Zacharias Kunuk was born in a sod hut, in a little gathering of seven huts that sheltered a total of 80 or 90 people. “We were living on the land traditionally, like our forefathers,” says the director of Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. “I thought we were the whole world out there.”
But when he was 9, his family moved into a government matchbox house in Igloolik, he was sent to school, and his experience of purely traditional life was over. Kunuk felt bereft, but he also discovered movies, at a cinema where you could see John Wayne westerns for a quarter. It was the start of what would eventually become one of Canada’s most remarkable and celebrated film careers.
The town that seemed bafflingly urban to the nine-year-old Kunuk is now awash in southern cable TV, and stands in the path of an unprecedented rush for Northern treasure that could surround it with a dozen new resource projects. The pressure of change has increased exponentially, but this time Kunuk has the means and the experience to do something to protect the lifestyle and language he was born into, and even to strengthen them.
Two years ago, Igloolik became the first site for an innovative Internet broadcasting project that Kunuk and his partner Norman Cohn hope will help birth a new wave of grassroots filmmaking in 10 Nunavut communities. It’s called Digital Indigenous Democracy (DID), and it could have a big impact on the use of indigenous languages in digital media and on how isolated Northerners understand – and perhaps alter – the futures being dreamt for them in office towers in Calgary and Toronto.
“We’re trying to build an Internet that people can use in their own oral languages, and to do that, it has to work audiovisually,” says Cohn. Isuma TV, an arm of a film company co-founded by Kunuk, Cohn and two others in 1990, got the project started with a one-time, $1-million “supergrant” from the Canada Media Fund’s experimental stream. “Internet service in remote communities in Canada’s North are at least 100 times behind what you’ve got in Toronto, in cost per kilobyte, and that’s going to get worse, not better. It may be 200 times worse next year, and that’s fatal.”
Fatal, he says, because a low-bandwidth Internet forces Northerners to communicate through text, which even for people who are fluent speakers of Inuktitut often means English.
An audiovisual Internet offers the best chance (along with radio) for people in Cambridge Bay or Pond Inlet to discuss, in their own oral languages, the mine that someone may want to open on their doorstep.“Zacharias is a language warrior in his artistic and political practice,” says Cohn. “But when he e-mails his grandchildren, he has to do it in English. Languages that have survived 4,000 years, through whalers, traders, priests, government, residential schools and cable TV, will not survive 20 years of a literary Internet forcing everybody to communicate in their second language.”
Arviat, a hamlet on the western shore of Hudson Bay, is home to only 825 people, but it has its own film society, and everyone in it is either making films or learning how to. Until recently, however, the main way to share a video in Arviat was to put it on YouTube, which hardly anyone in the North has the bandwidth to watch on a regular basis. “Eighty dollars buys very little video Internet,” notes Jordan Konek, a young Arviat filmmaker who recently moved to Iqaluit. In Nunavut, $80 will get you a connection that tops out at 1/10th the speed of a middling southern plan, with about one-third the bandwidth.
By installing a relatively cheap DID media player, people in Arviat, Igloolik and eight other remote communities can locally stream high-speed programs from among the 5,000 in the Isuma catalogue, from hunting videos made on the ice last week to full-length films like Atanarjuat, which won the Caméra d’Or at the 2001 Cannes film festival. Local filmmakers can upload their own work, which ultimately becomes available across the Isuma network, which also extends to indigenous communities outside Canada.
“The entire community watches,” says Jamie Bell of Arviat’s Nunavut Arctic College, in an e-mail exchange. “It’s like 1950 and TV is new for the first time.”
“We were hoping one day to start a TV station,” says Paul Inoee, a member of the Arviat Film Society and one of the volunteers who keep the project running. “Isuma basically gave us that wish. They have given us a lot of content to play with, and an avenue to show our work.”