Anyone who has ever read about the residential schools in Canada and the U.S. knows that a whole generation of indigenous people were brought up in extremely traumatic conditions there. Miranda de Pencier has tapped into this issue and the issue of suicide in the indigenous community with her sports film The Grizzlies, which follows a white teacher who comes North and ends up empowering the high school students at his school to form their own lacrosse team. Read my interview with Ms. de Pencier below!
GPG: Can you tell me how your own background growing up in Canada influenced how you engaged with this subject?
MdP: I’m a white WASPy girl who went to private school in Toronto, so I’m about as removed from the experience of the kids in the film as you could imagine. My only distant connection is my grandfather–those old black and white images in the credits in the beginning of the film, many of those were shot by my grandfather when he was a fur trader in the Arctic in the 1930s.
So when I first went up to the Arctic, I thought I was making a sports drama. I had suffered from depression in high school; I was a runner and my team was really helpful to me in getting through my struggles, so I related to the power of sports to help youth get through tough times, and that’s the story I was thinking I was telling. And then I got up to the Arctic and flew into Kugluktuk, the town where the story takes place, and I met that first trip three of the kids whose stories we ended up putting into the film.
The three of them were so open and so generous with sharing their pain and their struggles, and also how proud they were of what they’d built in this program, and at the very end of that first trip, I was getting their life rights, getting the documents signed, and Miranda said to me, “I don’t know if I want to give you my life rights, because I don’t know if I want to remember what life was like before we started that program,” and she said “but if I don’t, we could go back there again and if this can help other kids in other communities I’ll know there’s hope.” And Adam said he was an alcoholic and a drug addict before [lacrosse], and he said the team profoundly changed his life and I asked how old he was when he joined and he was 13.
So I was hit very much with the weight of responsibility on that trip and I realized I was completely in over my head, not just on an emotional level with what these kids had been through, but on a cultural level it just wasn’t my experience. So I knew I needed to find indigenous partners to go on the journey with to make the film.
Can you talk about that journey?
In the beginning the early drafts were much more about the white teacher coming to the North, but as I spent more time in the Arctic, we realized the real story was actually about the kids. Russ himself, to give him credit, maintained that the kids always taught him more than he taught them, and it was important right from the beginning that this could not be another white man’s movie; we’ve had enough of those, we don’t need another.
So it was trying to figure out how to tell the story; like yes, there are people from the south who come to the north, in fact 99% of the teachers in the north are still from the South–and when I say the South I just mean they’re not indigenous, or from the Arctic. My two primary indigenous partners Alethea Arnaquq-Baril and Stacey Aglok MacDonald, these two kickass women filmmakers in their own right, and what they said they felt Russ did successfully was that he really empowered the kids to run this program, to do their own fundraising, and he designed it so that when he left it would keep going.
So we took that philosophy into the making of the film, and it wasn’t a traditional directing experience where I would command and people would listen, it was more an exchange. it was constantly asking questions, it was constantly sharing drafts, it was constantly writing and rebuilding and bringing in more partners to make sure it was representative of these kids’ original stories.
It can be hard as a white person to push through discomfort while unpacking privilege; were there any moments when things got hard?
Oh, it was constantly discomforting. [laughs] An indigenous friend of mine said, this is one of the big tensions in Canada right now; as we stumble through reconciliation, he said we all have to be brave enough to feel awkward. And to feel uncomfortable in the process, because you’re constantly learning, you’re constantly being corrected, and constantly realizing the limits of your perspective. So it’s humbling. One of the other things we wanted to do, and I have to thank Stacey and Alethea for this, was they said, “if we’re going to have a casting process, let’s do workshops where the kids who don’t get into the film can take knowledge back to their communities, as education that’s broader, not just about casting.”
We auditioned 600 kids from all over the Arctic circle, and put together a couple of workshops where we brought in Inuit teachers teaching traditional Inuit arts, from throat singing, to drum dancing, to mask work, and we had one acting coach from the south who was teaching basic acting skills. And through that process, there was such a sharing from the kids of what went on in their communities, their struggles, and they never had any shame attached to it; it was remarkable. There was a girl who was talking about her mom hitting her when she gets drunk, and she said it’s okay, she went to residential school, so I forgive her. And I thought, how profound, that this young person has compassion for their parents, and perspective. So it’s hard to put it in a sound byte, but it was learning the whole way.
