Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Inuit cast of AMC's "The Terror"

Nive Nielsen and Johnny Issaluk on set
One of the best things about AMC's "The Terror" is that, unlike many other film and televisions productions, they made a very conscious decision to cast Inuit in Inuit roles. This might seem the obvious choice, but so many others have cast Japanese, Mongolian, or even Mexican-American actors in Inuit roles over the past decades, that it breaks away powerfully from a long Hollywood tradition.  Sadly enough, the last time all Inuit were cast in all Inuit roles by a major studio may well have been in 1911, when "The Way of the Eskimo" -- a film since lost -- was made, starring Nancy Columbia, her mother Esther Eneutseak and other Labrador Inuit (Nancy was also credited as the author of the film's scenario).

Great praise, and rightly so, has been heaped upon Nive Nielsen for her role as "Lady Silence." There was a broad and early effort to find and cast an Inuk in this role. Their search led them to Nielsen, who was at the time on tour with her band, Nive & the Deer Children; her preliminary auditions were conducted via Skype! Her role is arguably the most central one next to those of the ships' commanding officers, and stretches from the beginning to the end of the series. Her performance is all the more remarkable since from episode six onwards, she must be silent, not only in name, and convey all her thoughts and feelings solely through her face and gestures.

A newcomer to southerly audiences, Johnny Issaluk is well-known in Nunavut, not only for his previous acting roles in films such as Kajuktalik and Two Lovers and a Bear, but also for his appearance on widely-circulated posters advocating good health and avoiding alcohol and cigarettes. He also serves as an advisor to the 2014-2018 Sedna Epic Expedition, as well as with the Students On Ice Foundation, which brings young people age 14-18 up to the Arctic. Although his character is not named -- he's listed in the credits simply as "Netsilik Hunter" -- his presence in both the opening and closing scenes of the series serves as a powerful bookend, a reminder that the men of the Franklin expedition were traveling through a land well-known to the Inuit, who had lived and hunted there for thousands of years, and live there still.

Kotierk as Kumaglak in Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner
Inuit actors also appear in other smaller but significant roles: Igloolik resident Apayata Kotierk, known for playing the shaman Kumaglak in Zacharias Kunuk's award-winning 2001 film Atanarjuat, is cast in a similar role in The Terror as Lady Silence's father, the angakkuq who originally summons the "Tuunbaq" (more properly, tuurngaq) spirit that, disconnected from its master when the shaman dies, attacks Franklin's men. And Vinnie Karetak, known for both serious and comic work -- his comedy show Qanurli? is the first of its kind in Inuktitut -- plays "Koveyook," the leader of the small band of Inuit who give seal meat to the famished Lieutenant Irving.

Vinnie Karetak (2nd from left), with Ronan Raferty as Lieutenant John Irving

Taken together, the performances of these Inuit cast members give "The Terror" a degree of authenticity and drama that no other major-network television series has had, and prove that, the next time a major production comes calling, there will be no excuse not to hire Inuit actors for Inuit roles.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

One million views!

It's been a long road since that day, on February 20th of 2009, when I first launched this Visions of the North blog. So much has happened since then, including the discovery of both of Sir John Franklin's long-lost ships. At some point late last night, the odometer turned over the one million mark. On the graph, you can see the surge in traffic that corresponds with each event -- with HMS Terror making an even bigger splash than HMS Erebus. But the biggest splash of all, it seems, coincides with AMC's "The Terror," which has brought more fresh interest in the Franklin story than the actual ships themselves! Let's hope that, with another search season for Parks Canada, Michael Palin's upcoming Erebus: The Story of a Ship, and the opening of the first US installation of the "Death of the Ice" exhibit at the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut, that this interest will continue to grow! With thanks to everyone who stopped by.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Franklin Expedition Documentaries

Inspired by the current AMC television series "The Terror," based on Dan Simmons' novel of the same name, many viewers have been seeking more information about the actual histories of the Franklin Expedition. I've posted here before with some book recommendations, but for those who would rather -- or in addition -- watch a documentary film, there are quite a few to choose from. Since 1988, in fact, there have been no fewer than eight, and with the discovery of HMS Terror in 2016, there are probably more to come. So here's an annotated list, with links to online versions wherever those are available.

