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TIFF 2017: Alan Zweig’s new film takes an outsider’s journey to Nunavut

A scene from There is a House Here, the new film by Canadian documentarian Alan Zweig.

Courtesy of TIFF

Making its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival is There is a House Here, the latest work from the Canadian documentarian Alan Zweig. The film covers multiple trips to Nunavut, where his long-distance friend Tatanniq Idlout (a.k.a. Inuit rock musician Lucie Idlout) was his reluctant guide.

The Globe and Mail spoke to Zweig (whose films explore the worlds of ex-convicts, Jewish comedians and the what-ever-happened-to Steve Fonyo) about an outsider's journey to a Northern culture where he didn't feel he belonged.

Your film is called There is a House Here. Can you talk about the actual experience of entering people's houses in Nunavut with a cameraman?

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Well, here's something that wasn't expressed in the film. On our second day, my cameraman asked a woman if he could use the washroom. Tatanniq Idlout, or Lucie Idlout, the film's subject, got mad at him and said, "Look, don't ask. Just use it. In Nunavut, we don't knock. We walk into people's houses, we go make a cup of tea, we sit down next to them and watch TV, and we leave." She did that, and when we were with her we were supposed to do that. Sometimes, though, we'd ask, "Is this okay?"

Sometimes it wasn't okay, right?

Yeah. That's the weird part. A woman at the beginning asks why we were there. So, the "just walk right in" thing, I never got used to that. I felt like a polite Canadian. Sometimes, I felt like an outsider. I mean, I knew I was.

You asked a woman how you could help her. In a sense, you're representing Canada, aren't you?

You can make a meal out of that question. It's complicated. They want us to leave them alone and let them take care of their problems. But they need help. I was not actually making a film about how we can help them, though. When I asked her about helping, I mean that I personally wanted to know. I was kind of intimidated at that moment, though. I was nervous. I had been thinking about making this film for some time. And then I get there and all of a sudden this "be careful what you wish for" thing came crashing in on me. What was I doing there?

It was a legitimate question from them, though, asking why you were there, isn't it?

I don't have agendas with my films. The people in Nunavut were asking me what my film is about. I don't tell my broadcasters what my film's are about, let alone my interview subjects.

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You have a reputation for taking on tough interview subjects. Did you find Lucie to be tough?

I don't think my reputation for that is warranted. But, anyway, Lucie was someone I met on Facebook. She saw my film I, Curmudgeon, and she wrote that she related to it. That she was a crusty character. I got to know her on the phone.

You hit it off and, yet, there were tense moments with her in the film.

Right. She called me on the phone yesterday. She said we get along fine together. I said, "Yeah, because we're not making a film together now." While we were in Nunavut, I needed her to co-operate. While we were filming, I had to tell her when she was in my way, and that this was serious.

Was she wary?

Sure. I was making a movie, and if I misrepresented her people, she would get in more trouble than I would. She was worried that I was going to do a hatchet job. The Inuit have a sense that hatchet jobs have been made in the past. Lucie trusted me, but she was scared. So we had this antagonism.

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Lucie's experience has to do with living in two worlds. Lucie Idlout, the indie-rock musician who lived in Toronto, and Tatanniq Idlout, who now lives in Nunavut. There seems to be a struggle there.

She was too young for the residential schools. But she did have a similar experience, with foster parents. They overtly told her it would be good for her to lose her culture. And she was told she couldn't be fully Canadian or fully Inuit. She was told she'd never be either.

Despite her unique story, in many ways, she was representing the Inuit in the film, wasn't she?

Lucie makes it clear that there is no such thing as a typical Inuk. Because she's not a typical Inuk. And yet, she has a story that is as central to the Inuit story as could be. She had a grandfather, Joseph Idlout, the famous Inuit hunter on the back of the $2 bill. He was wealthy and successful. Then he was relocated. He drove a Ski-Doo off a cliff. What more perfect Inuit story could there be?

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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