“We were foreigners, coming with equipment and demands”
The number of Public Choice Awards for INUK (by Mike Magidson) so far, is a worthy proof of the film’s broad appeal.
City life hasn’t got more to offer to a 16 year old Inuit boy than a jobless mum, a brutal stepfather and an empty fridge. When things get out of hand, Inuk is sent to a foster home up North. Together with Ikuma, a grumpy seal hunter, he sets out on a trip on the ice. For Inuk this is a journey to his roots. INUK is an authentic film, meticulously tackling every problem of the contemporary Inuit society. Marc Buriot was involved in many ways. “Starting out as camera assistant, I finally ended up following up the entire production process.”
INUK has a documentary feel. I quote the director when saying that “in a feature film you can tell much more than in a documentary.” Is that so?
Marc Buriot: “Mike Magidson and most of the crew had a documentary background. But when making a documentary you’re not always at the right place at the right moment. Sometimes discretion keeps you from filming exactly what is going on. In a feature film you’re not filming reality. You’re telling a story, in which you can go much deeper.”
I hardly realised even the North Pole has seasons. It’s not winter all year round.
Buriot: “Greenland has summer, winter, autumn and spring, but different in many regards. Winter brings permanent night, although it’s never absolutely pitch dark. The snow reflects a glimmer of light that comes from the sun, far at the horizon, or even from the stars. Winter is very cold but dry, since all the water is on the ground. You don’t feel the cold as much as you feel it here. When summer comes, temperatures can easily rise up to 15 degrees and the snow starts to melt, except on the glaciers. Then you have permanent daylight, which is also weird. You can film in the middle of the night and pretend it is clear day, although it’s 2 AM.”
It seems like you know the Inuit world through and through as the movie touches every single problem in their society today. How come you were so well informed?
Buriot: “Co-author and anthropologist Jean-Michel Huctin lived in Greenland for more than 10 years. He told us how quickly the Inuit community evolved, from the age of bone to the age of credit cards and cell phones in about 60 years. A very big rift occurred through cutting off the Inuit from their traditional values and roots. INUK tells about a special program carried out in the foster home in Uummannaq, where children of the modern age are brought together with hunters, raised in traditional ways. By sending them on dogsled expeditions, those kids learn to understand they should be proud of their origin and their ancestors, who lived under the harshest possible conditions.”
Being cut off from our roots, could that also be a problem in our world today? Are there any similarities with the situation of the Inuit?
Buriot: “We are all losing our culture into globalisation. We should be proud about where we come from. We need to know where we come from to know where we’re going.”
Even the concept of law and order is new to the Inuit society, as everything used to be organised within the local communities.
Buriot: “Greenland has been under Danish governance for a long time. With the coming of the Danes, a country of hunters in small isolated settlements got reorganised under one big structure, with law enforcement maintained by Danish residents. Now the Greenlandic government gained more autonomy, they’re trying to get more Greenlandic language into the juridical paperwork. But the Greenlandic language simply doesn’t have the required words. They have to invent them.”
A basic element in the Inuit philosophy is to get your spirit in harmony with the surrounding world. That is also the core of the project that has been running for almost 20 years in the children’s home.
Buriot: “Kids with troubled family backgrounds regain self-confidence by getting connected to their roots. Who are my ancestors? What was their world like? The director of the Uummannaq home wanted to have those children working on a demanding project and not to give up. Especially Gaaba Petersen, playing the role of Inuk, had a hard time. He was on the ice for a month and a half, he was tired, away from his friends, his cell phone and his girlfriend, being woken up every morning while being told ‘we have to do this, we have to do that’. We wondered how he would feel about all this. During the editing, we brought Gaaba to Paris to see the result. Mike Magidson was very scared: how will our main actor react on a story that stands so close to his own reality? Gaaba just loved it. That was such a relief, ever since he has been so supportive in promoting the film.”
How are the results of the foster home project?
Buriot: “Very good. Of course you can’t have a perfect ending for everyone but statistically the results are better than any other foster home. When asking the children about their best memory to their foster home years, they all say it’s the dogsled expedition. The Uummannaq home is not an institution but more like a family. Every child sees the others as brothers and sisters, while the workers consider the children as their family, which is a hard task.”
So the intruders were you.
