Critics and journalists have dubbed The Grizzlies a sports film. They’re wrong to do so.
The feature, which opens Friday (April 19), is based on the true-life events at Kugluktuk high school between the late-’90s and mid-2000s. Back then, the community in the snowbound, remote Nunavut town was suffering from one of the highest teen suicide rates in the world due to the community’s widespread problems with alcohol and drug abuse and domestic violence.
When a white teacher arrives from the South, he hopes to introduce the students to lacrosse in order to offer them a focus outside of class—an endeavour that initially draws resistance. But as the kids become teammates and celebrate each other’s successes, the deeply divided town begins to mend and the students help to heal each other.
To limit its description to “sports drama” does the film a disservice—and one of its producers, Stacey Aglok MacDonald, agrees.
“I’d say it was an inspirational dramedy,” she tells the Georgia Straight with a laugh while on the line from her home in Nunavut.
Working on The Grizzlies was more than just another job for the veteran producer, who—as the brains behind seven-season Inuktitut-language drama Qanurli?—is one of the region’s most recognizable makers of TV and film.
Born and raised in Kugluktuk, Aglok MacDonald experienced the community’s darker periods firsthand and felt a weighty responsibility to respectfully tell the story of the town’s healing.
“It was a community in transition,” she remembers. “The cultures were colliding. It was definitely a very difficult time. We were constantly losing a friend or a family member, one after another. It was a very scary time, because nobody felt safe, I think. Even me, growing up, I remember feeling a lot of shame towards my own culture. There’s so much trauma I think that was carried over and passed down to children from the residential-school legacy. The very hard effects of it were felt in Kugluktuk in the ’90s.”
In order to deal with the subject matter authentically, the project took almost a decade to complete—a period that director Miranda de Pencier (Anne with an “E”), Aglok MacDonald, and the rest of the crew used productively. Keen to cast entirely Inuit talent, the team auditioned more than 500 youths from 25 communities in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. More than 60 kids were then invited to attend workshops in Iqaluit, Nunavut’s capital, where they were offered training in performing arts, regardless of whether or not they would end up being featured in the film.
“We actually did two huge casting calls: one in 2010 and another in 2014,” Aglok MacDonald recalls. “A number of people had aged out of the first one by the time the movie was almost ready to be greenlit. After the first workshop, me and Miranda, did our first short drama together called “Throat Song”. A lot of the youth that were in the workshop got to be in that. It was really important to have them be part of that growth along with us. More and more we are striving to be the ones telling our own stories. We need people in our own communities who have experience and training.”
For Aglok MacDonald, the increasing number of movies in recent years that focus on Inuit and First Nations societies represents an important step forward.
“I think all communities, all Indigenous communities, go through something like this,” she says. “We really thought about how to tell the story, and we really made it as good as we could. A lot of that was down to the trust we had in each other.”