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The Filmmaker Fighting Against the Animal Rights War on Seal Hunting

A new documentary, 'Angry Inuk,' points out the irony of progressives attacking a long-standing Indigenous practice.

by Jake Kivanc
10 May 2016, 4:00am

Inuit people are fighting back against misconceptions of the seal hunt. All photos courtesy of Qajaaq Ellsworth

For decades, images of bloodied and battered seals have flooded pop culture as animal rights activists have furiously fought a PR war against the Canadian seal hunt—which occurs from March to May—and the government's condonement of it. While critics call it a brutal practice and a contributor to accelerating environmental damage, Inuit activists like Tanya Tagaq have fought back against that perception and pushed for a new conversation around the hunt. Now, one film is tackling that very issue.

Angry Inuk—a documentary from Inuit filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril—premiered at Toronto's Hot Docs festival last week with the goal of reinvigorating the debate around the seal hunt. It tells the story of Inuit communities across Canada that are actively involved in the sealing industry, and it does so from the ground level. Viewers see how Inuit children in schools learn about the value of a life, how hunters track their prey, and how entire communities rely on what amount of useable meat is brought back. It's honest, raw, and shot from the perspective of actual Inuit people living off the sale and consumption of seal products.

Arnaque-Baril, who has spent the last eight years filming in the Arctic and in Newfoundland and Labrador, has desperately tried to chase down animal rights groups for a response to the film and the Inuit people's belief that the seal hunt is necessary to their survival. Through it, she has experienced constant harassment, threats, and serious depression. Now that the film—what she calls an "homage to her life and community"—is out for the world to see, VICE spoke to her about what eight years of studying and shooting the seal has revealed to her.

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VICE: This film's been in the works for a long time now. Can you tell me a little bit about how you came about making it?
Alethea Arnaquq-Baril: I'm Inuit, so I grew up in the Arctic. I grew up hunting and eating seal meat with my family, and as an Inuk, you just grow up hearing people complain [about] and criticize seal hunters. It's just kind of always been an issue for me, and I knew that when I became a filmmaker that I was eventually going to have to cover this issue.

This film is clearly a personal journey and a documentary—did having that personal involvement shape the direction of the film in any way?
It was a hard line to walk—knowing when to be personal and when to be informational—and when you're telling a story of your own community and culture, and you're coming from a remote place that people don't know a lot about, it's hard to tell what people are [already aware of]. I'm really glad I had a great team, honestly. My DP was from the north. He's an Inuk, too, and my editor is from Montreal and has never been north, so it was really valuable to have perspectives from the Inuit team and the non-Inuit team on the film. I think that was really important to balance when it was time to be personal, and when it was time to be [a documentarian].

Was it tough for you to make the film compared to other projects, being that it was so personal?
It was. I became part of the story, too. I'm just a filmmaker, I'm also one of the activists in the film, and when you put yourself out there and challenge animal rights activists, you kind of get attacked. That was kind of a tough thing to handle.

The film looks at a lot of the misconceptions outsiders have of the seal hunt. What are some of the main things that you think people get wrong about it?
I think when people see posters and ad campaigns that say, "Save the seals," and they see things that make comparisons of seal skin to elephant ivory and rhino horns—these are really deliberate tactics that animal rights groups use to imply that seals are endangered, and they're nowhere near endangered. There's between eight and ten million harp seals in the Atlantic Ocean, and [activists] will use language and semantics that make it seem like [seals] are on their way to extinction. They'll talk about climate change and the ice receding and how they could possibly endanger seals, but that's just not true.

Critics often counter anti-seal hunt rhetoric by pointing out that Inuit communities can't simply go to the grocery store and buy food. It's a hunting-based diet by necessity. How do you feel about that?
Sometimes I've heard people say, "Why don't you just buy groceries at the store?" Which is absurd, because if you're trying to protect animals and the environment in the Arctic, it's better to source locally than to fly avocados in from six thousand kilometers [three thousand seven hundred miles]. It just makes no sense. We have local, wild, ethically sourced food—why wouldn't we eat that? People tend to think of seals as exotic, majestic beautiful things—different from what we eat as "Canadians"—but Inuit are Canadians, too, and seal, narwhal, walrus—all those foods are normal, everyday food for us.

There seems to be a lot of intersection between animal rights groups and progressiveness for indigenous rights. Do you feel people are blind to how they're hurting Inuit communities with anti-seal hunt dialogue?
It's kind of ironic that we've been marginalized and silenced on the issue of seal hunting because it's actually Inuit seal hunters [speaking out] when it comes to [climate change] in the Arctic. A while ago, one of the very few voices on the voices on the planet speaking up about the issue was Sheila Watt-Cloutier—an Inuit woman. She was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize beside Al Gore. When nobody was talking about climate change, an Inuit was talking about climate change. It just makes sense for these types of groups to be working with us, but instead, for the last fifty, sixty years, they've been working against us. I think it's just a matter of being heard. I think we've never had the chance to do that before.

What are some of the issues that you ran into making the film? Was there anything you didn't expect?
My family worried about me. We saw animal rights protests for a long time on TV, and a lot of the time they were very aggressive and loud and outwardly angry. Inuit tend to express anger a little more softly and quietly, even when you're really pissed off about something. It's a principle to stay calm under fire—I think it's a survival tactic we have—and it's just a matter of being respectful. I think we see losing your temper as a sign of a guilty conscience, and we are misunderstood a lot when we say, "This isn't right." We know this place. We figure if we say, "This is wrong," people will listen. My family was very worried about the backlash I'd receive from animal rights activists, and it has been very hard on me. It's part of the reason the film took so long to finish.

Do you think animal rights activists have been any more receptive to the concerns you've raised in this film?
[These groups] have been aware of these issues for years. Inuit leaders have spoken to Greenpeace, spoken out publicly, spoken to journalists. These groups are very aware how they've affected us, how they've contributed to hunger and poverty in our communities for a long time. So, I want to say no, they haven't been receptive to hearing our voice. However, I think there's hope. Canadians are starting to learn more about Indigenous history and are starting to care more about us having a shot at life like everybody else. I think there's a new generation coming up within these organizations that are trying to hold their [leaders] accountable. What I'm really looking forward to is their jobs being taken over by a generation that actually gives a crap about people like me.


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