1988 NOVA: Buried in Ice -- The Franklin Expedition This first of all Franklin documentaries focuses on the exhumations of the three men of the expedition buried at Beechey Island, with the participation of archaeologist Owen Beattie and writer/historian John Geiger, co-authors of Frozen in Time. It's a dramatic story, well told, and one that still exercises a nearly magnetic pull on all who have taken up an interest in the Franklin story since then.

1994 CBC, "The Mysterious Franklin Disappearance" This is more of a mini-news-feature than a full documentary, but it features interviews with many key figures, among them Rudy Wiebe, Pierre Berton, Margaret Atwood, and Barry Ranford, the man whose search in 1993 uncovered one of the key archaeological sites on land, which became the source of inavluable new evidence about cannibalism, lead poisoning, and scurvy.

2001 History Channel: Arctic Tomb (unavailable online) A more tradional long-format documentary, made in the early days of the History Channel when it was still working to make a name for itself, it's the first to feature historical re-enactments (the actor who plays Franklin seems perfectly to capture his mild-mannered, religiously sincere persona). Numerous Franklin experts of the day, among them the late Chauncey Loomis and Louie Kamookak, along with Ralph Lloyd-Jones add depth to the presentation. It's only available via a scarce VHS tape these days, though a digital copy is probably out there somewhere.

2005 NOVA: Arctic Passage -- Prisoners of the Ice This is the documentary I first appeared in, and probably the biggest-budget effort yet made to tell the Franklin story. The first half of a two-hour two parter (the second recounts Roald Amundsen's achievement of the Passage), it also features Francis Spufford, Benedict Allen, Anne Keenleyside, and the late Roy "Fritz" Koerner, whose ice core studies suggested Franklin sailed at a period of unusually cold weather. Both the re-enactments and some of the on-camera experts, such as myself, were shot on location on Beechey Island and near the hamlet of Gjoa Haven on King William Island.

2005 Crossing the Line Pictures: Franklin's Lost Expedition. Produced by the Irish documentarian John Murray, this film comes closest to capturing the feeling of the Franklin search in the years before either ship was found. Dave Woodman, whose work on Inuit testimony and tireless work on land, is a featured interviewee, as we see scenes from the Irish-Canadian Franklin Search Expedition, which Murray co-sponsored. Andrew Lambert is our on-camera expert, and there are some excellent segments, including my favorite: a scene where muscular new RCMP recruits try dragging a fully-loaded Franklin-era sledge across a frozen lake in Saskatchewan; by the end of the day, they're utterly exhausted and barely able to stumble into the nearest Tim Horton's.

2008 John Walker's Passage (clip only) Passage is a fascinating hybrid -- in parts, a magnificently acted and realized dramatization of Dr. John Rae's bringing of Inuit testimony about cannibalism back to Britain, and in part a sort of making-of documentary, including discussions and debates within which modern figures -- Ken McGoogan, Tagak Curley, Maria Pisa Casarini, Ernie Coleman, and John Muir -- add to the historical context and show why and how this story matters. The appearance of Charles Dickens's great-great-grandson near the end leads to a truly memorable scene.

2014 Mill Creek: The Northwest Passage: The Last Great Frontier (clip only). A modest film done mostly using archival imagery and interviews, this was my second go-round in the documentary lens. It's well-done overall, though it misses some of the depth it could have had with location footage and a wider array of speakers.

2015 NOVA: Arctic Ghost Ship. This documentary, interestingly, was originally directed by Andrew Gregg, who was the photographer and videographer for the 1994 CBC segment. It was re-edited, however for the UK and US markets, so not all the same segments have all the same on-camera experts. Huw Lewis-Jones appears throughout all three, but Louie Kamookak only in the US version; the Canadian edit makes good use of Ken McGoogan's expertise. I served as a behind-the-scenes consultant on this version, the first to include the finding of HMS "Erebus" in 2014, and I can say that all three versions are quite good!