Uvanga director Marie-Hélène Cousineau’s Arctic tales build bridges

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Marie-Hélène Cousineau was drawn to Arctic tales long before she wrote, produced, and directed Uvanga, a bracingly elemental family tale that opens here Friday (August 15).

She and her directing partner on the film, Madeline Ivalu, previously made the 2008 feature Before Tomorrow, a historical drama also set in Ivalu’s home region of Igloolik, up in Nunavut. This time, they wanted to capture something of the present day.

After satisfying her initial curiosity, the Montreal-based Cousineau found herself splitting her time between the big city and the Far North, where she’s been a member of Igloolik’s Arnait Video Collective for more than two decades.

“There was filmmaking up there already, before the collective, but women were not too involved. It was pretty traditional: women in the village while men were hunting. When asked if they wanted to tell their stories, they jumped right in.

“For this feature, I didn’t want to impose too much narrative structure, because their storytelling was so strong. Until 2000, we did mostly short films. Of course, Madeline came from a long line of storytellers, and she had a lot to draw from. We started by talking about the type of characters we knew from the village, to establish the links between them, and how they relate to each other. You’re not making a documentary here, so have to take your characters from point A to point B.”

To do this, they centred the tale on a more naive Montrealer (Marianne Farley) who brings her teenage son (Lukasi Forrest) to the fishing village where his father grew up, and later disappeared.

“She’s an entrée to the community, allowing us to discover the place and the people. And, obviously, some of the troubles they have with poverty and addiction. Madeline wanted to find the balance between problems and hope. The film opened in Igloolik, as it was important that they see images of themselves. It’s the first contemporary feature film shot in the North, made by women, and it’s something to be proud of. The kids loved it, but we were worried what the elders would think. In the end, they said it was like finally hearing their own voices. Really, it’s the beginning of more stories being told.”

The filmmaker says it still takes an effort to adjust to life near the Arctic Circle. But this is rewarding on several levels.

“You have to get into that pace, as it’s not the structure you are used to if you’re from a big city. But it’s very important to help build that bridge. These are our fellow Canadian citizens. Just on a strategic level, if they weren’t holding down the Arctic, the Chinese or Russians would be there in a New York minute. More than that, though, they are caring for the basics of life on this planet, and we barely listen to them.”

Currently, Cousineau is working on a documentary about suicides in the North, which occur at roughly 12 times the national rate. She’s also writing a script for a feature to be set in Mexico. Apparently, it’s warm down there.

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