While indigenous aboriginal struggles have existed in Canada from the nation’s very beginnings, the primary focus of Canadian cinema discourse focuses in on the struggles of the Quebecois cinema within the influence and boundaries of the English Canadian system that surrounds it (and furthermore, the American system bordering the province from the South). The struggles to create a similar “national” cinema within the Nunavut nation are, given the relative newness of the land, somewhat less documented. That said, both systems involve similar struggles of self-definition within the broader Canadian landscape and, while there are some striking differences between some of the primary concepts of how both systems are acknowledged, both Inuit and Quebecois cinemas run in parallel to one another.
Laura U. Marks’ Inuit Auteurs and Arctic Airwaves: Questions of Southern
Reception classifies the Inuit film (or more accurately, video) industry of the soon-to-be Nunavut territory (at that time, the Nunavut territory was still part of the Northwest Territories, and not separated until 1999, the year following the publication of this article in 1998), as an important mode of communication between the disparate pockets of population across the vast areas of the territory. While a nation’s cinema is often tied to the self-propelling forward of national identity, in the case of Nunavut, Marks argues, these works offer one of the primary modes of transferring information between settlements. Given the reliance upon the oral tradition tales as communicated by Elders on the content of the most important Inuit works (Marks, 15), the role of Inuit video is not only responsible for maintaining connections between the people, but maintaining and documenting the people’s history as well.
As it’s important to read Marks’ article acknowledging its appearance before the official declaration of Nunavut’s official existence, it should also be noted that Marks’ article was written before the international success of Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner changed not only the focus on its director Zacharias Kunuk (whom she mentions in some detail throughout, and is arguably an auteur whether or not he wants to be classified as one), but on Inuit film – and by extension, its culture – as well. While a decade later Inuit films are still few and far between even at Canadian independent cinemas, Atanarjuat’s success has most certainly increased both the visibility of Inuit film, and the viability of Inuit storytelling translating to far wider audiences than those in Inuit areas of Canada.
On the other hand, the struggles (and successes) of Quebec to develop and maintain an indigenous “national” cinema has been documented in much more depth. In his Producing and Envisioning the Nation, Bill Morris classifies the concept of “nation” itself, “in fact a construction and a fiction” (Morris 9), and within that fiction he places the Quebecois national identity as one that is “minor” (Morris 13) – both in terms of North America, and furthermore in comparison to France. While Morris considers the common links made when considering Canadian cinema (a common connection to documentary, for one) somewhat tenuous on several levels, these attempts to piece together a national cinema are contemplated here as a common mistake of all national cinema formation exercises. And despite the importance of Quebecois cinema in forming a national cinema (for both Quebec and, by extension, Canada), Morris still understands that the notion of a Quebecois national cinema comes down to, “a share, but a marginal one, of a market massively dominated by Hollywood” (Morris 15).
In both case studies, Marks and Morris admit that the regional audiences in question most often receive the content in question via television. For Inuit audiences, the majority of production is on video, and broadcast via “the invisible waves of satellite broadcast” (Marks 13). In Quebec, “audiences often express preferences for ‘Quebecois’ television programs […] Only 2 percent of English Canadians’ viewing of television dramas is of Canadian product […] for Quebecois the figure is 20 percent” (Morris 16).
Furthermore, “the very possibility of a Quebec cinema is dependent on television and on state aid from provincial or federal sources” (Morris 17). For Inuit audiences the same would also be true, with the majority of media consumption in Nunavut occurring via television. Given the Canadian content (CANCON) requirements in place for all provinces and territories, the success of television production in these areas is not altogether surprising. With CANCON requirements in place, the production of regionally appropriate material is quite simply a necessity both for the viewers and producers.
Where Morris classifies Quebec’s cinema as “the most exportable cultural artefact, that which posses the most significant interface with the world industry” (4), Marks bemoans the rarity of the majority of Inuit gaining any visibility outside of Inuit audiences. And where Marks connects Inuit filmmaking with the continuance of the oral tradition of the Inuit people, Morris claims Quebec cinema is connected with, “close dialogue and even osmosis with the documentary form and tradition” (5). In both cases, the Inuit and Quebecois film industries have been directly tied with a cultural expression of what is distinct to the areas from which they’ve emerged – and in many ways, have come to represent in the understanding of those areas by the rest of Canada and the world. Granted, this applies only to those films which receive both national and international attention.
A primary difference outlined between the Inuit and Quebecois systems, however, is linked to the prevalence of auteur-driven cinema in Quebec, and the rejection of the concept in Nunavut. While Quebecois productions aim for international attention via exposure in France (and in particular the monumental annual film festivals there), “Inuit producers do not care very much what southerners think about their works” (14). And while the established Francophone approach to film is primarily focused on the director behind each work, the Inuit system of group-think and collaboration brings with it the over-riding notion of a work’s creation for the good of a community vs. personal glory for the minds behind it. As a successful method to further the teachings of the Inuit Elders, the over-riding goal of Inuit productions is a somewhat more culturally protective mode than that of Quebecois cinema.
While the majority of writers in Canadian film studies have long struggled with the idea of a “national cinema” for the country as a whole, by looking at Morris and Marks, it’s tempting to consider a working model that’s based on a far more inclusionary method of definition than would be common in most other nations (although one can find similarities in the likes of Belgian’s Flemish population and Spain’s Basque population).
Canada is part-Inuit, part-Anglophone, and part-Francophone (amongst several other recognized aboriginal groups on top of that), and while the separate cinemas produced within those regions bring their own differing modes of production, expectations, and approaches, they all reside under the umbrella of Canadian identity. While Marks and Morris are focusing on entirely different locales, the similarities from within still connect both industries as parallel forces struggling to define themselves within both a regional and wider national context. While the statement has been made in reference to Inuit production, Marks’ notion of “the connection to community, land and ultimately sovereignty is fundamental to their work” (Marks 17) is an idea that works for not only Inuit and Quebecois cinema, but Canadian national cinema as a whole, a mutating beast with three heads that more often than not actually face in the same direction.