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About Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn
Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn are founding members of Igloolik Isuma Productions, established in the late 1980s to make works recreating traditional life in the High Arctic: life as it was lived before the establishment of permanent villages and a sedentary life in the 1960s. Their luminous video works do more than recreate Inuit stories of the recent past. Beautiful and suffused with light, they seem to place us inside that reality as privileged participants in a way of life now past.
Working in Igloolik, a community of 1200 people off the northwest coast of Baffin Island, Kunuk and Cohn, with the practical knowledge and "camp leader" skills of production cultural director Pauloossie Qulitalik, make works that record living memories and keep them alive. Members of the local community have become skilled actors and interpreters. Over twenty years, with Kunuk as director and Cohn as camera operator and editor, Isuma projects have re-established many skills and habits in danger of being overtaken by more commercial and urban cultures. The narrow window of opportunity for workable weather conditions including favourable temperatures for equipment and shooting and appropriate light make planning their productions an interesting challenge.
Until the present generation, Inuit people lived a nomadic existence "on the land," living in igloos and sod houses in winter and skin tents in summer. Times have changed. People have houses in permanent settlements and all the services of southern communities. Goods are expensive, but there are now stores with food, clothing, tools, and furnishings. There are TVs and radios, skidoos, trucks and airplanes, hospitals and medivac services; there is Internet access. All these changes happened over about forty years. In the self-administered territory of Nunavut in Canada's eastern Arctic, above the treeline, 83 percent of the inhabitants are Inuit. There are about 25,000 inhabitants living in twenty-seven communities spread through an area of nearly two million square kilometres, more than twice the area of British Columbia. With the territorial capital and governmental seat of Iqaluit on southern Baffin Island, Nunavut is officially bilingual: Inuktitut and English.
Though regular television programs from the South had been available via satellite in most of the Canadian Arctic since the mid-seventies, the community of Igloolik refused TV until a proportion of programming would be provided in Inuktitut. In 1983, the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation (IBC) was established in Igloolik, with Paul Apak operating a single-staff studio; he was joined in 1984 by Kunuk. The following year IBC organized a workshop in Iqaluit for some of its then-larger staff; Norman Cohn was brought from Montreal as "guest trainer." Later, dissatisfied with the Ottawa-based, non-Inuit management of IBC, Apak and Kunuk, with Qulitalik and Cohn, created Igloolik Isuma Productions, Canada's first Inuit independent production company. Though Apak died in 1998, Isuma continues to work collaboratively on media projects with people in Igloolik, expanding the team as necessary for larger undertakings.
Zacharias Kunuk was born on the land in 1957 at Kapuivik in the Igloolik region, the fourth of twelve children, and came to Igloolik at age nine for school. As he has said of the usual "northern" stories: "The books you read, the films you see, are films done up in the north from a southern point of view. I'm not against southern filmmakers or bookmakers, every time I read them or see them there is always a mistake. I just wanted to tell my side of the story" (Kunuk 28).
Born in New York in 1946, Norman Cohn graduated in English from Cornell University and came to Canada in the 1970s. His early video dealt with marginal communities and studies with children, moving to collaborative quasi-documentary visual narratives. As he wrote of his work in 1984, "My video work is about watching people closely, in order to understand, by seeing, what their lives are really like. It is an exercise in getting past the surface; by looking long enough and hard enough I try to penetrate the outer shell by which all of us are 'known,' and instead see inside another person, a stranger, to feel and understand what it is like to be someone else. I record this on videotape, and call the tapes portraits" (Cohn 36).
Kunuk and Cohn were awarded the Bell Canada Award for Video Art in 1994.
In 2001, Kunuk won the Caméra d'Or prize for first feature at the Cannes Film Festival for his work as director of Atanarjuat-The Fast Runner, a mythic piece of history from the distant past. Atanarjuat - Canada's first Aboriginal-language movie written, produced, directed, and acted by Inuit-went on to win awards at film festivals around the world. Their second feature, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, will be released in spring 2006. During principal shooting in April 2005, visitors to the Isuma Website could connect to shooting locations in and around Igloolik through profiles with actors, directors, and crew; blogs; and visits behind the scenes. The production journal is archived at www.sila.nu/live.
Zacharias Kunuk summed up his work with Cohn best: "We are putting a point of view out to the world. Using video is one tool. People are watching, people are listening" (Kunuk in Phillips).