Interview with Paul Apak Angilirq
Interviewed by Nancy Wachowich, currently professor at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. Paul Apak died in December 1998, before the film was completed.
This interview was recorded on the afternoon of 16 April, 1997 at the Isuma building in Igloolik, when I was conducting fieldwork for my PhD in Cultural Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. My research was concerned with the Inuit effort to preserve traditions. Apak and I had just spent almost an hour and a half that morning having coffee and discussing his twenty-year career as a videographer in Igloolik. Though my reason for dropping by was to arrange an afternoon taped interview, we began speaking candidly about Apak's use of film to address cultural agendas in Igloolik. Among other things, he reflected on the capacity of this medium to regenerate Inuit land skills, language and cultural traditions.
Our discussions are useful in contextualizing the interview that followed. They were centered on Atanarjuat's script and screenplay (which was still unfinished at that time). Apak spoke about the writing process and the five years of work that he had already dedicated to the project. He described how transforming rich and complex oral traditions into written texts could be a stimulating and engrossing, yet arduous process. He told me how, while writing the script, he had tried to think, act and speak in the manner of Inuit ancestors, virtually becoming each of the characters in turn. Highlighted in his account were the hours he spent in consultation with community elders over the years, working to recreate centuries old Inuit cultural and linguistic patterns in the script. During the same month that our interview took place, Isuma had coordinated a series of drama workshops at which individuals in the community had been tentatively assigned roles. Like him, he remarked, these men and women had already begun living their characters' or 'living their traditions' by growing their hair, by learning rituals and rules of behaviour and by practicing speaking Inuktitut using the dialect of the elders used when Inuit lived on the land.
During our two hour conversation, Paul Apak Angilirq also spoke of his aspirations to produce with his colleagues a screenplay that would be accessible to a more mainstream, movie-going audience- - to create a film that would not only communicate cultural knowledge, but also offset the effects of colonial paternalism on his people and foster healthy social relationships between Inuit in Igloolik and cultural outsiders.
I returned that afternoon with an audio-casette recorder to 'formally record' some of these themes. Our taped interview appears below.
NW: How did you first hear about the legend of Atanarjuat?
PA: Well, Inuit, they tell legends. They tell stories. I first heard the story from some of the elders when I was young, but I didn't pay too much attention to it until later on. When I was at IBC (Inuit Broadcasting Corporation), I started thinking about this legend again so I asked some elders during a language workshop to tell this legend to me. That is when I really became interested in writing a movie script. When I left IBC, I started working with Zach Kunuk at Igloolik Isuma Productions. I talked to him about this legend and my idea to make it into a movie. We applied for funding and the money came around, so I started recording the elders. From those recordings, I started to track down the story. That is how it started.
NW: How many people did you interview?
PA: Maybe about eight to ten elders.
NW: So then you wrote a script from those interviews?
NW: Did you write it in English or Inuktitut?
PA: The story, I wrote it in English. And when I started writing the script, I wrote it in Inuktitut.
NW: So let me get this straight, it was written out on paper from tapes of the elders speaking in Inuktitut, then turned into an English story, and then turned into an Inuktitut script, and then turned into an English script?
PA: Yes, that is the system that we had to use in order to get money. Because, like, Canada Council and other places where we could apply for money, they don't read Inuktitut. They need to have something in writing in English. So that is why I wrote the story in English first, in order to get some funding to go ahead and continue with it.
NW: Do you think film is a good way to communicate Inuit legends and to maintain Inuit traditions?
PA: Oh yes. I think that traditions are really being maintained with this film, so far, because there are a lot of people involved in it. For instance, we will need about 35 actors in all for our film. Along with that, the film tells a story, a legend that is right at the base roots of Inuit culture. The film is working to preserve both the knowledge and the traditions. We try to go as far back as we can into our history and as far back as possible with the language. We try to use the old language. The film is going far beyond what we expected in terms of people learning the culture. We really preserve a lot of things that we wouldn't be able to if it wasn't for this legend, this screenplay. We go to the elders and ask information about the old ways, about religion, about things that a lot of people have no remembrance of now.
NW: What made you become interested in working with film?
PA: I guess that film-making was part of what I was doing when I worked for IBC. I was producing programs, regional programs, and also the news. But I wasn't satisfied. I wanted something that would be real, something bigger than what I had been doing.
NW: You went straight from IBC to working solely on Atanarjuat?
PA: Yeah, pretty well. But I have also done some work for Isuma, for Zach Kunuk, doing some editing for him. I was the Chief Editor for the Nunavut Series (1).
[We stop the tape recorder here to make some coffee. The recording machine is turned back on during our discussions of Apak's film-work previous to Atanarjuat.]
NW: I saw the posters about the 1987 Qitdlarssuaq Expedition (2), and I read a book about the original expedition. You were part of that recent one, right? Could you tell me about it?
PA: Again, it was started with my interests with my culture. Since I was part of a new generation, exposed to a new set of ideas, I never had a chance to really find myself, to really see who I am. So when I heard about this expedition, about retracing Qitdlarssuaq's migration route from this area to Greenland, since I had these ongoing interests in our culture, I asked to be in it. And also I was driving a dog team full-time at that time and I worked for IBC. That is how I got involved in this expedition to Greenland by dog sled.
NW: That was in 1987. What about the other one? Didn't you go to Siberia?
