Interview by Michelle Svenson, Film and Video Specialist,
April 1, 2002
up in Igloolik
MS: Do you mind stating your name and tribal affiliation?
ZK: Zacharias Kunuk, eastern Arctic Inuit, but we don’t
go by tribal affiliation.
MS: Can you tell us a little bit about your home?
ZK: Igloolik has anywhere from 1200 to maybe 1300 people.
Small town. It’s a community formed back in the late ‘50s, when
the government started the settlement programs and Igloolik was
just one of them. We were living off of the land like the ancestors
before us and [then the government] built the health center there
and the stores and the school started and we all had to go to
school. Basically, I was nine years old when they dragged me to
I was just learning about other hunters going out by dog teams
and [how they] were living in one-room sod houses, sleeping side
by side. Every morning our fathers would hitch up the dogs and
they would go hunting. [At that time] I just started going out
with the men and learning about their dogs and how they drive
the dog teams: how they go right and left and stop and go. It
was my job, every time they stopped for tea, to untangle the ropes.
And then the following summer my parents got the message from
the government: ‘You have to send your kids to school. After all,
we’re paying family allowance.’ Kids at the age of five, they
have to be in school.
So I came to Igloolik in 1966. Growing up was going to school,
learning about English, [and being told] ‘you don’t have to speak
your language in the classroom, and every weekend there’s movies,’
but it cost a quarter to get in. So I started carving, and would
sell my carvings so I could go to the movies. After two years
my parents came, because they wanted to be close to us. It’s like
a scheme the government brought everybody into one place [with]:
‘Send the children to school and the parents will follow.’
Later, when I was growing up in my teens, half of my community,
Igloolik, was Catholic and half of it was Anglican. I was on the
Anglican side and our cousins were the Catholics. The [Catholic]
priests and the Anglican priests came and just divided us. My
cousins on the Catholic side and us [on the Anglican side] used
to fight, throw rocks at each other, and our parents would be
arguing. [Iimagine] these are our families just divided in two
and it was terrible...‘look at your cross, look at our cross’
and ‘our God went to heaven and your God is still on the cross.’
It was that kind of an atmosphere, and us Anglican boys, we weren’t
allowed to have Catholic girlfriends or play with [Anglicans].
In that time that I was growing up, I was a sculptor, and I
was really starting to be good at it [to where it could allow
me to] start experimenting with different types of 35mm cameras,
different brands, trying to document hunting scenes. And then
one day in 1980, I heard you could own a moving picture camera.
So my friend and I, we carved out bigger [sculptures] and we flew
down to Montreal. I was dealing with a gallery there, and I told
the gallery I wanted a video camera.
So in 1981, I bought my first video camera, a porta-pack, a 26-inch
TV and a VCR. I flew back with it and I tried it out, looking
at the manual and trying it out. Even though my camera had color
I was getting black-and-white and I didn’t figure it out for like
two months. It was just a color balance [problem]. But because
we had no TV in our community, every time I put my TV on, the
kids playing outside would be glued to my window.
And sometimes I would notice my house was full of kids watching
TV. It’s because we kept TV out of our community twice. Back in
1975 and 1979, we voted [against TV]. We didn’t want it because
there was nothing being broadcast in Inuktitut. And then the Inuit
Broadcasting Corporation started in 1982. The following year,
in ’83, we received one-channel TV, and after ten years we brought
in the cable. Now we have 12 channels on the cable that we can
watch. We can watch news on our tribe and everything else happening
in the world. I remember watching the Gulf War in our living room.
(Laughing in amazement.)
Watching the world from your living room. During that time I
worked for Inuit Broadcasting Corporation for eight years, video-interviewing
elders that talked about the good old days. I wanted to see [their
stories] but there’s no footage of days they talked about. I decided
I wanted to do my own projects, but the company wouldn’t allow
me, so in 1991 I broke off and started a new company. Four of
us started it together, Norman Cohn, Paulossie Qulitalik, Paul
Apak Angilirq, and myself, the four of us; we started the first
independent Inuit company.
We then learned if you’re an artist in Canada there are art grants
that you can apply to, grants that you can get money to do video
production right. We tapped into that. But then, as we were [progressing],
in 1994-‘95, we did a television series called Nunavut:Our
Land. They were half-hour episodes about the Inuit in the
time of 1945-46. We made the costumes and acted in it. So we did
that. And then the next thing to do was do a feature-length. But
it was shocking to learn how the financing system works in our
own country, in Canada. Since we have two official languages,
English and French, they had the most money. It was shocking.
