TORONTO — “The Grizzlies” producer Alethea Arnaquq-Baril is on the phone from Iqaluit, discussing the film’s impact on her life and those of audience members, when her voice cracks with emotion.
The Canadian drama, based on the true story of Inuit students who find hope through lacrosse during an epidemic of teen suicide in Nunavut, has been screening in northern Indigenous communities since February and Arnaquq-Baril has been moved to tears by anecdotes from those who have seen it.
“We had someone come and say that they had planned to die that day but then watched the film and felt like, ‘If these kids could keep going, then I can too,'” says the Inuit filmmaker, getting choked up.
“So many reactions like that. I don’t know why I’m so surprised that it’s been so positive, because this film has done that for me, too. It’s been a labour of love for so many years and I’ve definitely had my own struggles over that period, and working on this film has helped me keep going at times.”
Toronto-based director Miranda de Pencier says her life also been profoundly changed through making the film, which opens in theatres across Canada on Friday and expands to more cities in subsequent weeks.
“I wasn’t in a great place emotionally when I started working on this film, and throughout the making of this film, I had my own personal struggles,” says de Pencier, who is also co-executive producer of the series “Anne with an E,” getting teary eyed in an interview in Toronto.
“The lessons that I learned from the young people that I’ve worked with have helped me. As a privileged, white, southern, non-Indigenous human in the world, I’m just super inspired by so many of these young people who are dealing with issues so much bigger than anything we can imagine in the south — and they find ways to push through with humour, compassion, understanding.”
De Pencier made her feature directorial debut on the film, which was written by Emmy winners Graham Yost and “Anne with an E” creator Moira Walley-Beckett.
Ben Schnetzer stars as a rookie teacher from Toronto who forms a lacrosse team with his students in Kugluktuk in 2004, when high-school attendance was poor and teen suicide rates in the Arctic were among the highest in North America.
The students — played by a cast of newcomers including Canadian Screen Award nominees Paul Nutarariaq and Anna Lambe — face abuse, alcoholism and depression in their personal lives and are skeptical the new teacher can help them. Will Sasso co-stars as a fellow instructor, while Tantoo Cardinal plays the school principal.
According to the filmmakers, the suicide rate dropped for several years in Kugluktuk after the start of the lacrosse program, which asked that students stay sober and instilled pride in them by making them stars at their school.
De Pencier initially signed on as a producer 11 years ago and envisioned it as a genre sports movie.
She didn’t know much about the Arctic at the time, she admits. But after meeting with some of the real-life Grizzlies team in Kugluktuk, she realized the story was much bigger.
“I had suffered from depression in high school and sports had helped me through, so I was interested in it from the perspective of the power of what sports in community can do for young people,” says de Pencier, who is also a writer and actor.
“But these young people, what they were suffering with and what that community was dealing with because of residential school, because of colonization, was so extreme, I couldn’t even believe it was Canada.”
Arnaquq-Baril says she and fellow producer Stacey Aglok MacDonald, who grew up in Kugluktuk, are passionate about Indigenous creators representing themselves onscreen. But neither of them had directed a drama or a feature before and saw “The Grizzlies” as an opportunity to learn.
De Pencier, who took over directing duties from Yost about five years into development, worked closely with them as creative partners.
“Every piece of feedback we gave her made its way into the shape of this production,” says Arnaquq-Baril, director and producer of the 2016 documentary “Angry Inuk.”
“They allowed me to make mistakes and fall and they would guide me,” notes de Pencier.
The producers auditioned more than 600 youth around Nunavut and the Northwest Territories for the film, which was shot in Iqaluit, Nunavut, Guelph, Ont., and Toronto. More than 91 per cent of the cast and more than 33 per cent of the crew were Inuit or Indigenous.
The filmmakers also held performing arts workshops led by mostly Inuit teachers in Iqaluit, which concluded with a discussion circle with the youth.
“One kid was talking about how he tried to commit suicide the week before the workshop,” de Pencier recalls. “Another kid stood up and said, ‘I’ve lost my best friend, my cousin, my girlfriend and the entire frontline of my hockey team to suicide. Ten years ago we Inuit weren’t really ready to talk about it and now we are. We need to make this movie, we need to start now.'”
The film faced funding issues that halted production for a while, and the producers made several other projects together in the interim: De Pencier directed the 2013 short film “Throat Song,” with Aglok MacDonald as producer, and produced Arnaquq-Baril’s short “Aviliaq: Entwined.”
The three consider themselves a team now and are developing several other projects together, including a drama series based on “The Grizzlies.”
They’re also creating an educational package from “The Grizzlies,” which won a Directors Guild of Canada trophy for de Pencier and a Canadian Screen Award for best original song for “Trials.”
The package will include testimonials from cast members including Lambe, who recently told a screening audience that the film helped her have pride in her Inuit culture, and that she wants to purse a career advocating for Indigenous rights.
“The strength that’s coming out of the North, the talent that’s coming out of the North, is amazing and we just have to support, give it a platform and then sit back and watch the awesome wave come up,” says de Pencier.
“But those kids also need help and I think the best way right now forward is for the government to listen to those young people, ask them what they need; they’re going to tell you.”
Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press