Writer-director Marie-Hélène Cousineau on Filmmaking in Canada’s High Arctic
Filmmaker Marie-Hélène Cousineau has co-created a successful women’s film initiative in the Canada’s High Arctic. Originally from Montreal, Cousineau spent 20 years in Igloolik, and returns every summer to teach and make movies. Her second film Uvanga (“Myself”), following the landmark Before Tomorrow, tells the story of a white woman (Marianne Farley) from Montreal who returns to Igloolik with her son (Lukasi Forrest) to meet his late father’s Inuit family. In 24 hour-a-day sunlight, he discovers a strange and beautiful world and immediately and bonds with his “new” family. But his mother is painfully reminded of the rift her affair created in the tight-knit community and her lover’s mysterious death. What really happened? We spoke with Cousineau in Toronto.
This is your second film set in the High Arctic. As a white woman who has lived in the Arctic for so long, is it in any way your story?
No, it’s not my story personally. I didn’t give birth to a child in and this and that, it’s not my personal story but it’s a story of many people that I have seen going up north, many women and some elements in the film I have seen or experienced. I’ve been going there and lived there ten years. I’m going there for work, but I never cut my links with the north. Mine is a very different story.
Your cast is amazing. There are actors from The Fast Runner and Before Tomorrow and some terrific newcomers. What a joy it must be to have such a solid community of film actors.
It’s been very active for many years, with so many different styles and stories but many of the same actors. We used some of our best loved actors. Veterans like Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq (Barrie) and first comers like Carol Kunnuk (Sheba) and it was fun.
Peter-Henry doesn’t speak English so he actually learned by sound his text. He understands a little bit but not really a lot. We rehearsed and translated the whole dialogue. He understands the Indian language only so he really had to learn. He’s a subtle actor and I think he’s one of the best Canadian actors. Too bad he’s acting only in the north and he certainly your typical face. Some people say “I can’t look at him”. But me I just want to see him!
The landscape is incredibly beautiful there but it’s also dangerous and open to the elements. Tomas’s father went through the ice; the landscape is a character that does things.
It’s an active character. It’s overpowering in some ways at some times because you can never forget it and never not feel it, it can never not have an effect on you, especially in the sun 24 hours a day. It’s great but kind of monstrous after a while. I was there 12 summers in full daylight. When August comes and its dark, you’re so tired. You can’t sleep because you’re always kind of excited. It’s like a long day that never ends. It’s beautiful and it has an impact. Also working with the land Igloolik is very flat so there’s no vertical references, everyone walking on the land is like a pole. The eye goes right to it.
People would be fascinated to know there is this self-sufficient film community in the High Arctic.
Some people in Igloolik have asked me they are we going to see Part 2 and find out what happens to these people? The young people said that because it was important for them to see themselves on the screen, one of the first time there is a fiction film in a contemporary universe and for them to see this. It’s like a door opening, a first and it mirrors them.
We’ll never forget news footage of the horrific conditions people were forced to live in at Attawapiskat in Ontario. Igloolik looks pretty nice in comparison.
It didn’t avoid the problems; it’s a community with a lot of problems we see atAttawapiskat. Life there is quite difficult. It’s a nice, warm and community but at the same time there are many suicides, a murder this week of a girl by a teenaged boy, there is family violence, alcohol and drugs, poor housing. We just finished shooting the rough cut a film about a friend of ours who killed himself. He was a fantastic artist and filmmaker and circus and music, and he died in an RCMP cell. It’s not an easy place to be. Kids are bored and very few finish high school, there’s cancer and health problems. But at the same time it has all the possibilities to be a great place and to be fun and great and hope and everything but it needs some help from the inside and the outside. What will it become in the face of environmental change and mining, the elders dying, but it’s certainly a creative place. There are a lot of storytellers. It’s interesting that’s why it’s so amazing. In the north, you see the problems and say it’s terrible, but you see the people who are laughing and doing great things and being kind and gentle. Certainly it’s not fair. Not as many possibilities. There are lots of internet users and we use a lot of Facebook but its slow and very expensive, like everything else.