The other thing was in an early draft of the script, we had a scene where Adam’s grandparents are talking to Russ about wanting to hold onto the traditions of the North, and Alethea said “yeah, the problem is, I feel like the Southern audience is gonna think that it’s just because old people want to hold onto traditions, but what they don’t understand is that their children were ripped from them and thrown into residential schools, beaten and stripped of their culture, then thrown back up into the Arctic. So in fact when those elders are saying, “we want to hold onto our kid,” they’re protecting their kid. They’re not trying to hold onto the past just because of nostalgia.”
The residential schools felt like a shadow over the whole film. The way you put in those pictures in the beginning, it kind of made it feel like that trauma was present in every moment.
Interestingly enough, we did that because in the early screening, they said, “why is everyone so traumatized? why is there so much abuse?” and we thought oh my god, we have to give context to this. And when you’re doing a film in the inner city in America, people understand the history of slavery, and how those communities got built, and how black people were held back in America, but the history of indigenous peoples in Canada, we are only just in the last ten years starting to talk about reconciliation and decolonization, and I know that conversation is starting to happen in the United States, but I mean, it’s got a long way to go in North America. So all of that is to say, we realized we needed to give a bit of a history lesson to give people context. We really screwed up, the Canadian and American governments really screwed up with indigenous people in North America, and there is a cost for that that these communities are paying for, and that we’re all still paying for. So I think it’s time to step back and give support for indigenous people to say the things they want to say, and it’s time for us to listen.
Speaking of that, could you talk a bit more about your Inuit partners?
They are amazing! I first met Stacey Aglok MacDonald–she is from Kugluktuk, she grew up there–when I flew up to the North for the first time. I met an elder who had done some film work, and she introduced me to Stacey, and we connected, and I pitched her the story, not realizing she was from [the town where it happened]. And I said would you consider coming onboard and helping me tell this story, and she said she would think about it, and I tried to reach her for a long time after and she didn’t return my calls. And I reached out to someone who knew her and they said: “oh, Stacey doesn’t like white people coming from the South telling stories about Inuits, so she probably won’t call you back.” and in that moment I knew I had to keep trying to reach her. She finally acquiesced, and I think when she realized that I was serious about wanting a real partner, and not just someone to be a token, so then she came on and brought on a colleague of hers called Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, and she had made a movie called Angry Unuk, which if you haven’t seen it is brilliant; it’s a documentary that will turn your perspective of seal hunting around; she’s still fighting PETA on that.
How did you come to direct this film in the first place?
[After reading about it] I fell in love with it right away, but originally I was just going to be the boots on the ground producer. Graham Yoast was originally going to direct the film but he got busy, and he said hey, why don’t you direct it? And I said “are you crazy? I’ve never directed anything in my life!” So i think he sort of recognized before I did the idea of me taking it on.
So then I thought about it, and I made a short film with Stacey, called Throatsong, where we used an almost all Inuit crew, trained them over two weeks and then went into production, so 90% of the crew had never been on a film set before, and then that film won the Canadian Screen Award and was shortlisted for an Oscar that year. So it was a nice calling card, and we knew the script needed to keep evolving, so I found Moira Walley-Beckett, who was in the Breaking Bad writing room at the time, and she read it, came up to the Arctic, met the kids, and went back to LA, and through these acting workshops with the kids we kept rewriting, and working with Stacey and Alethea, and the script got stronger. The whole journey took ten years, and I think it became a better film because of it.
So you were an actor before you were a director, that’s really interesting–how do you think that influences the way you direct actors?
Well, 90% of the kids in the movie had never been on a film set before, and I was so blown away by their performances. Part of that was this process of improv, and making sure those kids were super comfortable to be able to feel real. Interestingly enough, when I was getting professional actors to come north to work with people who hadn’t acted before, I think they thought they were going to be the teachers and the knowledgeable ones, and after the first couple days of shooting, they came up to me and said holy shit, these kids are so good and so real that if we aren’t completely on our game they’re going to make us look so bad, our technique’s gonna show through.
