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Montreal film festival apologizes for screening ‘racist’ film last year

A clip used in Dominic Gagnon‘s film of The North.

The Montreal Documentary Film Festival (RIDM) has formally repudiated a controversial film it screened and defended during last year's festival.

It was "wrong" to present two showings of Dominic Gagnon's found-footage work of the North, the festival said in a statement, describing it as "a film with a colonial perspective that perpetuates racist stereotypes. RIDM officially apologizes for its mistake, and for its initial response to the criticism it received."

The screenings last November sparked a furor on social media, and denunciations of the film as racist by singer Tanya Tagaq, whose music was sampled for the soundtrack without her permission. Gagnon was savaged for making a film about the North without actually going there, and for showing images of drunken behaviour and what Tagaq described as "disrespectful hunts."

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At the time, RIDM said that of the North offered "a critical discourse on colonialism and its still devastating impacts, through a montage of images recorded and uploaded to YouTube by Inuit peoples. We believe that this film confronts stereotypes."

RIDM executive director Mara Gourd-Mercado said that the festival had spent the past year listening to First Nations and Inuit communities, culminating in a panel discussion of indigenous filmmakers last week. She said that the festival had gained a new perspective on problems with of the North and the hurt it caused, and had realized "that a real, complete apology was needed. We don't want to be hijacked by this issue year after year after year."

Gagnon's name was not mentioned in the festival's statement. "We wanted to focus the conversation on the actual film and the programming decision," Gourd-Mercado said.

"RIDM is not being sincere," Gagnon told The Globe and Mail via e-mail. "They are just under extreme pressure."

The filmmaker said the commotion had damaged his career, "but I don't feel bad about it. I feel sorry for those hurt by of the North and take full responsibility for that. Nevertheless I am still behind my film, and ready to defend it any time as an artwork. Taking 100 videos from the Internet that nobody cares about and moving them into a theatre has made them extremely political. In that sense, the gesture was successful."

His method for of the North was the same as for previous Gagnon films that caused no upset, including Hoax Canular, which won a Grand Prize at RIDM in 2013. "All I do is take things from the public realm, remix them and put them back in front of the public," he told The Globe last year, "and try not to judge those people morally."

Of the North scarcely exists as a film any more. Gagnon, who credited sources but did not seek approval for use, pledged to remove anyone's video from the mix on request. He replaced each deletion with black leader tape, till all that remained was a 74-minute film with no images or sound. The work persists, Gagnon says, only as "a meditation on what happened."

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Even as a ruin, the film continues to roil indigenous artistic communities. It dominated a Concordia University roundtable last spring on the subject of "cultural representation in the media arts," and prompted Inuit filmmaker Stephen Agluvak Puskas to make a counterdocumentary called Ukiuktaqtumi (In the North). Puskas used the same method as Gagnon, but asked all of his sources for permission and focused on "other parts of Inuit life and representation," as he told Nunatsiaq News earlier this month.

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