The English [speakers] had $65 million in one fiscal year, the
French had $35 million and the Aboriginal people had $2 million.
With $2 million you can make a movie, but the worst of all was
each project was capped at $100,000. So you would never, ever,
do anything [substantial]. We had to fight all this, and it was
very ugly. For us, we [finally] did change the system, and so
we got to make our own, Atanarjuat.
MS: How did you fight the system for grants?
ZK: Well, we’re in the Arctic, and our Inuit are tax-paying
citizens, so it wasn’t fair at all to see, ‘you pay your fair
share and you get this little back.’ We just wanted equality,
to be a part of the talent in the country. We wanted a slice of
our pie. But if we get a slice of our pie, somebody was going
to have to lose their slice. We had to be angry to get in. But
that’s a long story. It took us five years to argue for our money.
Afterwards, it took a year to shoot. It took another year to finish
MS: What’s your ultimate goal to come out of video making?
ZK: Just the truth of what happened, because we were really
damaged by Christianity. Before Christianity we didn’t know hell
existed. We all knew that people went down below, but after they’ve
refreshed they would return up to the day. Day-heaven. Everybody
went to the day-heaven. But now, Christianity came and ‘snap,’
‘you’re going to burn in hell if you’re bad.’ We don’t believe
that. So, a lot of our cultural ways that survived for thousands
of years have been interrupted and completely changed in the last
fifty years. Doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t make sense. So, just
trying to prove that it doesn’t make sense. That’s my job.
MS: I wanted to start by asking you about your experience
here in New York for the Fast Runner. Do you want to describe
how it’s been for you so far?
ZK: Getting good reviews and every two screenings that
we’ve had sold out. Good questions. Terrific.
MS: What kind of questions were you asked?
ZK: After a while they started to sound the same. How
do you manage the equipment in the cold weather? And the fast
runner-did he really run fifteen miles? What’s Igloolik like?
Do they still live like what they see in the movie?
MS: What do you think the best question you received has
ZK: My best question was 'What did you like the most
about the film?'
MS: And what was your answer?
ZK: My answer is-when we have a camp, and it’s all set
up; all the cameras, all the sound systems are checked--the moment
I call the actors to come on set, and they start coming over the
hill in their costumes and I’m just imagining ‘That’s how it must
have looked!’ That was my greatest moment.
MS: And will you tell us the history behind the story
of ‘the Fast Runner,’ is it a traditional story from your community?
ZK: Yes. We live on an island that we’ve inhabited for
over 4000 years and this story has been passed down from generation
to generation. When we were growing up it was a bedtime story
for us. When Christianity came, they didn’t allow us to do drum
dancing or storytelling. [They told us] ‘These acts are the work
of the devil’ and it sort of died. After we brought in television
and cable, now everybody’s glued to the tube. And that’s where
we wanted to be, so our little company started to bring back the
storytelling. And there are a lot of other Inuit trying to get
back our culture too, in different ways. We’re just doing our
portion in video.
MS: The making of Atanarjuat was a collaborative
production, yes? Can you describe the roles?
ZK: Well, we don’t work like [they do] in film, like how
they do down here [in the U.S.], where you have a director, an
assistant to the director, and then another assistant to that
director. We don’t work like that. All the heads come together,
we talk about what it’s going to be like and understand each other
at length; if we’re going to do a scene where tents are--we ask
each other ‘Are they right?’ It’s everybody’s job to get it right,
and so we all talk about it: ‘Should that be there?’ ‘No-I think
it should be there. Oh, let’s get Anele to tell us where it is.’
(Chuckle.) We just work like that.
And of course, all the actors come from our own little community,
and you just tell them when they have to get into their characters
and they do. I have very little directing to do. Because the script
is already written and people know what to do. I just tell them
‘start’ and ‘stop’ and ‘wrap’ and that’s about it.
MS: Has the success of the film helped your community
in any way?
ZK: Yes, it did. It seems like we had to get out of our
own country to get recognized. But that’s okay.
MS: And do you have your next project lined up?
ZK: Yes, this summer. We’ve been researching this project
where, again, we want to touch on shamanism a little bit...we
touched upon it already, and it was a very [controversial] subject.
It still is. We want to touch [on] it more, but where Christianity
comes in and the misunderstandings that took place--especially
how they translated the Bible to us. It destroyed our culture,
and I want to show how it happened in my area.
