Miranda de Pencier will tell you right off the top that she didn’t really have any idea what she was getting into, back in July, 2009, when she flew into the hamlet of Kugluktuk, Nunavut, to begin development on a movie about a high-school lacrosse program that had transformed the community and arrested an epidemic of teen suicides. Yes, she’d seen a feel-good news story about the program, which was started by a teacher from Saskatchewan, on the U.S. sports cable channel ESPN; it spoke to her. But, c’mon: She’d never been to the Arctic, had never even meet an Inuk. “I was making a genre sports film!” she explained the other day with a self-mocking shake of her head, sitting in a bar on the Danforth in Toronto.
Indeed, at a Toronto International Film Festival press conference last summer announcing that The Grizzlies would make its world premiere that September, the producer and director Alethea Arnaquq-Baril (Angry Inuk) recalled her first meeting with de Pencier in Iqaluit. “When Miranda came north to explore the possibility of making this film, my first thought was: ‘Who is this white lady? And who the heck is she to be telling this story?’ ”
Fair enough. But if they eventually saw eye to eye, together with the producer, Stacey Aglok MacDonald, who grew up in Kugluktuk and is now based in Iqaluit, the women would struggle through an epic 10-year-long journey of false starts and near disaster. Working with teens from across the Arctic, they would unwittingly trigger long-buried traumas. With a non-Indigenous director and two non-Indigenous writers on the project, they would run headlong into the explosive issue of appropriation. And yet, in the end, they would also manage to produce that rarest of creatures: a Canadian feature film with broad audience appeal that may also be, both on-screen – and, most profoundly, in its behind-the-scenes development and execution – a model of white-Indigenous reconciliation.
None of which was on de Pencier’s mind when a fellow Hollywood producer sent her that ESPN report. Made in 2004, it told the story of what happened after the newly minted teacher Russ Sheppard arrived in Kugluktuk (pop. 1,151) to work at the local high school, and was stunned by a series of teen suicides. He created a lacrosse program in hopes that it might give his students a sense of belonging and purpose. According to the ESPN story, 4½ years after the creation of Team Grizzly, there hadn’t been a single teen suicide in the village.
Born and raised in Toronto, where she had spent time as a child actor (perhaps most famously as Josie Pye in the 1985 Anne of Green Gables miniseries), de Pencier was at that point based in Los Angeles, working as a producer.
“I always get really inspired by films about people overcoming challenges, people transforming and changing,” she explained last month, sitting in the offices of her Toronto company, Northwood Entertainment. On the sound stages one floor below, Northwood’s Anne of Green Gables reboot, Anne With an E (a show, that is, about a young girl transforming and changing) had begun shooting its third season. A small army of workers buzzed just outside her door; inside, cardboard filing boxes marked “The Inspiring Grizzlies, Inc.” were jammed up against her desk.
“I’m going to start crying – sorry,” de Pencier said, suddenly welling up. “But when I first started working on this movie, I wasn’t a very happy human.” She gave a sharp laugh – a kind of hiccupping “ha!!” – that seemed like she was thrilled she had allowed the sound to escape, and embarrassed too. She was back in the office after a week up North, where she and her partners had been showing The Grizzlies to Inuit communities, including three screenings in Kugluktuk community centres that left audiences sobbing and applauding; she was still emotionally raw. The ESPN story, she recalled, “really hit me, because I had had depression in high school, and sports helped me get through.”
Frankly, the whole process had been an emotional one. She was stunned when she first arrived in Kugluktuk in 2009. “I was blown away. I thought: This is Canada?! I mean – the poverty! Extreme poverty!” she said. “It was really devastating to see, to really understand what used to be there, and what was taken from the North.”
During that visit, a woman who had been a member of the original Grizzlies team drove her around, reminiscing about the key places in her life. “She was describing how the town was living with such extreme violence and devastation and high suicide rates before the Grizzlies.” And then, de Pencier recalled, this woman casually mentioned the abuse she had suffered at home: “ ‘I only get smacked around a little bit. Just sometimes. You know, when my parent drinks. Not nearly as bad as some of the other kids.’” De Pencier was floored. “And yet, she had this grace and this intelligence and this energy and this joy, and was a successful person.”
