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culture

How to Build an Igloo

In an effort to promote a new DVD compilation, NFB's Mediatheque offers free Inuit-themed screenings, and something more hands-on.

Still from the NFB's 1949 film How to Build an Igloo. Photo courtesy of the NFB.

It is perhaps as easy as building an igloo has ever been: pre-cut styrofoam blocks, some small enough to be picked up with just one hand, numbered for convenience of assembly, and the structure half-finished in advance.

Projected onto a nearby wall—presumably for support—is the National Film Board’s 1949 movie How to Build an Igloo. “Easy to build, once you know how,” the film’s director and narrator, Doug Wilkinson, says with confidence.

Since the middle of December, more than a thousand visitors to the Mediatheque—the NFB’s Toronto home, on John Street—have given this simplified igloo-building a whirl. It’s all part of Mediatheque’s ongoing promotional showcase of the films of Unikkausivut: Sharing Our Stories, a new DVD compilation of Film Board movies about the Inuit, or made by Inuit filmmakers, or both.

“Screenings from the box set, they’ve been screening all over the country for a couple months now,” says the NFB’s Melissa Wheeler. “So here in Toronto, what we did was we put together a selection.”

The Mediatheque’s weekly Free Favourites at Four program was devoted, this Wednesday, to films from the compilation. Thursday night’s programs, also free, will see the featured films screened in Inuktitut, with subtitles in English this week (that is, tonight), and French the next.

“Our aim with this project is to make this collection accessible to all Canadians, but also to Inuit [specifically],” explains Julie Huguet, project manager for Unikkausivut. It is for that reason, she says, that some of the featured films were dubbed into Inuktitut over the course of the three years it took to put the collection together, a process that was made more difficult by the fact that the films originated from all four Inuit regions.

“You have several dialects within each region, so we had to also identify which dialect was to be used,” Huguet says.

Alysa Procida, of Toronto’s Museum of Inuit Art, appreciates this geographic diversity in the selected films. “Normally you’ll see a lot of emphasis put on Nunavut or Nunavik [in northern Quebec], which is great,” she explains. “But I was so happy to see [films] highlighting Nunatsiavut [in Labrador], and the Inuvialuit settlement region in the Northwest Territories.”

The museum, which sits in the southwest corner of Queen’s Quay Terminal, looking out at the ongoing construction of the Harbourfront Centre parking lot, is the country’s only gallery south of the Arctic to devote itself exclusively to Inuit art. Contacted by the NFB when the Film Board launched the DVD collection, the museum helped to arrange guest speakers for Thursday night’s program, and an Inuit sculpture–inspired 3D-animation workshop for children earlier in the month.

One thing this project makes clear is that the NFB has long been fascinated by the Inuit. In compiling Unikkausivut, Huguet says, there were more than 100 titles, spanning 70 years, from which to choose.

“It’s part of us,” Huguet says of Inuit culture. “The NFB mandate,” she adds “is to showcase Canada to Canadians, to better understand who we are.”

Luckily for the NFB, Canadians seem to have an appetite for understanding themselves. The Museum of Inuit Art admitted 75,000 visitors in 2011, says Procida.

“Canadians are really interested in the Arctic,” she explains. “I think people also are really interested in how you survive in what we perceive as such a harsh environment.”

But Procida is quick to add that the harshness of the Arctic is relative. “I wouldn’t want to speak for (the) Inuit,” she says, “because they’ve been living there for thousands of years. I once had someone tell me that what I might see as very harsh, they see as the opposite. That’s where they get their food, and their clothing and where their ancestors have lived.”

Her point is well made. As How to Build an Igloo draws to a close, Wilkinson, the narrator, says in the background: “It has taken the two Eskimos one-and-a-half hours to build their igloo for the night.”

We’re told the Mediatheque’s foam version, which comes down at the end of the month, took three weeks.

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