MS: If you were introducing the film to the audience,
what would you say?
ZK: If you’ve only heard about Inuit people, this is it--this
is what the Inuit past is all about. There’s no outside influence
about it. There are no Europeans in it. It’s all Inuit. It’s fabulous
because Inuit have always been put in the background as extra
actors. And if they speak Inuktitut, it didn’t mean anything,
it was just a part of the show. Seal oil lamps--how they burn,
nobody cared. They could be touching the Olympic torch and nobody
would care. I was noticing a lot of this when I saw films about
the North. We’re just background--who cares? We do.
MS: What do you prefer, or if you have a preference at
all, of documentary methods or fictional?
ZK: I prefer documentary, but I wouldn’t call it documentary.
It’s also fictional. You’re recreating the past, so it’s both.
When our earlier work was just starting to come out, they used
to call it docudrama. Half documentary, half drama.
MS: Do you prefer video, especially digital, to film?
ZK: I’ve always worked with video, from 1981. It’s an
amazing tool. When we go into interviews, especially to elders,
and you point a camera at them and start asking them questions,
they’re going to tell the truth. And that’s exactly what we want
[to capture on video]. And after [shooting], you can look at it
right away. With film, from where I am, I have to send it out
and then wait two weeks for my rushes. That’s an ailment.
MS: Have you seen other works, say documentaries, which
were done in the past of Arctic peoples and culture, like Nanook
of the North, and how do you feel about them?
ZK: Robert Flaherty did his piece 400 miles south to my
community and I’m really glad that he did it because he recorded
that culture. I would have comments because he’s a filmmaker.
Of course he set up scenes, but I’m happy for these documents.
I’d be happy if somebody else would make another Atanarjuat
from a different point of view. We’re just one little group doing
this and there’s not enough of us, so we have no problem with
MS: How do you think the films or the videos have affected
ZK: In our part-time, we’re always trying to do something
more…ambitious...How do you call it?...We’re just trying to climb
up the ladder. We put the whole community to work. Because it’s
a cold climate, we have to use the caribou clothing, because they’re
still the best. Ladies who still know how to make these clothes
sew them for us. The down jackets, they’re no good. So everybody
has to know all these things. All the ladies work sewing up the
caribou clothes and all the men make the props, the harpoons,
the bows and arrows and anything you want, [the community makes.]
We’re becoming the same [as] people who lived on the land.
MS: And is the language still being passed down to the
ZK: Inuktitut language is the first language in Nunavut.
In my community, now, when kids go to school for the first time,
in the first three years they learn Inuktitut: how to write it,
how to speak it. We feel that, after four years, we planted the
seeds enough before they learn English.
MS: And your films are also in your Native language as
ZK: Yes, because our first audience is the Inuit themselves.
It’s very challenging when we do feature-length because there
are [elders] that are viewing it on the screen and one slight
mistake we make, they all notice it. So we have to do everything
MS: Are the children also taking interest in learning
the art of video making?
ZK: Children right now are very interested in our movie,
because for the first time, it’s in their language. It’s not Arnold
Schwarzenegger, blowing people’s heads away. Now it’s Atanarjuat.
It’s a story that kids are even playing, like playing some scenes
out. I even get feedback from parents. One time a parent told
me that he had been looking for his kids and he couldn’t find
them. When he found them outside, they were playing tent and he
could hear they were playing ‘Atanarjuat.’ That’s cool.
MS: Have you also seen the works of other First Nation
filmmakers, like in Latin America and here in North America? And
do you relate to their styles of storytelling?
ZK: I hope [to see more]. Every time I get asked, "Who’s
your favorite Native director?" I stumble because I’m way up North,
and I hardly know anybody, it’s just us. I’ve seen films done
by some of our Canadian filmmakers, like Alanis Obomsawin. I’ve
seen and know her work. I don’t know too many.
MS: Do you think you’ve changed at all as a person or
evolved as a video-maker? And how so?
ZK: The only time I change is when I do these tours, and
doing interviews, on radio and talking to reporters and travelling
from here to there. That’s the only time I change. My head is
still back home. I want to get on my [sled] and go hunting and
just ride the land. That’s where my head is all the time. It hasn’t
MS: You say you’ll be going home this week. Will you be
able to stay home for a while?
ZK: I have two weeks reserved in April so nobody can bother
me. I’m going hunting (Laugh).
Image credit: Director
Zacharias Kunuk - photograph courtesy of Norman Cohn