A controversial film criticized for portraying Canada's Inuit in an unfavorable light could soon be getting a literal facelift.
Dominic Gagnon's documentary of the North, a compilation of YouTube videos meant to illustrate life in Canada's northernmost regions, has been in the crosshairs of many Inuit artists who say the film is a racist and sensationalist depiction of their reality.
On Monday, Montreal's Ciné-Club La Banque cancelled a screening, claiming the filmmaker had been receiving threats. In early February, the film was also pulled from Montreal's RVCQ film festival, at the urging of Inuit artists who petitioned all festival organisers to stop showing it.
In response to the backlash, Gagnon says he is now working on a new edit which would replace every single character's face with the likeness of Justin Trudeau, "to draw his attention to the condition of Inuit in the North."
'I was sick to my stomach, literally I felt ill.'
The main criticism of of the North has been the fact that Gagnon, who has never visited that part of the country, failed to consult with the Inuit community. The filmmaker has also been lambasted for allegedly cherry-picking videos of debauchery, drinking and driving, vomiting and explicit sexual content and editing them out of context.
"I was sick to my stomach, literally I felt ill," Inuk filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril told VICE in January. "It just blew my mind that people could think that this was ok, that this could create any kind of healthy dialogue."
But the film's author —who points out the fact that film also shows beautiful images of Arctic traditions and scenery— says he only used clips people willingly put online and that the film should be interpreted as artistic experimentation, not a documentary. A group of Quebec filmmakers have recently come to his defense in an open letter that calls the protesters' efforts an affront to free speech.
Gagnon says the opposition to his work have also lead to threats and that he's considered reaching out to police. "I was warned that if I went ahead and showed the film, things would go badly for me. I was even forced to look up what to do in these circumstances."
In response to the backlash, the filmmaker has reworked the feature into various edits, "to reconcile the interests and protect my distributor, who isn't interested in presenting the problematic versions."
The original iteration, which featured unlicensed music by Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq, was pulled after the singer vehemently condemned the film. Another edition shows the videos directly within the YouTube interface. "For me this removes the notion of authorship," Gagnon says. "It's no longer a film, it's a video mashup."
The filmmaker is now hoping a tentative fifth version, which he's dubbed Justin of the North, will finally appease his detractors.
"I thought it could be a good move to convince Canada's Indigenous communities that I'm on their side, that this film was never meant to hurt them," Gagnon says, explaining that he's now working with a Montreal artist to devise a patch that will Trudeau-ify each character in the film. "If this can help pressure Trudeau to keep his promises, then I want to run my film through this app and transform it into a political pamphlet."
In terms of content, this means the Canadian prime minister's face may be added to a graphic sex scene, a drunken ATV crash and a series of other tragic scenes that have outraged the Inuit community.
Inuk radio producer Stephen Puskas, one of of the North's critics, says this seems like a strange move. "Is that a comment about Inuit, is that a comment about Justin Trudeau? I don't think that would help any arguments or the discussion," he says.
'I was warned that if I went ahead and showed the film, things would go badly for me.'
The main issue, Puskas points out, is still the fact that this Inuit community has never been part of the creative process. "Changes are being made, but no one is communicating with us," he says. "This is a film about Inuit, using a lot of footage from and about Inuit, but we're not active members. We're reactive, and only up until the last month, we haven't been invited to screening, we haven't been invited to contribute or even to defend ourselves."
Gagnon says he's open to meeting with Puskas and those he calls his "detractors."
"I want the dialogue, I want to talk to them about my actual intentions with the film."
He says he feels the anger is misdirected. "They have this platform, why aren't they using it to denounce the conditions in which they live," he says. "Why don't they criticize the political system under which they they suffer?"
Follow Brigitte Noël on Twitter: @Brige_Noel