Hot Docs 2016 Review: ANGRY INUK Recontextualizes Activism

Contributing Writer; Toronto, Canada (@triflic)
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Hot Docs 2016 Review: ANGRY INUK Recontextualizes Activism

"Martha Stewart does not live here," reads a sign in the home of lawyer, seal skin seamstress and economic activist Aaju Peter. The feminist icon you have probably never heard of, from her abode in the capital city of Nunavut, is more than content to let the men go out into the biting cold and hunt for seals while she has a much more difficult job -- to make those in political power in a globalized world understand the most elusive of concepts: nuance. 

But first, consider Canada's Baffin Island. Twice the size of Britain with an endless view of snow and ice all the way to the horizon (even during the spring melt), it is tempting to romanticize the remote Inuit way of life in the far north, as the cinematography does here effortlessly. I find immense pleasure in the varied different ways that snow crunches underfoot in cold weather.

In the 21st century, Facebook and Twitter are almost as available in the Arctic circle as they are in San Francisco or Toronto. And filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, along with Aaju, her family and her community, wants to completely re-think a certain kind of activism. The kind of warm an fuzzy save the animals causes that comfortable, progressive, urbanites take for granted, and one that has effectively decimated the way of life in the village she grew up in the span of one generation.

Hunting seals for their meat, skins, and other harvested products is the principle industry and trade on Baffin Island. In a place where a head of cabbage cost $30, and can of coke is is more than a pint of beer on Yonge St., the community eats seal meat as a primary source of food. There are no vegans north of the treeline. And 40 years of zealous animal rights activism has made towns like Kimmirut and Iqaluit on the island, a kind of collateral damage; depression, suicide and poverty thrive when a people have their livelihood taken away. 

The uber-cute image of white furred baby seals, the bread and butter of the multinational activist groups like Greenpeace, IFAW and PETA, who along with celebrities such as Paul McCartney and Brigitte Bardot have convinced the world that an animal as far from the endangered species list as deer or sheep must be protected at whatever cost. And while the Inuit don't even go after that type of seal, everything is painted with the same brush when a full ban of seal products is tabled and passed due to political expedience.

Arnaquq-Baril convincingly argues that exceptions for aboriginal use misses the point that the Inuit are a part of and beholden to the global economy. They need to be able to retail the skins of the animals they eat to pay for the fuel to hunt and live with dignity in the 21st century. And full blown seal bans in the massive marketplaces like the European Union put a stigma on the product that in essence wipes out its value and utility. 

Angry Inuk follows the the pair of women and their small band of anti-activist activists for a period of about 8 years, to Brussels, Toronto, and Copenhagen, in an attempt to engage with both the EU politicos, and representatives of various activist conglomerates that have grown dependant on images and ideas that are misleading. Along the way, both explain the subtle way that Inuit express anger and how it contrasts to western outrage.

But perhaps the most effective segments of the film allow the audience into the intimacies of their own lives. Particularly visual is Arnaquq-Baril, with her toddler son eating meat fresh off a carcass, or a family navigating a rowboat through large, fast-moving chunks of ice on the Arctic Sea. Savvy with data, social media skills such as the #sealfie hashtag, and a plea to the media to share information responsibly, these modern Inuit are but a few thousand people in a sea of billions. But they have a voice.

Of all people on the subject, Irish-American comedian Denis Leary made an astute observation on the subject via his comedy album from the 1990s, "We only want to save the cute animals." The otters get a pass because they can do cute little human things with their hands, while the boring cows are the source of our burgers and baseball gloves. The animal rights groups are making millions on a prolonged lie and this film makes a passioned case to address it.

I am not generally one who goes for activism or issues documentaries, as I generally prefer quirky character and idea driven docs. Angry Inuk has both. It won the Hot Docs audience award a couple days ago, and with good reasons. This quiet, purposed, anger is the most powerful and responsible kind and it has a dignity that is absent in modern discourse. In the meantime, I wish both Alethea Arnaquq-Baril and Aaju Peter all the luck there is, in their quest for a nuanced dialogue in the internet age.

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Teresa NiemanMay 10, 2016 11:02 PM

Killer review, and I'm dying to see this.

Theodore WirthMay 12, 2016 5:58 PM

I love Twitch but you need to employ a spell checker. Nevertheless, thank you for your hard work in bringing this issue to the forefront.

KurtMay 12, 2016 8:51 PM

Embarrassing, since I do a lot of copy editing around here, but fixed.