In the early 1960s, three Inuit boys were taken from their homes in the Arctic and placed in a school in Ottawa. It was part of a social experiment conducted by the Canadian government that was designed to assimilate them into white society.
Though their sponsor’s homes were providing environments, they were treated unequally. One of the boys – after sharing a story about his father’s hunting skills – was told, “whatever an Inuit can do, a white man can do better.”
At school they were never able to forget that they were different. Even if they tried with all their heart to be the same as all the other children, it was impossible.
Back home in the North they were called quallunaat, or white. In many ways, the boys found themselves alone between two worlds.
Screening at Cinemapolitica next Monday is The Experimental Eskimos, Canadian filmmaker Barry Greenwald’s latest documentary. It’s about those three Inuit boys, who are now very different men, and the lives they went on to lead.
“The irony is that [these boys] sort of turned out to be a thorn in the side of Canada,” said Greenwald from his home in Toronto.
As men, Peter Ittinuar, Zebedee Nungak and Eric Tagoona were integral in the creation of Nunavut, which in turn has giving greater autonomy and opportunity to the people of this North.
Greenwald noted that scholars have surmised that the experiments were meant to create ‘go-betweens’ or people who could help moderate Inuit affairs and unite cultures. However, as Greenwald effectively displays in his evocative use of archival footage and sound, an arcane discourse of white paternalism seemed to define the boy’s experiences.
The Experimental Eskimos is a great depiction of these men’s achievements, and the loneliness that each of them feels in their everyday lives. Greenwald does an amazing job at maintaining an objective distance in this work and lets his subjects tell their stories.
However, at times the film feels as though it could of used a little more directorial injection. Still, this is the type of documentary that helps us to better understand the Inuit experience in Canada in the most respectful way possible, since Greenwald goes at length to not sound like an expert who knows what’s best for the Inuit.
“They are proud of what they were able to do, but very aware of what it has done to them,” said Greenwald as he paraphrases what Nungak told him regarding the experiments.
Greenwald has filmed two projects now up North, the first one being in the early 90s. As a Southern Canadian he states his amazement at how quickly the North is being developed and how much its people have done in such a short period of time now that they are given a better chance to do so.
The Eskimo Experiment doesn’t have the drama that a film about the residential school debacle would. The experience of Ittinuar, Nungak and Tagoona is a lot less horrendous, however for this very reason it is something that we can relate to that much easier. Their experience is something that we can recognize as wrong &- not in its outcome, but in its inception.
The Experimental Eskimo screens alongside From Homeless to Home: Stories from Ottawa, about people struggling to find homes in Ottawa, at 7:30 on Monday, Oct. 26 in H-110.