the structure that is in place to make a film in Canada – and we were proposing alternatives to break this down and let other voices come in.

I find that Before Tomorrow is actually amazing. I watched it three weeks ago with Susan when she was here and we were showing it at the cinema. To see Madeline in the film – her face and her body – it is amazing to see a main character who is an old woman and who is Indigenous. She’s not pretty and there is no sex involved and her face is like a landscape. She’s showing emotions without shame – suffering and happiness.  But one thing that has made me uneasy was the times when we were showing Before Tomorrow and there would be conversations that “this is really Inuit cinema.” But, how do you explain that I’m not an Inuk? My influences in cinema came from Quebec and Europe… What is my role then and my contribution; how do we talk about it? 

 

Still from Tia and Piujuq (2018), directed by Lucy Tulugarjuk / Courtesy: Arnait Video Productions


McGough: I think you’re highlighting a really important issue here. I find Arnait to be an important model of what we are now starting to refer to as transnational media or transnational film – a model that comes from outside of the mainstream and works to decolonize dominant media. From the very beginning, Arnait has crossed borders and cultures as a collective and collaborative effort between Inuit and Québécois women. But beyond personnel, other key aspects of Arnait’s production, like funding and distribution, have also actively worked to link institutions and people/audiences. Just in the course of our discussion, we’ve talked about the relationships between Arnait and Canada, the Northwest Territories, Nunavik, Mexico, and Quebec. These links also take place content-wise as well. Tia and Piujuq – Movie For Children​ (2018), a recent Arnait production directed by Lucy Tulugarjuk, was shot on location in both Montreal and Igloolik with a diverse international cast and crew and tells the story of a Tia, 10 year-old Syrian refugee living in Montreal. Tia finds a magic portal and travels to the Arctic where she befriends an Inuk girl, Piujuk. Arnait very much participates in the global and international media field. Arnait is both a local (giving voice to the women of Igloolik and their concerns) and transnational production group. But, Indigenous film and media has also been marginalized for so long – do you think this might account for the tendency/enthusiasm to misread Arnait’s work as illustrative of “Inuit cinema” despite your role in the collective? 

Cousineau: It might be necessary to talk like that for a while. To be transnational you have to be able to collaborate, there have to be people in the North already making film that can collaborate with people from Montreal, otherwise you’re just hiring people, which is not what we are doing. Our work is collaborative. There are Inuit actors, Inuit stories, Inuit values, and Inuit locations in Before Tomorrow. Maybe that’s what people are saying – all of those things are in the film and maybe that is what makes it Inuit cinema. I don’t know. It’s also in a different language, in Inuktitut. Language is a big issue, if you are talking about transnationalism. Arabic, Inuktitut, English, and French are all spoken in Tia and Piujuq. What are we doing with a film that is in five languages?! In Restless River, French, English, and Inuktitut are spoken. We are always working outside of the rules.

 

Still from Restless River (2019), directed by Marie-Hélène Cousineau in collaboration with Madeline Ivalu / Courtesy: Arnait Video Productions


McGough: And changing the rules! So, what you are saying is that Indigenous filmmakers, actors, and producers have to be actively making work before these larger border crossings that Arnait has traversed can take place creatively or economically, or even critically with their audiences. Isuma.tv is a great example of this as well, as the sort of economic decolonization of film that you are talking about. I was amazed to see Isuma.tv now streams over 7,850 films and videos by Indigenous producers in 71 languages. It’s an impressive experiment with an alternative distribution system for Indigenous media from around the world.

Cousineau: I think Isuma.tv is a wonderful project. You can use it as you want. You can post work, or you can post work and then remove it afterwards. You are controlling it. Of course, people can steal work, they can copy it and show it without your permission, but that happened with VHS tapes! We’re not in the business of necessarily making money with this work and it’s not like we want to make a huge profit – that’s not going to happen, anyway. The best we can do is to make enough money so that we can produce more meaningful work. Our goal is to make meaningful content with meaningful working relations with one another and the people who are in these films. So, if we distribute work on Isuma.tv and more people can access it, then that’s great. Especially, when Indigenous people see our films and videos and want to emulate them and do work like we are doing.

The whole film and media world is changing, and we’re part of what we think is a worthwhile experiment with internet distribution. Still, not all of our work is available on Isuma.tv. Some films, for example, are airing on television right now, but once the license is finished we will make that work available [on Isuma.tv] as well.

McGough: Arnait has also used Isuma.tv to create original internet-based content as well as to distribute film and video. Here, I’m thinking about the interviews you conducted and streamed from the Arnait Nipingit: Women’s Leadership Summit which took place in Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, in 2010. Arnait was uploading interviews daily throughout the five-day meeting.

Cousineau: With this project, we were trying to use the technology as fast as we could to distribute information about the conference. We had some money from the Women’s Secretariat of Nunavut and knew that a women’s leadership conference was taking place in Iqaluit and that there would be over 150 women in attendance. We thought that Inuit women who did not attend would also want to listen to what these women were discussing. We conducted a series of interviews daily throughout the conference and put them on the Internet. It would have been great to be able to stream the summit live and direct, but we didn’t have the technology. Instead we set-up a studio and women would come by and we’d interview them and then upload the videos the same day. Everyday we’d upload ten or fifteen videos.

The problem in the North is that the internet is really, really, really slow. You can put all of this work online, but at the same time people have a hard time watching it. Internet access is also very expensive. That’s why Isuma.tv came-up with the idea of a local server to distribute work – the Media Player Distribution Network. All of the Isuma.tv content is placed on a local server and the server is housed at a school or community center. Residents are connected directly to the local server, rather than the internet, and can view the content with a fast connection. Every day the Media Player syncs-up with the internet and downloads new content. Programming can also be played over local cable television. It’s a really smart distribution project.

