By Etan Vlessing
The Berlin Film Festival is no stranger to controversy, with post-screening Q&As often turning offended viewers against filmmakers presenting their films.
But director Althea Arnaquq-Baril had to leave Canada for the Berlinale to see her highly provocative documentary Angry Inuk finally spark a theater rumble.
We’re not talking boos or catcalls directed at Arnaquq-Baril for her film about anti-seal hunt campaigners damaging the Canadian Inuit’s way of life.
“I went home very happy last night,” the film’s director told me the morning after a European premiere at the CineStar Berlin theater on Potsdamer Strasse.
Moments after her screening ended and the credits rolled, a young man rose in the audience to ask Arnaquq-Baril if the Inuit could survive in Canada’s north without hunting at all.
“I wasn’t expecting that question#8221; she recounted.
No, Arnaquq-Baril told the young man, the Inuit couldn’t stop hunting seals to eat and ease their poverty, for lack of alternative sources of affordable food.
But the pointed question also revealed how the Inuit filmmaker, ever keen to speak her own mind over anti-seal hunting campaigners in Angry Inuk, had long wanted the same in her festival audiences.
After all, it’s harder to build buzz for a festival film when everyone in an audience politely agrees with the director.
“I want to have these tough conversations. We had some good debates#8221; Arnaquq-Baril recalled about her Berlin screening.
Despite earnings awards for Angry Inuk at Hot Docs, Santa Barbara and other festivals, and playing to sold-out houses in North America, she found audiences back home less confrontational.
Arnaquq-Baril accepts audiences on the Canadian festival circuit are more knowledgeable about the Inuit and so have reacted more with an “okay, what can we do to help” attitude.
Open debate in Berlin also contrasts with the documentary itself, where anti-seal hunt groups prefer to feature images of cute baby seals with tears in their eyes being clubbed by Inuit hunters than to be held to account by talking to Arnaquq-Baril on camera.
“Because I’m a filmmaker and what I make will be seen widely, they hesitate to speak with me. They know the damage they’ve done to our communities, they know how bad it looks, and if they have a conversation with me on camera, they know people will see that, and that’s their worst nightmare#8221; she explained.
Arnaquq-Baril here underlines her artistic evolution from filmmaker to activist on behalf her Inuit communities.
“I started out as a filmmaker, as a story teller. I love the art form and I’m constantly trying to improve at it and I consider myself an artist#8221; she explained.
But Arnaquq-Baril also comes from a minority community “in a crappy situation” living in Canada’s north, as she tells it.
All documentary makers in some way comment on the society they live and work in. And that’s only transformed the Angry Inuk director into an activist on behalf of her people.
“This film has really politicized me and made me more of an activist, than I ever was before#8221; Arnaquq-Baril said.
Her fellow Inuit are expert hunters, but making Angry Inuk has made the director an expert on southern seal hunting, how the European Union works and how animal rights groups manipulate public opinion to campaign against subsistence seal hunting.
So Arnaquq-Baril the activist is doing the media rounds in Berlin to get the word out about the Inuit and the threat to their livelihood form animal rights campaigners.
But the awards now piling up for Angry Inuk also reminds Arnaquq-Baril that she remains, in the end, a filmmaker whose work is being recognized at the top film festivals around the world.
And that’s validation for a director in whom Canadian broadcasters and producers early on saw a juicy subject for a documentary with legs to travel the world, but not a filmmaker they had comfort in backing.
“There weren’t many people who believed I could make an excellent film about it (seal hunting)#8221; she recalled.
With her trophy haul from the festival run for Angry Inuk growing, Arnaquq-Baril with her documentary has not only shown via debate how the anti-seal hunt campaign has impacted her people, but introduced a rising star among homegrown filmmakers to Canadians.