Warning: This article contains references to suicide that some readers may find distressing.
In the late 90's, the small Arctic town of Kugluktuk had the highest rate of teen suicide in the United States.
For a small Inuit community, the sobering statistic reflected first contact with Canadian settlers in the 1940's, and the the decimation of their culture and traditions with the introduction of 'western' ways, including residential schools.
In an incredible turnaroundc, that statistic was successfully brought down to zero after the introduction of lacrosse to the town's high school sports program. Two decades on, the program is still going strong and the town of Kugluktuk remains completely transformed.
The Grizzlies movie brings this powerful true story to the big screen, with moving performances from a cast of young Indigenous actors from across the Arctic region, many of whom had never been in front of a camera before.
Speaking to NITV, the film's director, Toronto native Miranda de Pencier, said that when she began working on the project a decade ago, she had very little knowledge about the reality of First Nations communities.
"The Indigenous history lessons about First Nations and Inuit and Metis people, I had felt like it was something way in the past, and it wasn't taught with any real specificity or nuance. Conversations and words like 'reconciliation' and 'decolonization' are only words that have started to be spoken in mainstream media in Canada in the past couple of years," she said.
De Pencier says almost every character is based on a real person, and that most scenes in the movie actually happened in real life. In this sense, the director says her job on set was very different to other experiences she has had in more typical Hollywood settings.
"Often directors are ‘dictators’, they tell everyone what to do and everyone listens. But in this case, I had to really listen a lot, because with these kids I felt this responsibility that these were young first-time actors, and dealing with really sensitive and emotional scenes that frankly, they feel and know much better than I do," de Pencier tells NITV.
It's so hard to put into a sound bite. It's profoundly changed my life. I really knew very little about Inuit culture. But we worked so hard to make sure that at every phase and stage that community was first so it wasn't just about making a movie.
"It was also about making sure that the community gained from the experience and that there was something lasting from it," said de Pencier.
A true collaborative effort, more than 91 percent of the cast and more than 33 percent of the crew identify as Inuit or Indigenous.
Workshops were held before filming with Inuit elders and teachers hosting a workshop with the actors and crew, teaching traditional throat singing, Inuit mask work and drumming, along with production and film skills. The passing on of knowledge, and handling this sensitive subject was important to everyone involved with the film.
In one scene, the young Grizzlies team sit in a circle and share experiences of intergenerational trauma and suicide. It was something that actually took place with the cast during pre-filming workshops, and highlighted to de Pencier the importance of this story being told, not only to a wider audience but for the communities it portrays.
"During this circle in one of the workshops, a boy got up and said that he lost his cousin and his girlfriend, his best friend and the entire front line of his hockey team to suicide," says de Pencier.
"He said 'but this can stop right now.'"
10 years ago we weren’t ready yet to start talking about suicide, there’s a thing in Inuit culture that if you talk about something that it comes true. And so there’d been a hesitancy, but the kids were saying that’s not working for us anymore
"'We do want to start talking about it and in talking about it we’ll be able to heal. And so part of doing this movie is we feel it could be healing. We have an opportunity with this film to stop it'... They all started jumping up and down screaming ‘New start! New start!'. It was one of the most unbelievable experiences in my life, to get to be a witness to that moment," de Pencier told NITV.
De Pencier recalls walking through the town with the Mayor of Kugluktuk on her first visit to the Arctic.
"I said to him, ‘Is it really that profound? Is your town really that different? And he said ‘Yes. There are no drunk 12-year-olds walking down the street anymore. It’s profoundly changed our town. It’s been healing. And those kids have gone on to be leaders in the community, they are the Deputy Mayor, they run the Rec Centre, they run one of the biggest Indigenous organisations in the West, they are awesome and they all have Grizzlies kids of their own now, who are Grizzly cubs. It’s grown in to a lot of other sports, it’s still thriving. It’s amazing.'"
The film premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival and went on to win the Audience Awards at the Palm Springs and Calgary International Film Festivals; the People’s Choice Award at Kingston Canadian Film Festival 2019; and the Directors Guild of Canada Award for Best Direction of a Feature Film.
The Grizzlies is showing in selected theatres across the country now for a limited season. For more information on the film head to The Grizzlies website.