De Pencier realized that, while she had battled depression, the Kugluktuk teens had faced challenges “so far beyond the scope of my issues. And immediately then, I thought, Well, this is a way bigger and more important story, of kids who are overcoming a legacy of colonialism. They are going to be the generation that begins to heal.” One by one, the original Grizzlies signed over their life rights to de Pencier, telling her they trusted her, that they hoped a film of their story might help prevent Kugluktuk from backsliding, and also inspire other Inuit communities to make the same positive changes.
In late 2009, de Pencier and her fellow producers convened a week-long casting workshop of 30 Inuit youth from across Nunavut in Iqaluit, where the kids worked on such skills as drum dancing, throat singing and mask performance taught by Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner star Natar Ungalaaq. At the end of the week, de Pencier gathered them together in a circle to ask what they hoped to take back to their communities. A video shot by de Pencier’s documentarian brother, Nick (who co-directed Anthropocene), shows a startling eruption, as the kids begin to weep openly and share stories of their own domestic challenges, of their loved ones who had died by suicide, of their own attempts to end it all. Then one young man walks into the middle of the circle and tells them each to look to the person on their left, then to their right. He explains that everyone in the room could relate to each other’s experience: They need not suffer alone. The video ends as the kids huddle together and, like a football team breaking for a play, count off: “One – two – three – new start!”
Enthralled by this vision of the kids finding strength in each other, de Pencier incorporated a similar episode into The Grizzlies, with the kids taking their fate into their own hands. Still, the moment unnerved her: Many of the kids at the workshop were re-experiencing trauma, and like Russ Sheppard in the film, she was not equipped to treat what she had stirred up. “I was in way over my head,” she admitted. There were no mental-health professionals on hand. She vowed not to repeat the mistake.
It would be years before she would get the chance, anyway, because funding for the film fell apart shortly after the workshop. Graham Yost, the Canadian-born screenwriter (Speed) who had done the first drafts of the screenplay and was set to direct, left the project to become the showrunner on the FX cable channel’s Justified.
It was just as well: The script needed more work. For the first several drafts, according to Aglok MacDonald and Arnaquq-Baril, the character of Sheppard was a “white saviour” type, a common Hollywood trope. “It’s not just in film, that happens in real life all the time,” Arnaquq-Baril said during an interview. But more often than not, the self-styled heroism falls short. “People come up with the intention of saving the cute little brown kids, they fail at it and they leave.”
“To his credit, the real-life Russ, he always says he didn’t go up there and save these kids,” she continued. “They taught him. He was saying that to Miranda and Graham Yost from the beginning. I think it was hard to sink in. We had to really do the homework of explaining what the whole ‘white saviour’ thing is, and how problematic it is.
“To Miranda’s credit, she didn’t get all offended and walk away and do it without us as producers. She listened, and she kept coming back, and she changed the script.”
Arnaquq-Baril adds: “Miranda made lots of mistakes. Lots of mistakes – as did we. But the fact that she had this humility to do that, and be vulnerable in that way, allowed us to make something that we can all be really proud of.”
Still, when the financing first collapsed, de Pencier began to wonder whether she, too, would be just another Southerner to make well-intentioned but unrealistic promises, and then slink away. In the end, she was grateful for the delay: “It would not be the movie it is if we hadn’t had the time to learn and get better.”
And so, even as she continued with her Hollywood career – producing, among other projects, the 2010 late-in-life coming-out film Beginners, which won Christopher Plummer an Oscar – she remained intent on proving her commitment to the North. She wrote and directed the 18-minute short Throat Song, produced by her and Aglok MacDonald, about a young Iqaluit woman who works for the Department of Justice, helping people report their own sexual assault, but is powerless in her own abusive relationship. The film won a Canadian Screen Award.
Making the short helped convince de Pencier – and her Hollywood partners, including the legendary Frank Marshall, who serves as an executive producer – that she was ready to shoot a feature. She brought on another writer, Moira Walley-Beckett (Breaking Bad), who later would go on to create the Anne reboot with de Pencier, and in the spring of 2016 The Grizzlies finally went before the cameras in Iqaluit, with a crew that was one-third Inuit or Indigenous. U.S. actor Ben Schnetzer stars as Russ, fronting a cast that is more than 90-per-cent Inuit or Indigenous, including Paul Nutarariaq and Anna Lambe, who were both nominated for this year’s Canadian Screen Awards for playing two of the troubled students.