Buriot: “Definitely! We were foreigners, coming with equipment and demands. The methods of a film crew did not correspond with their way of doing things. They don’t get up at 7 in the morning just because someone asks them to. So we came with our culture, our way of seeing things, imposing it on them. After a while we understood this didn’t work. When shooting a scene, you start with a panoramic shot and then you redo the scene to shoot the close ups. And then you do it again and again, shooting from different angles. They did it once, they were willing to do it twice, but they didn’t understand why to do it three or four times. ‘We just did it! Was it bad?’ – ‘No, it was good.’ – ‘So why do it again?’ Making a film was our goal, not theirs. So we decided to have a second camera running all the time. When they were preparing a dogsled, we ran down with the cameras, filming every little aspect, like a documentary. In the editing, every piece was put in the right place. We made a journey on a dogsled, and we filmed it.”
The hunting scenes are gory, but I suppose they’re pretty much true to reality.
Buriot: “There is not a lot of vegetation in Greenland. Hunting and fishing is the only way to survive. What you find in supermarkets is imported by boats coming from Denmark, carrying vegetables and fruit. The hunters hunt, eat meat, and skin seals to make clothes. That’s how the Inuit survived for centuries. Going to Greenland as a vegetarian doesn’t make sense; there are no vegetables. Nature is not always appealing, it is also harsh. In the movie, one of the hunters is telling a story about hunting his first seal. That was a true story, reflecting a deep respect for nature.”
The dogs are an amazing but also meaningful narrative element to the story.
Buriot: “The dogs are very powerful but dangerous. You shouldn’t cuddle them, not even come close to them. They are raised to know only one master and that’s their hunter master, but the respect is reciprocal. Without the dogs, there are no hunters. Without the dogs, you’re dead on the ice. The dogs are the herd. If you play the lone wolf and don’t want to be part of the herd, you will be cast away.”
What technical obstacles did you face? How difficult was it to shoot INUK?
Buriot: “First problem to overcome was the cold: all the time minus 20° Celsius, down to minus 35 in the evening. We constantly wondered how the camera would survive. But a camera radiates heat. Once we had it started, it was quite comfortable for the cameraman, who was the only one who could keep his hands warm.
A bigger problem was with the lenses. When moving from a cold to a hot place, you get condensation on the lens. When entering a tent with the camera the lens got completely blurred out in one second, and then we couldn’t use it for an hour or two. We were very cautious to keep the camera outside as much as possible.
Lots of shooting was done with two actors, one cameraman and one sound guy on a dogsled. Having four persons on one sled was complicated. We had to figure out a way to keep them all in position without falling. It was quite intense and a few people fell of the sled.”
Problems with cameras, sound… what about problems with people? Frozen toes?
Buriot: “I had a frozen ear. The first day I stayed behind, shooting the group from afar while they set off on the journey. I was wearing my ski clothing. Afterwards we drove fast on a snow scooter, trying to catch up with the group and I almost froze an ear. European clothes are simply not warm enough.
For one shot we took off in an Air Greenland helicopter (which is the most common transport from one island to another), tying our camera to the helicopter with scarves. Opening the door of the helicopter, the icy wind blew straight into our face. That’s when the cameraman broke a tooth by the cold. But… that’s how you do it when you have no other way.”
In the end it all pays off, because the landscape is simply stunning.
Buriot: “In Greenland wherever you put your camera, you’ll always make a beautiful shot. On the trip we never knew what the weather would be like; it changes so quickly; from an open sky to a snowstorm in less than two hours. We had different schedules ready for every weather condition: good, bad, snowy, misty…‘Snow? Let’s do that scene, now’.”
The problem of global warming is only mentioned in the film in subtle ways.
Buriot: “INUK is not about global warming, but it’s indeed a part of the Inuit life. They are in the frontline. It is affecting them every day in ways we can’t understand. The dogsled season used to be 6 months, now it’s only 6 weeks, since every year the ice is getting thinner. Not being able to go dog-sledding as much as before, they can’t feed the dogs, so they have to kill some. The mushy ice, floating in blocks, makes it impossible to go fishing by boat. Year after year things are rapidly changing. The Inuit don’t complain, they simply adapt to it. Although they’re not responsible for the pollution – we are.”
What would be the ideal audience to watch the film?
Buriot: “Everyone who wants to discover something else from what we know. We think about the North Pole as ‘the big ice’. But people are living there. By seeing the movie, you understand that our society is not the only culture, it’s maybe not even the best culture. There is a broad audience for this film, from very young to very old.”