Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s documentary Angry Inuk (2016) had its Montreal premiere Saturday in a co-presentation between RIDM and Cinema Politica. The highly anticipated film—which has already won awards at Hot Docs and imagineNATIVE—sheds important light on anti-seal hunting campaigns and the regulations backing them. The film defends the seal hunt amid a climate of misinformation and misinterpretation fueled by animals rights groups. A complicated and contentious topic, Arnaquq-Baril makes herself clear by supporting the pro-sealing perspective with heaps of accessible information.
Arnaquq-Baril’s last Montreal screening was to present her then six-year-old documentary Tunniit: Retracing the Lines of Inuit Tattoos (2010) in collaboration with Cinema Politica last February. When asked about limited distribution and the time-lapse, the director explained that she was hesitant to make it available to largely non-native audiences for fear of cultural appropriation. This is in stark contrast to Angry Inuk, whose narrative and structure is clearly aimed at white, settler audiences rather than indigenous ones.
Angry Inuk problematizes the legislative steps taken to stop seal hunting by pointing to the continuous struggle between aboriginal peoples and the Eurocentric powers that still dominate. As the film details, sealing was the major enterprise for more than a hundred years until 1986 when the Canadian government squashed the market. This led to Inuit having the highest food insecurity rate for any indigenous population in a developed country (a 2014 report published by the Canadian Council of Academies had that number at 68%). Seal meat has always been deeply culturally significant and a staple of the Inuit diet through sustainable hunting practices. Hunters participate in the commercial market by selling the pelts obtained during hunts to the Canadian government, which are then combined and sold on the international market. The money brought by this is crucial to the survival of contemporary Inuit communities.
The film follows a ban proposal brought to the United Nations. Of the detrimental effects invoked by well-intended but misinformed decision makers, Arnaquq-Baril says: “They’re still picturing Eskimos in igloos with no use for money.” But she presents the struggle as one that reaches far beyond only affecting Inuit by directly linking their conflict to efforts of staving off the environmental destruction that would be brought by northern expansive mining.
While Arnaquq-Baril and her allies repeatedly try (but fail) to sit down and have a conversation with the NGOs and animal rights organizations that had operated without consultation from Inuit communities, the pro-sealing movement slowly finds traction through social media. Using the #sealfie hashtag, they begin to garner attention to their cause—and existence, for that matter—in a strong display of self-representation. They ask for accountability from celebrities who capitalize by providing incendiary statements on this often simplified issue that so directly affects their communities (two years ago, The Smiths singer Morrissey compared the Canadian seal hunt to Nazi Germany in a Rolling Stone interview), by calling attention to the harmful effects this has on the perception and treatment towards Inuit. The argument that Arnaquq-Baril lays out in her film makes sense, should anyone care enough to listen.
The screening was followed by a lively question period and ended with a vocal standing ovation from the audience, which itself contained animal rights activists and vegetarians (the author of this piece included).
With a stiff upper lip, Arnaquq-Baril points to the irony of Greenpeace’s anti-sealing “Save the Arctic” slogan, the efforts of which are bringing about the exact opposite of their desired intent. The inextricable reality of the debate is that the discussion is part of an ongoing colonial struggle wherein dominance is asserted over historically disenfranchised peoples by basing the counter-argument on false claims, and by forcing a group to participate in our economy without ever actually granting them membership to it.
“Respect” being a vital force of the film, Arnaquq-Baril calls for a respectful exchange of information in which the two sides might fight a common ground. The title suggests a cultural difference in expression, and false assumptions rooted in stereotype. “Southerners have simply misunderstood the signs of our anger and displeasure for generations,” Arnaquq-Baril says in conjunction with the long-held cultural belief to Inuit, that losing one’s temper “is a sign of a guilty conscience.” While eloquent, the film is seething. It is resistant, it is wise, and it is a plea.