Still, the film continued to evolve during postproduction, as de Pencier and her co-producers struggled to strike a balance between an honest depiction of the community’s troubles and gratuitous exploitation. In one scene, the camera drifts slowly over a couple of parents who have passed out from drinking. “We had many, many conversations, over years, about that,” Arnaquq-Baril said. “How long you hold on the shot, when you cut, asking: ‘Is this a beat too long?’ And aside from that shot, having those conversations about – not having poverty porn, or trauma porn.”
They also modified Schnetzer’s performance in postproduction, toning down his initial cluelessness, which came off more aggressively on screen than it had on the page. Test audiences, especially in the South, were uncomfortable with his ignorance.
After they had a final cut, they were puzzling over how to open the film with a potted history of the North that might set the scene, when de Pencier suddenly remembered some archival footage that was a part of her family’s own history. In the 1920s and 30s, her grandfather, Richard Henry Gardyne Bonnycastle, had made frequent flights into the Arctic as a fur trader for the Hudson Bay Company, including to the western outpost of Copper Mine, which became Kugluktuk. While up there, he captured rare 16-mm footage of joyful Inuit living off the land. De Pencier realized it was perfect for the film’s title sequence. When Arnaquq-Baril saw the footage, “I bawled,” she said. “It’s just amazing to see these snippets of life, and these healthy, beautiful people that have such confidence – you can just see it, in the way they carry themselves, in their looks and their faces.”
Over the past month, de Pencier has travelled extensively with the film, taking it with her fellow producers to cheering audiences across Nunavut and then, on her own, down to Mexico City, where she was peppered with questions by journalists who she said were eager to bring its positive message to that country’s Indigenous population.
When de Pencier and I met after she’d gotten back from the first series of screenings in Nunavut, her thoughts were a little jumbled. She needed time to figure out what she wanted to say: She was overwhelmed by the way the movie, which had begun as a kind of Inuit Bad News Bears, was already beginning to affect the conversation in this country. And so she asked to meet again.
At the bar on the Danforth, she opened up her laptop. After we had last talked, she’d gone home and dictated into her phone for a few hours, to try to express her thoughts concisely.
I asked her about the film as a model for living reconciliation. She laughed a little, and said that she’d never even used that phrase until last year. She turned to her laptop and began to read.
“We all have this opportunity right now – non-Indigenous and Indigenous – to struggle though this relationship. My relationship with Stacey and Alethea, and my cast and crew, I feel I fumbled through it. I made mistakes, I wasn’t perfect, but the struggle was so worth it. And I think the film definitely got better because of it.”
“It is scary, at times. But if you’re willing to feel shame and pain, it’s a worthwhile journey. Hopefully for all of us. Because we all are living in this country together, right?”
And then, looking up, she told me about something that happened after a recent screening of The Grizzlies at the Kingston Canadian Film Festival (where the film won the People’s Choice Award). An audience member had asked Anna Lambe whether she intended to continue acting. “[Anna] had never said this to me," de Pencier said, "but she got up and said, ‘Before making The Grizzlies, I was very internal, and I had a lot of prejudice against myself, I was very racist against myself, and I had no cultural pride.’ And she said, ‘Making this movie made me feel so proud about being Inuit,’” de Pencier said. “Now, she’s at the University of Ottawa, studying International Development and Globalization, for the sole purpose of fighting for Inuit rights. And she goes, ‘It’s about time that we have our voice, that we get to say what we want, that we finally get to step up.’ ”
“I think what we tried to do in the movie is, by the end, we say, ‘We’re done, this is the last movie from the North that has a white person at the centre,” de Pencier said. “If making the film helps Anna go become a leader for the North – I can’t, as a filmmaker, ask for anything more than that. That’s way better than a movie.”
The Grizzlies opens in many cities across (southern) Canada on April 19, and expands on April 26.