Documentary and globalization: favouring understanding

Age of Stupid - Sydney
A still from the documentary "The Age of Stupid", directed by Franny Armstrong

I have just spent two weeks teaching at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington State. More on my course another day, but I also had the opportunity to speak to the students and faculty about Documentary in the Context of Globalization.

I talked about how the new digital technologies have democratized access to audio-visual production and how the web has made it possible to instantaneously distribute videos worldwide. This has opened up a two-way street, making local stories available to the world, and bringing the world (or stories from elsewhere in the world) to audiences just about everywhere.

To illustrate my points, I showed excerpts from three films. Burma VJ is one I wrote about on my blog earlier. The film documents the use of small digital cameras by courageous video journalists – VJ’s – to reveal what goes on inside the Burmese dictatorship. With digital cameras and satellite uploads they distribute images worldwide within hours. Their work made all the difference during the 2007 uprising led by Buddhist monks across the country.

Another example I used was the video of the killing of a young Iranian woman during the 2009 protests in that country. It graphically showed her dying moments, and really touched people emotionally. Thanks to the web and cell phone – Twitter was particularly instrumental – it spread like wildfire, and actually helped change the relationship of forces between the regime and the opposition.

As an example of how the new production and distribution context has allowed people who did not traditionally have access to the resources to express themselves audiovisually, I used the amazing Wapikoni mobile experience, which has been running for six years in Quebec. Young aboriginal people have been given training and access to production facilities, and the result is impressive. Many of their films have been presented at festivals and won awards.

For some filmmakers, the starting point is not local but global. That was the case with the 2009 film The Age of Stupid by Franny Armstrong. The premise, established with much aesthetic panache, is that while the world has gone to ruin, one man (played by Pete Postlethwaite) remains in the Global archive in 2055. His archives reveal the stupidity of the people of our era who knew the world was on the road to perdition but didn’t act – stories set, naturally, in our own time.

Finally, I spoke about the phenomenon of immigrant directors (or children of immigrant families) making films about their home countries in the ‘developing countries’. Having access to the funding mechanisms of the richer countries as well as an intimate knowledge – or at least personal connection – to their country of origin, these talented directors have made some great films. Ali Kazimi’s Narmada – A Valley Rises, Rithy Panh’s films about Cambodia are good examples, but I chose to show an excerpt of Up The Yangtze by Yung Chang (NFB & EyeSteel Films).

There are increasing numbers of excellent films coming out of the countries in the South. As a member of the board of the Alter-Cine Foundation, I am able to see the incredible diversity of projects from Asia, Africa and Latin America looking for funding every year. Just reading the proposals, one gets a sense of the many aspects of reality which are not adequately covered by our television networks.

Conclusion – it sound a little simplistic when summarized, but it’s true: by offering a more in-depth treatment of other realities, documentaries contribute to understanding and awareness between peoples.

Thanks to Tobi Elliott for her help with this blog.

Qimmit – the mysterious disappearance of the Inuit’s sled dogs

Joelie Sanguya's dog team

Last Friday night, Ole Gjerstad‘s and Joelie Sanguya‘s film Qimmit: A Clash of Two Truths premiered at the Cinéma Parallèle as part of the Présence autochtone aboriginal film festival.

Co-produced by Piksuk Media Inc. and the National Film Board of Canada, the film won the Rigoberta Menchu Second Prize at the 20th First Peoples’ Festival Awards.

Qimmit (“many dogs”) is the story of the seemingly mysterious disappearance of the dog teams in the Inuit communities of the Canadian north in the ’50s and ’60s, shortly after the Inuit were moved off the land and into communities. The film, sets out to tell the story of “one shock, two truths” as the Inuit and the ‘white’ authorities totally disagree on what happened.

Shot during a Quebec inquiry (for Nunavik, the Quebec Arctic territory) and a “truth commission” for Nunavut (the rest of the Eastern Canadian Arctic) the film is full of emotionally wrenching testimony. For the Inuit, there is no doubt that the authorities, and specifically the police, exterminated the dogs in order to force the aboriginal people to become sedentary.

The former constables interviewed for the film denounce these views as lies and fabrication. But the Inuit testimony is very convincing, and the filmmakers wisely see this whole story as an expression of a colonial power relationship. The film is very well made with some stylish and evocative but restrained re-enactments.

Ole Gjerstad and Joelie Sanguaya in Canadian North
Ole Gjerstad with Joelie Sanguya on the set of their film ‘Qimmit: A Clash of Two Truths'

I put a few questions to Ole Gjerstad, who also happens to be one of my best friends.

What was the greatest difficulty making this film?

To convey to an audience in 2010 the colonial reality of the Canadian Arctic forty to fifty years ago. White authority simply took it for granted that they knew what was best for Inuit; Inuit were too intimidated by white authority — as embodied by any white person in their communities — to protest or resist. Things have changed dramatically, but if we cannot get the minds of the audience back to those days it will be very difficult for them to understand how something like this could happen.

“One shock, two truths…” but in the end the Inuit version is so much more believable, partly because it’s emotional first-person testimony. How to explain that the ex-RCMP have blocked this out?

The RCMP produced an internal review, which was conducted much like a police investigation, looking for “proof” and pretty much excluding the context. Add to that the many controversies and scandals that have plagued the RCMP in recent years, and I believe that the top RCMP brass decided the Inuit claims weren’t of much consequence. As for the Sûreté du Quebec, which was responsible for the killing of thousands of dogs after they assumed control of Nunavik in 1961, they simply ignored our requests, as did the Quebec government, saying they didn’t want to discuss the matter until they heard from the Inuit about settling the claims.

I wondered when you say the dogs are back in the lives of the Inuit helping to reconnect with their traditions – it is of course a great thing to say at the end of a film, but is it a reality in many communities?

There are dog teams now in nearly all the communities in Nunavut and Nunavik. They’re used by Inuit outfitters for tourism, for trophy hunting by foreigners, by others for teaching traditional skills to young Inuit, and simply for pleasure. Nobody depends on the dogs to survive, but their return to the communities have established a visible link to a tradition that was at the heart of Inuit life not so long ago.

Last month we filmed a ten-day traditional sled dog race, the Nunavut Quest, for a television series. The enthusiasm and level of interest in all the communities involved leaves me in no doubt that the dogs are like a weapon in Inuit hands to fight against cultural obliteration.

Thanks to Tobi Elliott for her help with this blog.