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Inuit filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk.

Matt Barnes/Courtesy of TIFF Photo Studio

There are only about 65,000 Inuit in Canada, but this year two of the country's most heralded films come to southern audiences all the way from the aboriginal communities of Nunavut. Is it just coincidence that both Zacharias Kunuk's new feature Maliglutit (Searchers) and Alethea Arnaquq-Baril's important documentary Angry Inuk are both included in Canada's Top Ten, TIFF's annual January showcase of the best in Canadian film?

"It's weird you get two in the same year," said Jesse Wente, head of film programming at TIFF. "That said ... I'm not at all surprised these two people made these films." He points out that Kunuk, renowned for his 2001 film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, is now a senior Canadian artist while both he and Arnaquq-Baril, making her first feature documentary, benefit from a supportive indigenous filmmaking community that gathers at festivals to exchange information and training across national boundaries. He traces the phenomenon back to the 1980s when the aboriginal Canadian documentarian Alanis Obomsawin met the late Merata Mita, the Maori filmmaker from New Zealand.

Still, it's not as though getting a movie made in Nunavut is easy: Maliglutit is only Kunuk's third feature in 15 years, while Arnaquq-Baril has been working on Angry Inuk, her film about the Inuit seal hunt, for eight years.

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Kunuk returns to the epic northern myth-making he used in Atanarjuat, but this time he takes his story from John Ford's classic western, The Searchers, in which John Wayne played an obsessive uncle seeking his niece, kidnapped by the Comache. In Maliglutit, Kunuk has completely removed the white-man-versus-Indian element to create an all-Inuit story about a man seeking his wife, kidnapped by an envious rival.

"We weren't thinking about settlers, about cowboys and Indians, or racism. We were just trying to turn it into our story," Kunuk said in a recent interview, explaining that the film is set around the turn of the 20th century when the Inuit would have had rifles and other southern goods bought at trading posts but would not have lived alongside whites.

Arnaquq-Baril's urgent documentary, on the other hand, takes place in the present as the Inuit hunt the harp seal: the pelts are sold for cash that will pay for gas for their snowmobiles; the meat is then shared with the whole community. The ban on commercially hunted seal products imposed by the European Union under pressure from animal rights groups includes an exemption for aboriginal subsistence hunting, but it actually sideswipes the Inuit and discourages their hunt – because it depresses the price for pelts – forcing them into further dependence on exorbitantly expensive food imported from the south.

"I had to make this film – it's a major issue for us. Hearing about the seal hunt growing up, I felt our voices were never heard," Arnaquq-Baril said in an interview. In the film, she makes repeated, unsuccessful attempts to contact animal-rights groups and get a dialogue going. She accuses the groups of using the photogenic seals, who are not an endangered species, for fundraising with little regard for the actual economics and ethics of the hunt.

As part of TIFF's Top 10 selected by a panel of film professionals, Angry Inuk will tour Canada and is also travelling to numerous festivals abroad; it's important viewing, exposing southerners to a crucial perspective on the seal hunt. But without a track record with the funding agencies, getting money for indigenous projects can prove difficult: Arnaquq-Baril spent eight years trying to get her doc made.

"We'd see people [at film markets] pitching films about the Arctic as though we were a remote tribe. This exoticism would be hilarious except they were getting funding and we weren't," she said.

Wente is encouraged that funding bodies are finally making special efforts to get money to indigenous filmmakers. Pushed to make some progress on gender equity, Telefilm is now evaluating how its funding, which mainly goes to white, male filmmakers, can be more representative of the Canadian population while the CBC recently created a special fund for unrepresented creators, including indigenous ones.

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Wente, who himself is Ojibwa, identifies a powerful tradition of involving the community in indigenous filmmaking and points out that while Maliglutit and Angry Inuk belong to very different genres, both filmmakers are seeking to preserve the Inuit way of life. While Arnaquq-Baril fights for the seal hunt, Kunuk's films are a way of handing down traditional skills to the next generation: All the costumes in his films are sewn by hand after the actors' sizes have been measured with string; hunters build snow-block igloos for the shoot; and Inuit elders also act as art directors to check for authenticity.

"I have seen filmmakers build an igloo, put the sleeping bags inside and build a campfire. It's the southern way, camping around the fire," he said, explaining that a low oil lamp has to be correctly positioned so that the igloo doesn't melt.

When not working on features, Kunuk makes documentaries; meanwhile Arnaquq-Baril calls herself a documentarian at heart but that doesn't mean she doesn't have a few ideas for fictional films in her bag. So Wente sees great things on the horizon: "The idea that indigenous film can encompass activist documentaries and grand mythic storytelling is an indication of how much opportunity there is, in a world always looking for fresh stories."

Canada's Top 10 opens in Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary Jan. 13 and plays other Canadian cities until May. See tiff.net for venues and dates.

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