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DOUG CUTHAND: Movie portrays real life in Indigenous community

Columnist Doug Cuthand
Columnist Doug Cuthand

This week and next the acclaimed movie “The Grizzlies” is playing in Saskatoon and Regina. This movie was shot in Nunavut with a cast that was made up largely of Inuit actors making their film debut.

I feared that this was just another feel good, cliché-ridden exploitation film. At first it has the feel of so many other films where the white guy teacher with a love for lacrosse breezes in and fixes everything, but it soon becomes apparent that the storyline is much deeper than that.

Of the few professional actors it was Tantoo Cardinal who gave me some comfort. Cardinal is an old friend and I know that she is careful about what parts she plays, and she would not participate in a production that was shallow and not meaningful.

In this movie she plays a cynical hard-ass who is the school principal as well as a community leader. Of course, she does it well.

Sadly, the Inuit suffer from one of the highest suicide rates in the world and this is an underlying theme throughout the story — it impacts the classroom from the beginning. While the new teacher can’t understand why attendance is so low, the students don’t care about getting passing grades because they see no future. The students are in the all-too-common place of being divorced from their land and turning their back on their culture. This leaves them in a dangerous vacuum where violence, alcohol and suicide take over.

One youth lives with his grandparents and is learning the traditional ways. They won’t let him go to school because they lost a child to the education system.

The script is based on a true story of a group of high school students at Kugluktuk, which the teacher describes as being in the middle of nowhere. To southern eyes Kugluktuk is in the middle of nowhere. The town is located on the shores of the Beaufort Sea at the mouth of Coppermine River. It was formerly known as Coppermine and is one of the most isolated communities in Canada.

But while it’s seen as the middle of nowhere to the uninitiated, it’s at the centre of the students lives.

At first the students are skeptical about their new teacher and his love of lacrosse, but they gradually warm to him and learn the game.

To tell this story with accuracy and meaning, it was filmed on location using actors from the local community. This meant acting workshops and location scouting. In the film industry, the budget is meant to go towards what is seen on the screen. In this case the transportation bill alone must have been a major line item.

This wasn’t just another movie shoot. It was a complete undertaking, from training a local crew to work on set to the long hours of acting lessons and script writing.

The story is full of scenes that bring back images of life familiar to Indigenous communities near and far. The poverty, the drug and alcohol abuse and the violence all combine to tell a very real story of life in an arctic village, a southern reserve or an urban Indigenous ghetto. The story has a universal quality to it.

Many of the scenes depicting violence and family dysfunction were based on real-life experiences of the cast. This is a real story being told by real kids who have lived the life — and it shows.

This depth and talent has been recognized. Two of the Inuit actors playing the role of students were nominated for 2019 Canadian Screen Awards: Paul Nutarariaq for lead actor and supporting actress Anna Lambe for supporting actress.

“The Grizzlies” earned director Miranda de Pencier the Director’s Guild of Canada award for outstanding directorial achievement in a feature film. Other honours include the Canadian Screen Award for best original song; audience award at the Palm Springs Film Festival; Italy’s Fabrique Award for best international film; and being named a finalist for the prestigious Humanitas Prize.

This is not a film that follows the cliché sports genre of a team that comes together to win the championship in a dramatic finish. It’s much more than that. It is the heartfelt story of a team that comes together as a family.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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