Before the lights went down in the gymnasium at Pangnirtung’s Attagoyuk High School, 11-year-old actress Frankie Vincent-Wolfe stepped to the mic with a warning. “There’s going to be,” she said, pausing mischievously for effect, “a lot of jump scares.”
A few moments later, the audience of more than 100 Pangnirtung residents, many of them children squirming in anticipation, looked on as the craggy mountains that surround their Baffin Island community appeared on a movie screen. They watched as an American geologist, alone on a familiar stretch of sea ice near the hamlet, noticed something strange in the snow. He bent to take a closer look and – bang – an underwater creature attacked, drenching the geologist’s head in blood.
“Oh!” gasped a few of the children seated on the gym floor. Some averted their eyes, just for a second, before turning back to watch aliens invade their hometown.
This was the first community-wide screening of Slash/Back, a horror movie about four teenage girls who fight back against an alien attack on Pangnirtung, an Inuit community of 1,600 located just below the Arctic Circle in Nunavut.
The film debuted to three sold-out showings at the Austin, Texas, South by Southwest Festival in March, and it was the opening night selection at TIFF’s Next Wave Film Festival in April.
But for Nyla Innuksuk, the Inuk co-writer and director of Slash/Back, none of those screenings meant as much as the one in Pangnirtung, an isolated place whose glaciers and snow-covered peaks have led some to call it the Switzerland of the Arctic. Slash/Back could help bring some much-needed attention to Pangnirtung and to the territory of Nunavut.
“I was really nervous,” Ms. Innuksuk said after the event. “I really wanted people to like it. I care more about what people in Pang think than I do about reviewers of the film, because this is the first time this community has ever been shown on film like this.”
Born in Igloolik and raised for part of her childhood in Iqaluit, Ms. Innuksuk was determined to shoot her first full-length feature film in Pangnirtung, despite the logistical obstacles. She felt the hamlet’s otherworldly beauty would make the perfect backdrop for an alien invasion.
Like all 25 of Nunavut’s communities, Pangnirtung is accessible only by plane or boat. It has just one hotel and a dire shortage of housing. There were 120 individuals and families on a waiting list for homes there as of the end of March, according to the Nunavut Housing Corp. The cast and crew of any movie would have nowhere to stay.
Ms. Innuksuk solved that problem by asking the principals of Pangnirtung’s elementary and high schools to turn the schools into dorms for the shoot in the summer of 2019. The film’s producers flew up sixty beds and mattresses.
“We played hide and seek a lot in this whole giant school, which seems like a child’s dream,” said Tasiana Shirley, 16, who played the lead character, Maika.
Ms. Shirley and most of the movie’s other young stars are from Iqaluit, Nunavut’s capital. Ms. Innuksuk and her casting team held acting camps there to scout for talent. Along with Ms. Shirley, they cast Nalajoss Ellsworth, now 14, as Uki; Chelsea Prusky, now 17, as Leena; and Alexis Wolfe as Jesse.
Frankie played Aju, Maika’s little sister, while Rory Anawak, now 17, played Thomassie, the cute boy two of the characters crush on between battles with the alien invaders.
All the lead actors returned to Pangnirtung for the screening. A few of them snuck into the gym near the end and sat cross-legged at the back, watching the community watch them.
Most of the film’s action takes place on the longest day of the year, when the sun barely sets and Pangnirtung’s grownups are preoccupied with the summer solstice square dance. That detail is real: Ms. Innuksuk first fell in love with Pangnirtung while working on a documentary about its tradition of square dancing, introduced by European whalers. Mr. Anawak has seen old newspaper clips of his grandmother dancing in the hamlet.
As the aliens in Slash/Back close in on Pangnirtung, at first disguised in the skins of a polar bear and a caribou, the modern Inuit girls at the heart of the movie turn off their phones and turn to traditional hunting skills to beat back the invasion. They slash aliens with ulu, the razor-sharp half-moon tools Inuit women use to scape skins and furs clean. In preparation for the final battle, the girls load their hunting rifles. One declares, using an expletive, that no one messes with the girls from Pang.
That line drew laughs from the audience. So did the comic timing of Madeleine Qumuatuq, a Pangnirtung resident who played a granny in the film. She watched the screening with her teenage grandson and granddaughter.
Over the winter, Ms. Qumuatuq had noticed her 13-year-old granddaughter wasn’t communicating much. “I brought her and I was hoping she would have some kind of expression – any kind of expression,” Ms. Qumuatuq said. During the screening, the teenager squealed and laughed, using her phone to record every moment of Ms. Qumuatuq’s performance. “I thought, ‘Oh, this is wonderful!’” Ms. Qumuatuq said. “It’s so telling.”
After the lights came up, the children and teens of Pangnirtung spilled out through gold streamers hanging from the gym door. They crowded around a red carpet taped to the floor beneath the wolf and polar bear hides that hang high on a wall in the school. They took turns posing for photos with the cast.
Frankie, dressed in a rainbow-striped jumpsuit, found she couldn’t go to the bathroom without being trailed by awestruck kids. She ate up the attention. Earlier, she had handed out raffle tickets at the door and pushed a cart full of brown-bagged popcorn into a crowd of eager movie-goers in the gym.
At the end of the night, she kneaded her cheeks. “I think my face hurts from smiling too much.”
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.