Marie-Helene Cousineau is a video and filmmaker who I first met by being her teacher’s assistant at Concordia University in Montreal back in 1997. Her career path has lead her to many opportunities to work with Aboriginal people in Nunavut. She is founder of a women’s video collective called Isuma.
“Just the fact that I moved to Igloolik, this was not something I planned ahead,” says Cousineau talking about how she came to form Isuma. “I was working with women’s groups and individual women before moving to Igloolik, so I was working for people that were there.”
Cousineau preferred to work on films rather than on papers for school.
“Everybody’s interested in film and video and I was interested in art and I started to make images and I started to make images as a student in school making slideshows, and it was kind of normal to go towards the moving images.”
Among many of Cousineau’s accomplishments is her involvement with Atarnajuat (The Fast Runner). This is the first feature film in Inuktitut that has had world-wide appeal.
“My name is in the credits as the still photographer,” says Cousineau. “I was involved in the technical team, I did some public relations, and I worked on the set. I was there for the whole process. It was a very intense experience. It was hard to produce the film to find the money to do it and convince people in the film system in Canada that it was a good idea. To convince people in the film system that a feature film in Inuktitut would have a mass appeal. Mostly the actors were from Igloolik, everyone had to learn as they were going.”
Cousineau says the reason why the film worked against the odds is because despite the fact it was the first time for everybody to do a feature film, people had already some experience.
“I think it worked because people were really convinced that it was a great story and great script. The people who were doing it weren’t giving up and didn’t make any concessions. They really pushed it all the way to the end [with] their convictions. They didn’t take no for an answer.”
Marie-Helene Cousineau says the problem in Nunavut is that the territory has existed for about six years now and the structures are not in place to support a film and television industry. What was in place in the North West Territories, when it changed to Nunavut, were lost.
“People who are now there are not acting really fast on that dossier, I don’t know if they really believe in that dossier,” says Cousineau. “You don’t feel like there’s a real political will to make this an issue. If you work in any other province in Canada, there is support there.”
Cousineau does mention that there is a Nunavut Film Commission now and they’ve hired a film commissioner about five months ago, but it’s not really functional, so you can’t rely on it.
“You have to do things in all sorts of weird ways to find money to make a film. I can’t even imagine what they [the commission] can do. That’s one big problem.”
There are other problems, like distance, says Cousineau. Traveling to the North is more expensive than traveling to Australia. Food is expensive, hotel rooms are expensive, you need to train people as you’re doing things, and then you need to find money to train them.
“If you train them, you need to get them a job after. If you train them you need to have a support system to offer jobs to people and you need to have support from the government and it doesn’t exist. At the same time there are big needs for jobs in the North, and the jobs in that area need to be transferable to other jobs, not just driving a truck for a mining company. Most of what the government is supporting is mining in the North West Territories and northern Quebec and Ontario. We’re back to selling Canada to big corporations.”
In Cousineau’s personal life, she has two sons, one named Sam and the other Alex. Alex is an Aboriginal five year old and was adopted.
“Adoption is kind of a usual thing in Igloolik or Inuit communities, maybe anthropologists would call it circulation,” says Cousineau. “In every family there are kids that are given in adoption, there were spiritual reasons and practical reasons. The Elders would control the welfare of the community like that. This tradition is still going on right now.”
One day a woman that Cousineau knew for 10 years was pregnant and asked her if she wanted to adopt and she knew Cousineau was open to adopting an Inuit child.
“This woman is kind of a sister and I was kind of part of her family and [knew] her boyfriend. I already had a child, so when she gave birth, she gave me the baby, he’s going to turn five next week, we love him very much. We just finished a film about adoption called Unakuluk, Dear Little One, that’s the name of the movie that finished three months ago. It’s a 46-minute documentary and my son’s name is Alex. In the story I visit with his grandmother and one of his great-grandfathers and they tell the story about how it happens and why for adoption.”
Right now Cousineau is preparing a feature film based on a Danish novel that’s taking place in Greenland.
“I wrote a script based on the book The Day before Tomorrow. It’s a fiction feature, for me it’s going to be like a first experience.”
Cousineau is on her way to Legosier, Guadeloupe where they will be buying videos that the video collective Isuma makes.