PA: Yes, after this trip. After we got back from our expedition to Greenland, that was, what year? I think 1990. Anyway, I got a call asking if I would be interested in taking part in an expedition to Siberia, in a walrus skin open-boat expedition from Siberia to Alaska for the summer. So I did! I like getting myself into situations where I think 'What am I doing here?' I get excited by that... It didn't take long for me to decide. It was almost right after the phone-call that I said 'yes'. That is how excited I was. That is how I got to take part in the Siberian expedition.
[We break again, and then resume our earlier taped conversation about Atanarjuat]
NW: How many elders do you have working with you, helping you decide how people should talk with each other and what people did back then?
PA: We have two elders. They are our cultural advisors or consultants. They are working on our screenplay with us, like, they are helping us write down what people would have said and acted in the past, and what the dialogue would have been like. So we need elders with us who speak in fluent old Inuktitut. Yes, that is important. We have two elders with us when we are writing the screenplay. There are four of us writing: myself, Zach Kunuk, and the elders, Herve Paniaq and Pauloosie Qulitalik.
NW: So they decide how people act in the movie?
PA: Yeah, that is how it works. Myself, and Zach, we are able to speak Inuktitut, but we speak 'baby talk' compared to the elders. But for Atanarjuat, we want people speaking real Inuktitut. So that is why it is important for us to have the elders with us.
NW: Would people act differently back then? Would husband and wives act differently with one another?
PA: Oh yes, like for example, working with Paniaq or Qulitalik, when we are writing the script, they might jump in and say, 'Oh, we wouldn't say such a word to our in-law! We wouldn't say anything to our brother's wives! It was against the law!' Also, there were these things that went on in the camps back then that today we don't know the meaning. We get the meanings from the elders, and then we understand why. We learn the reasons why people acted that way. Then we work things out with the script.
NW: What do the actors have to learn?
PA: If someone is going to be an actor in the movie, that person has to learn the whole script. If they learn the whole script, then they will know that they are going to have to be ready to learn as much about the old ways as the script-person did in the old culture. The actors are learning new words and learning songs that represent what the people did at that time. And also they are learning about how people went about their lives at that time. That is how much actors will be assimilating from Inuit tradition. They will have to learn this, besides being actors. They will have to know more than just acting. What we are focusing on right now is teaching people to be who they are in the role.
NW: So how many people do you think will be involved with the movie, and what sort of involvement will people in the community have?
PA: Well, there is a whole lot of involvement besides the actors. We will need costumes made for us. We will need a lot of women to do that. There is the mechanical side, mechanical assistance which we will have to get from the south. There is so much we will need, besides just actors. A lot of people will be involved. A lot of Inuit, a good number of people in the community are involved already, even at this stage where we are now.
NW: Do you think this kind of project will help promote traditions in Igloolik?
PA: Yeah, some of it. In our script, there are a lot of things that have not been taught or communicated to people in a long time. There are things from the old culture that will be very new to most of the younger people. There is a lot of information and research into the old ways that we are putting into that movie. So, yes, I am sure that this movie will help promote the culture.
NW: What kind of audience are you directing the movie towards?
PA: Well, anybody, no matter who they are and where they are from. We are thinking about the same audiences that would go see movies in the south. You know, the movies with movie stars or whatever. Anyone who watches movies.
NW: How do you think Atanarjuat will be different from other films about Inuit? Like, Shadow of the Wolf, or other films about Inuit shown in the south?
PA: There are a number of differences between what we are doing and other movies that have been produced regarding our Inuit culture. This movie will be based on an Inuit legend, and also it is all going to be in Inuktitut. And also, all of the actors will have to be Inuk. No Japanese or whoever else who pretend to be Inuit. You know. It will be done the Inuit way. We want things presented in the movie the way they would have happened in real life. That is what we are going to do.
NW: Do you have any more ideas about new projects besides Atanarjuat?
PA: Yeah, I do. I have something that I cannot talk about right now because right now I have to concentrate about what I am doing with this movie, writing this movie script. I have other interests that I want to get into later on.
We end the interview on this note, and Paul Apak Angilirq returns to his desk and laptop computer by the window.
(1) The Nunavut Series, produced in 1994, was a series of 13 half-hour television programs entitled Nunavut (Our Land). This series recreates traditional life on the land in 1945 as it would have been for five Iglulingmiut families just before implementation of northern development policies and the creation of permanent settlements in the Arctic. Each half-hour episode of the Nunavut Series re-enacts a different event or activity from life in 1945. They featured such activities as driving dog-teams, building stone houses, constructing sod houses, igloos and ice porches, carving harpoons, and various methods of hunting seals, walrus, bear and caribou, and of fishing. Episodes from Nunavut (Our Land) were selected for the Sundance and New York Film Festivals; they were showcased as one of Canada's best shows of the year at INPUT '95 in Spain; and they were featured in all-day screenings at New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Art Gallery of Ontario.
(2) In 1987, Paul Apak Angilirq and three travelling companions took part in an arctic expedition retracing the route taken during an epic mid-19th century polar migration when a shaman, Qitlaq, led more than forty Inuit from the North Baffin region across Smith Sound to Greenland. Paul Apak brought his camera along during this dogteam and sled expedition as well as during his trip three years later from Alaska across the Bering Strait to Siberia in a walrus skin boat. He produced three films from these expeditions that were aired on IBC.