The film uses the 1950s-era tuberculosis epidemic in the Far North as its starting point. The spread of the disease forced many Inuit to go to various Canadian cities for treatment. Tivii (Natar Ungalaaq, Atanarjuat: the Fast Runner) is taken to a sanatorium in Quebec City. Uprooted, far from his loved ones and faced with a completely alien world, he finds himself unable to communicate with anyone. When his nurse, Carole (Éveline Gélinas) realizes that Tivii’s illness is not the most serious threat to his well-being, she arranges to have a young orphan, Kaki, transferred to the institution. The boy is also sick, but has experience of both worlds and speaks both languages. By sharing his culture with Kaki and opening it up to others, Tivii rediscovers his pride and energy. Ultimately he also rediscovers hope through a plan to adopt Kaki, bring him home and make him part of his family.
After earning a B.A in film at Concordia University, where Benoit Pilon made a short, La Rivière Rit, that won the award for best fictional film at the Canadian student film festival in 1988, Benoit Pilon founded Les Films de l’autre, a production company dedicated to independent auteur films. Following his career as an assistant director, during which he worked with Charles Binamé, Jean Beaudin, André Melançon, Robert Favreau, Jean Beaudry and Claude Gagnon, Benoit Pilon directed several films films: Regards volés (1994, Golden Sheaf Award for Best Drama over 30 minutes, Yorkton); Rosaire et la Petite–Nation (1997); Impressions, autour du quatuor à cordes de Claude Debussy (1998, nominated for three Gémeaux); 15 episodes of the television series Réseaux (1998-99); and 3 Soeurs en 2 temps (2002), a documentary shown in the international competition at the Montreal International Festival of Films on Art in 2003.
Roger Toupin, épicier variété (2003) earned many honors in Canada and abroad: a Gémeau in 2005 for best social documentary; the 2004 Jutra award for best Quebec documentary; the Bayard d’or for best documentary at the Namur (Belgium) film festival; the best feature-length documentary at the Festival international du film francophone de Moncton; and a special mention at Festival Visions du Réel in Nyon, Switzerland.
Since then, Benoit Pilon has given us Nestor et les oubliés (2006), shown at the Montreal World Film Festival and the Namur Film Festival in the international documentary competition, and Des nouvelles du Nord (2007), shown at the Festival en Abitibi-Témiscamingue and the RIDM.
Bijan Tehrani: How did you encounter this story? It is such a unique story to tell.
Benoit Pilon: The script was handed to me by a producer. It was written by Bernard Emond. He wrote the story in the beginning of the 1990s after spending a lot of time as a video trainer in the Inuit communities in Quebec and Northern Canada. Being in those communities he had heard all of the stories about tuberculosis in the 1940’s and 1950’s, because almost every family there has a relative or someone they know that went into the southern Canadian cities for treatment. Some of them never returned, and some of them recovered and came back into their communities, and were changed forever. So there are all kinds of stories that he encountered. So he wrote the script, but it was not intended for him to direct, because he was not a director at the time. So it was a co production, and didn’t work at the time, and was put aside for a few years. The producer saw my documentary work and thought that it would be a good story for me, and she had me read the script, which I did. I loved the script right away, and I thought it was an important story to tell because it is part of our history that we are not aware of, and never really talk about. I thought it would be very interesting for me to tell this story. As a filmmaker I think one of the interesting things is to learn while I make the film, to meet different people and cultures. So after reading the script I did my own research on the subject and changed some things in the script, I added some scenes like the boat scenes in the beginning. I found that in my research, that people on the boat who were diagnosed with the disease will just stay there and leave for years, and the people who were not sick would go back to the shore. Families were split apart. I changed a few things along the way but the main story, the original script was written by Bernard Emond.
BT: How did you find the main actor of the film?
BP: I had seen him in “The Fast Runner”. This film was the first film that was made up North by the Inuit people. This film was made by a company called Isuma Productions, which is based in Igloolik, a very small town in the Inuit land. And this company was founded by a few Inuit people in the community, and Norman Cohn. So it was co directing and co production, which is very interesting. It won the Golden Camera for the best first film in Cannes about six years ago. I had seen this film, and Natar Ungalaag played the main character in the film. When I read the script I immediately saw him as the right actor. I knew that with this story that I needed someone that you would care for from the first images. I really needed someone that you would just fall in love with from the beginning, that you would be attached to. I remembered his smile, his eyes full of light, and intelligence, and I thought that we should contact him. We sent him the script, and he was very interested.
BT: How did you find the little boy? He was amazing.
BP: Yea, that was a little more complicated. There are not so many young Inuit boys who speak French and who know the Inuit language and culture. The young people who live in the North don’t speak French really, they often speak English as a second, or even first language. This little boy’s mother is an Inuit, and his father is a white francophone from Quebec. One day, while location scouting in Iqaluit, Nunavut, I was asking about the possibility of finding a young boy for this film, and someone mentioned this boy. I met him, and the problem was he was not speaking the Inuit language at all. He had heard the language because his mother would speak it on vacations, with her family, but he never learned it. So he had to learn his lines and had to work very hard. First he worked with his mother, and then he worked with Natar, the main actor. We worked with him for about six weeks to help him with his lines and the acting. He is a natural. It was a lot of work, but what I appreciated from him from the start was that he was not trying to do too much. He was quiet, listening to the directions. I worked a lot with people in documentaries, and I have developed a sense of who is comfortable in front of a camera and who is not, and also putting them in situation so they feel better, so that helped me.
BT: How did you decide on the visual style of this film?
BP: In terms of art direction, I feel sometimes that in a period movie it is too obvious, like they are showing the props and the nice cars, and the wardrobe and everything. And I find that distractive. I wanted the viewer to feel like he was just there. I wanted some kind of trueness. I had the same approach with the director of photography. We have worked together in all of my films. He loves people, is very humanistic, and loves to film people. In terms of lighting, colors, and all of that, I wanted to do something a little different between filming the north and south. I wanted the north to be warmer and the south to be colder, because the north is his home, as opposed to the south, treated in much colder tones. In the Fall, when he arrives to Quebec City, I wanted it to be in much colder tones, to convey the feeling of strangeness and solitude that he experiences. We used a LLD filter, and it adds this bluish tint. But we discovered that the color from the leaves (orange, red, yellow), because it was Fall, would show through the filter, and we really liked that. This mixture of cold and warmth. As the film evolves we decided on different scenes we we would gradually decreased the effect of the filter, and slowly the full colors would come back into the film, and so it suits his state of mind, following his slow getting back to life. The natural way of seeing the colors would come back in the film, so at the end the lighting is just back to natural.
BT: How has the film been welcomed by audiences? Have you shown it in the North of Canada?
BP: It was shown in Iqaluit, where we shot the northern scenes of the film. They have a small theater there. It has worked very well there, and was told that the Inuit elders laughed and cried, and really enjoyed it. In Quebec the film did pretty well. It is not a blockbuster, but for this particular kind of film, it did pretty well in Quebec. It is going to be coming out in the rest of Canada in January or February.