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'Uvanga' film offers contemporary look at life in Nunavut

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TORONTO - In the 24 years Montreal filmmaker Marie-Helene Cousineau has been travelling to Nunavut to shoot various projects, she's noticed a couple of socio-economic trends that have become more prevalent in recent years: an increasing number of mixed-blood children and women working in the region.

Cousineau reflects those changes in her new film, "Uvanga," which offers a contemporary look at life in the north. It opens Friday in Toronto and Vancouver.

"I don't think there is any cliche in the movie, because the characters are neither white or black," said Cousineau. "They are human with their qualities and their harder times and they're not one way or the other, they're more subtle."

Quebec actress Marianne Farley stars as Anna, a Montreal teacher who returns to the small Nunavut hamlet of Igloolik with her 14-year-old son for the first time since she conceived him there during a brief affair with a now-deceased Inuk man.

Newcomer Lukasi Forrest — who hails from Kuujjuaq in the Nunavik region of northern Quebec — plays the teen, Tomas, who was born and raised in Montreal and has never met his Inuit family. As Tomas becomes acclimatized to the region and its traditions, he tries to figure out what happened to his dad.

Cousineau wrote the script in collaboration with Susan Avingaq, Madeline Piujuq Ivalu and Carol Kunnuk. They're among her partners at Arnait Video Productions, a female collective that has spent 20 years making films in Igloolik, including "Before Tomorrow," winner of Best Canadian First Feature at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival.

Cousineau also co-directed with Ivalu, who plays Tomas's grandmother.

"There are lots of Tomases or versions of Tomas — kids that are raised up north but have family in the south, or kids in the south that have family in the north, or children of mixed parents," said Cousineau.

"There's quite a lot and for many years, but I guess now more than before."

The film also features strong-willed women thriving in the work force there, which Cousineau said she's also observed.

"Men used to be hunters and providers and right now there's more women sometimes who have work — they work in the school, they work in the store, they work in the clinics — than men. Although now there are different things, like men will work on construction or fixing things and go to the mines with the new development in Nunavut with the mining and things like that.

"But the women so far have been maybe having more success at school also, so maybe a transition between the two different kinds of universes of culture was easier for them."

Shooting for "Uvanga" took place in and around Igloolik for five weeks during the summer, when there's 24-hour daylight.

Cousineau has been going up north since 1990, but every time she makes the trip she needs a few days to adapt, she said.

"Even before I go I'm a little nervous how things are going to go, but finally when I arrive I calm down," said the founder and co-ordinator of the Inuit women's video workshop Arnait Ikajurtigiit.

"But there's always this feeling of, 'What if I forget something, what if things go like that, what am I going to do?' Because there are not the services that there are here, even for basic things. Like if you break a tooth or you need to see a doctor, there's no doctor or dentist, only nurses. And then when you make a film you have to think about the whole team of people that will be with you."

That team had many Igloolik actors, including Carol Kunnuk as Tomas's half-brother's mother and Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq as her troubled spouse.

Cousineau said Arnatsiaq, star of 2001's "Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner," doesn't speak much English and had to learn his lines by sound.

"They were translated to him, so he knew the meaning of what he was saying, he could give the right emotions. But sometimes he would say a word but he didn't really know the word. It's a little bit like a tour de force. Not many actors can do that."

The elders from the community who are in the film saw a screening of it after it was done and were pleased with its contemporary look at their life, said Cousineau.

"They said, 'Wow, with the film we can see the distance that we have travelled to be here now, we can see ourselves, we can see the difference between 60 years ago and now, not only physically but also in the way we work as a society.'"

Cousineau is now working on a feature documentary on another trend in the region, albeit a more tragic one — the high suicide rates in Inuit communities.

As she sees it, every family in Nunavut has been touched by suicide, including herself and her film crew.

"We have a friend who unfortunately was found dead in an RCMP cell two years ago this September. He was 26 years old, he was someone with whom we used to work and travel and he was a great artist and a musician.

"So that raised a lot of questions. First of all his family wasn't sure it was suicide, because he was in a cell and how could he commit suicide? And then the idea that if it is suicide, we're examining the context of this. Because in Nunavut there's like 12 times the rate of suicide than in the rest of the country, especially for men between 15 and 25. It has changed."

— Follow @VictoriaAhearn on Twitter.

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