How do you feel like the shooting of the film was changed by the way the actors acted?
There was a moment [that happened after] a tragic moment in the film, and the kids are all dealing with the trauma of that moment, and they’re in mourning together, and Stacey and Alethia and I were all really concerned about that scene throughout the shooting of the film. We knew it might be potentially retraumatizing for some of the kids, and we wanted to make sure their mental health was protected. And we made sure that day that we had a couple mental health workers in town there for the shooting, in case it was triggering, and that the kids knew that they were supported. And then there was a tragedy in a neighboring community, and the only four mental health workers in town had to get on planes to fly to another community. It’s just tragic, and really still a big issue that the Canadian government is not fixing fast enough, and all of a sudden we were dealing with how are we going to shoot this scene and not have mental health support? So I actually stepped aside and Alethea and Stacey went and spoke to the kids, since it was a personal, community issue, and the kids all said the felt they could do the scene, they wanted to do the scene, and they could lean on each other.
I’d love to hear more about what you learned from the kids about the mental health issues and intergenerational trauma in their communities?
One of my collaborators once said to me, “you have to understand, our entire community, our population, went through a cultural tsunami. Where everything we believed in, everything we were, was ripped from us through residential schools. Our belief system, the clothes we wore, our language, what we prayed to, we were shamed for it and told it was wrong. So what does that do? It breeds self-hatred. You learn to hate yourself.” And [the kids] talked about how in their own homes when they feel unsafe there isn’t somewhere to go, how they need more youth centers in the North.
A kid got up [during the workshops] and talked about his brother committing suicide–sorry, I shouldn’t say committing suicide, I’ve learned to say died by suicide–and then all the kids started to share suicide stories. And one boy got up and finally said, “I lost my best friend, my girlfriend, and the entire front line of my hockey team to suicide,” and he said “we have not been ready to talk about it, but now we need to. Right now, right here, through this movie.” And then another kid got up, he was thirteen years old, and said “look to your right, look to your left, everyone here understands, everyone here is someone you can turn to,” and all the kids stood up and started hugging, and chanting “new start, new start,” and it was one of the most profound things I’ve ever experienced in my life.
So that experience was so huge, and I got to see these kids healing themselves, which is what the kids in the movie had done and had talked about, and I hadn’t figured out a way to put it in the film, and when that moment happened it was natural to say oh, that moment has to be in the movie. And so both the process of the workshops, the audition process, and the process of rehearsal, the script was constantly being rewritten. That collaboration was so essential.
That’s so powerful that there was such a dialogue between you and the community and the actors.
It’s like, I don’t have my own children, but those kids are like kids to me. The girl who played Spring, we were at a festival in Kingston and someone asked her if she would act again, and she said “I don’t know, but the film profoundly changed my life, when I first auditioned for the movie I was 15 years old, and I had such intense self-hatred and racism against myself as an indigenous person. The only images I had of myself were drunks, or missing and murdered indigenous women. That’s what I knew from the news about myself. This movie gave me pride in my culture, and now I’m at the University of Ottawa, fighting for indigenous rights.” And I just started bawling my eyes out. And she hadn’t really told me that. And she ended up auditioning for a series, a UK TV series that is indigenous written and led.
And then Stacey and Alethia and I are collaborating on more projects, but this time I’m the producer and they’re the directors! We’re working on a few things right now. So I hope we’ll be able to announce them and talk about them soon. I guess I can say this, we’re working on other genres, mixing it up, and this is being written by Inuit writers. I think this is just the beginning; there’s going to be a big wave of film that comes out of the Arctic, and we’re all going to be better for it. The one thing I can say to finish is that I have been really blown away by the people I’ve worked with, and I’m watching them now fight in a big way for their rights– and their ancestors were fighting too, but the government seems to finally be starting to listen. So I have faith that the generation right now is gonna make some waves. I think our job is not to step in and help, but to stand back and listen, and if we’re asked to help, we can help.