Movie documents life in Nunavik’s smallest community but also raises important political issues
By Miriam Dewar
Makivvik President Pita Aatami sits on a raised chair in front of a green screen in a hotel near the Makivvik office in Montreal. He is dressed all in black and four filmmakers move around him. There is a sound person wearing headphones and holding a boom mike, as Director Ole Gjerstad stands behind a film camera and counts down from three, two, one… “and to you, Pita.”
This film shoot is possibly the last of a project that has been in the works since a Makivvik board meeting in 2021. Aupaluk: Red Earth, its working title, was conceived at the meeting after board member Maggie Akpahatak requested a film be made in support of residents, documenting life in her community as it faces pressure from mining companies and government. The request was approved and William Tagoona, along with Ole and his colleagues, who William had worked with previously on the 2015 film, So That you Can Stand, Napagunaqullusi, and the “Building the Inuit Homeland” series, headed to Aupaluk.
“It’s been great working with that team. We’ve been together since about 2014,” William says. “We developed really good chemistry amongst ourselves.” Makivvik has been working for years to document Nunavik Inuit history in various ways, creating an archive of sorts for future generations.
On their first trip to Aupaluk, they visited the Landholding office where five maps hung. The first depicted areas that Aupaluk had wanted in their Category I and II land selections. The fifth map showed what they were granted, only 15 per cent of what they requested. What they wanted most they were refused, and the Category I lands were divided into four tiny pieces. “They’re scattered,” Ole says, “It’s like waste.” They decided this was a big part of the story that needed to be told.
The second thing they discovered in Aupaluk was that there were different opinions about how to face the existential threat the mining companies were posing. Ole says the initial apprehensions and tensions people had about participating in the film project were eventually let go. The conclusion in the film is that everybody in Aupaluk agrees that the land was stolen, and something must be done. On that everybody agrees.
The project became not only one of documenting the beauty of the land under threat, but a political story. The film opens with the Akpahatak family fishing on a spring weekend and shows the majesty of the Nunavik landscape.
“It’s people in their relationship with nature, which is almost sacred to them,” Ole explains, “and what can be done to protect it. This film is not pro-mining, it’s not anti-mining, it’s pro-Inuit rights and in the end it’s not only about Aupaluk. It’s about all the communities. What happened to Aupaluk is the extreme case, but to some extent with the land selection, it happened to every community in Nunavik. And it happened to every Indigenous community in Canada.”
William agrees. He says the importance of making this documentary goes back to the 1960s when Inuit were discriminated against, whether in schools, or hospitals. They were seen as dispensable, he says.
“We’re working toward fixing what was done wrong in the past, and with what we’re doing in the Aupaluk documentary I think we’re surfacing that. It’s all part of the injustices that were done in the past and Aupaluk is one of them with the land selections.”
The injustices regarding land selections were explored in the “Building the Inuit Homeland” series, and Ole says that because Nunavik had its land claim negotiated first, other Inuit regions, like Nunavut and Nunatsiavut, were able to see what mistakes were made before negotiating their own agreements decades later.
“(Nunavik) paid the price for being the first. That’s basically what it amounts to,” he says. “But things are being dealt with. What happened in the past, the theft of the land, the ignoring of Indigenous rights and treaties, are gradually being challenged in courts.”
While the film is a portrait of the people of Aupaluk and their relationship to the land, it is also an instrument for Nunavimmiut to pitch their case for recognition of their rights. “I’d say it’s a weapon, when it comes to dealing with the government,” Ole says. The film will be narrated in English (by William), Inuktitut, as well as French. “This film has to be shown in Quebec. When Makivvik goes to (Premier) François Legault they can say, ‘Here is the situation, this is what happened, now can we talk about it?’”
On their last day shooting in Aupaluk last fall, the Makivvik executive team flew into the community to observe. William says it was an important visit because the corporation is part of the solution.
“You’ll see in the documentary where the governments and the industry, when they negotiated the JBNQA, they had absolutely no regard for the Inuit. They just did whatever they wanted to. So, it was very important for the Makivvik executives to go there and go meet with the leadership of the tiniest community in Nunavik and show their support, and it really did a lot for our documentary. And the people of Aupaluk were being listened to by Makivvik, the only real Inuk body in the James Bay Agreement.”
Back in the Montreal hotel, Pita Aatami has completed 11 takes. Ole will show them to William to decide on which one to use, not only because the clips are in Inuktitut, but to make sure the messaging is correct. More than on previous films he has worked, he says, this one is presenting a scenario and solution close to what Makivvik wants to achieve.
“So, it’s important we get it right. Here, Makivvik, and Pita, is my client.”