McGough: That’s a new twist on cable television which connected houses to a central hub via coaxial cable.

Cousineau: Yes, but there are problems obtaining funding for the project. Let’s face it, when you want to control a population – and I would say that the Canadian government is not really behind improving communication in the North – you control the technology. There’s only one newspaper in the North and there’s the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, but that’s government sponsored. There is community radio in the towns, and Isuma.tv also distributes radio through their website so that you can listen to programming from other villages. The Canadian government never created any network to connect villages because it’s not to their advantage to have people talk to one another. Projects like Isuma.tv and the Media Player are really important here.

 

Still from Unakuluk (Dear Little One) (2005), directed Marie-Hélène Cousineau in collaboration with Mary Kunuk / Courtesy: Arnait Video Productions


McGough: When I look back through Arnait’s catalog of work, I see that collective members are either performing in the work, as in Piujuq and Angutautuq, or the work is about a close family relative, like Mary Kunuk’s film Anaana, in which her mother recounts stories about her own remarkable life experiences. And, you all seem to appear Unakuluk, Dear Little One (2005), an examination of the Inuit culture of adoption, including your own adoption of Alex Apak.

Cousineau: Yes! We are mise-en-scène – we are in our work! Unakuluk, Dear Little One, the film about adoption, is very experimental but we’re in it also. I am, my children, my ex, the women telling their own stories of adoption. I think this makes the story interesting because it is a very intimate subject. How do you give away your child, how do you feel when that happens, and how do you feel when someone gives you a child? I think that fact that we are in it makes our experiences as valuable as the experiences of anyone else.

McGough: The notion of being the mise-en-scène of your work is great way to define Arnait’s oeuvre.

Cousineau: There is definitely a performative aspect to the work, too. For example, Piujuq and Angutautuq: is that a documentary? Not really. Is this a fiction? Not really. The piece is performative. Madeline is telling a story. We didn’t go into her house and film a documentary about her. Piujuq (Madeline) and Angutautuq (Susan) tell stories to one another using CB radio, but we only had one camera, so they also had to pretend they were listening when we were shooting – so we are fictionalizing a little. The part with Susan is a bit more documentary; she was working outside of her house and was just filmed her doing what she was doing. Susan and Madeline are also singing a song, but they are doing this for the camera; they are making up a song on camera. It is very performative.

McGough: The same performative process is at work with Qulliq,where the women enact the lighting of the seal oil lamp for the camera, sometimes struggling to get things correct, and singing songs and telling stories.

 

Still from Before Tomorrow (2009), directed by Marie-Hélène Cousineau and Madeline Ivalu / Courtesy: Arnait Video Productions


Cousineau: Yes – it is more mise-en-scène of an activity or a mise-en-scène of a culture. Even when we were making Before Tomorrow, I realized that the women paid a lot of attention to how the costumes were made and wanted to make them really traditionally. Susan was really researching with Atuat Akittirq, but at some point, there is invention. For example, in 1850, how did people approach each other? We had to make it up, with input from experts. But when people review the film, they say it is an historical drama with documentary components. But it’s all invention. You do your research, but you are also performing and playing.

There is creativity in recreating the past. That is why I really respect Madeline and Susan – they take the liberty to recreate. Susan often talks about how she feels that responsibility – maybe people are going to say it wasn’t like this – but she’s really a creator. She’s not just an archivist. These are liberties that artists take. It is not anthropological.

McGough: During the course of our conversation, we’ve discussed the various organizations in Igloolik that produce media – the IBC, Isuma, the community radio station. Where did you see Arnait fitting within this media community when you started? What do you think is its legacy?

Cousineau: I think from the beginning it was really a feminist enterprise – “let’s hear what women have to say between themselves so that they are not shut down and not shy to speak.” It did serve that purpose and that was quite original in Igloolik and even in Nunavut. In Nunavut, the women are really strong and really involved in politics, but in the media, there were a lot of men’s voices.

The form was different, too. The IBC was much more conventional, but we were like “yeah, we can do whatever.” The work didn’t have any preconceived shape. We didn’t limit ourselves – we didn’t say that we have to make a feature film between 80 and 120 minutes. Maybe it’s a film that’s ten minutes long and someone tells story, or maybe it’s 30 minutes of just women’s hands. And then we had the oral tradition where women are talking for nine hours! Mary Kunuk wanted to draw and started to make computer animations.

We used video as a speaker phone to listen to the voices of women. For myself, as an artist, it was interesting to see what form this work could take. The content is there, the voices are there, the shape is going to be different from one project to another.

 


Unakuluk (Dear Little One), felt mural, detail, 2006, Susan Avingaq, Madeline Ivalu, Mary Kunuk, and Mary Qulitalik. Photograph by Yuula Benivolski. Courtesy: Art Gallery of York University (AGYU).


 

 

 


 

Published November 5, 2019



ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laura McGough is a media art historian, practitioner, and curator. She has organized exhibitions, screenings, performances, and streaming content for arts organizations in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia. She received an MA degree in Interdisciplinary Studies from New York University and a PhD from the Department of Media Study at the University at Buffalo. McGough has worked with Arnait since 1992, when they first exhibited their work at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center in Buffalo, New York. Over the years, they have collaborated on a range of screenings, touring packages, residencies, and publications, including Ikuma, Carnet de tournage, on which McGough  served as English editor.


 

 

INCITE Journal of Experimental Media
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