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Zacharias Kunuk invested to the Order of Nunavut

Filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk has received the territory's highest honour for his creative vision, which has taken Nunavut Inuit to an international audience.

Nunavut's Commissioner Nellie Taptaqut Kusugak, in her capacity of Chancellor of the Order of Nunavut, presided over Kunuk's investiture at the legislative assembly the evening of June 5.

Filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk, left, watches as Commissioner of Nunavut and Chancellor of the Order of Nunavut Nellie Taptaqut Kusugak signs the official document signifying he has been invested in the Order of Nunavut the evening of June 5 at the legislative assembly.
photo courtesy Michel Albert

After calling Kunuk a great ambassador for Nunavut, Kusugak listed a few of the many films Kunuk has made, which show the world Inuit traditional skills and culture, in Inuktitut.

Kunuk, co-founder of Igloolik Isuma Productions, was previously named an Officer of the Order of Canada and a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Long before the first ever Inuktitut-language feature-length film Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner hit the big screen in 2001 – and winning the prestigious Camera d'Or at 54th Cannes Film Festival – Isuma had already made at least 20 films.

The company had by then won numerous awards, and institutions all over the world had Isuma productions in their collections: Museum of Modern Art, New York University, National Gallery of Canada, Museum of Northern Peoples in Hokaido, Japan, to name just a few.

In 1999, as he was getting ready to film Atanarjuat, he spoke to Nunavut News.

"We're staging Atanarjuat in the 16th century. We'll have no rifles, no metal," said Kunuk. "Only bone and ivory and rock. The sleds are made out of whalebone. We made one of the sleds out of walrus hide. What we do is we freeze it and make it into a sled. All the clothing is caribou and seal. The goggles are bone. All their tools – the closest to metal is rock, rock ulus. Cooking pots in stone and qulliqs in stone, everything. That's what we've been working on these years."

That's the hard work, attention to detail and creative vision that would see Atanarjuat chosen as the greatest Canadian film of all time by filmmakers and critics at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2015.

Kunuk is always working on films, such as 2016's feature-length drama Maliglutit (Searchers) and, most recently, he and the Isuma collective have been live-streaming, despite, as he said to those assembled at the legislative assembly, Nunavut's terrible connectivity.

As Kusugak noted, a live-stream of seal-hunting outside Iglulik showed at the 2019 Venice Biennale's Canadian pavilion May. She also spoke of Kunuk's work with the Haida of British Columbia.

Sgaawaay K'uuna (Edge of the Knife) is filmed entirely in Haida dialects, said Kusugak, in an effort to revitalize Haida languages. Kunuk was an executive producer, and Isuma the distributor.

In his own speech at the legislative assembly, Kunuk remembered the early films, pre- Atanarjuat, from 1992, when his curiosity and attention to detail were developing.

"Because I didn't understand the ayaya songs very much … they all sounded the same," he said via translation, "I sat with elders for a full week. I learned how they create a song. They have 200 songs, all in their heads. There's a story to every song."

The Iglulik company also launched the internet-based Isuma TV, which, if Nunavut technology could catch up, said Kunuk, has much greater potential. He'd also like to see more independent Nunavut-made television.

"Available to all Nunavut communities, available to watch 24 hours a day. It's one of our dreams," he said.

"We'll be filming walrus hunting possibly in August. We have to make sure the people are informed. We have to find out what Inuit are afraid of and what they're joyful about, and what their challenges are. That's why Isuma was created."

All this from a videographer/filmmaker whose hometown only got television in 1982 – the elders kept it out until the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation was formed – and who was a carver by trade.

"In Repulse Bay I saw a video camera and I decided to have one too. I brought some carvings down to Montreal, sold them, and bought my first TV set, 26-inch, a porta pack and camera, and a VCR," he told Nunavut News in 1999.

And he's never looked back. The list of films, series and projects is long, and will only get longer.

"If our technology was up to date, we could do many more things," he said.