Pangnirtung in the picture: Inuk filmmaker Nyla Innuksuk brings horror to the tundra

Slash/Back is a new feature film that was shot entirely in Pangnirtung, Nunavut, a fly-in community of 1,500 people on the eastern shore of Baffin Island.

It tells the story of four Inuit young women who have to band together to stop an alien invasion.

Slash/Back is in select theatres across Canada and streaming online starting Friday, July 24.

APTN News sat down with the Inuk behind the movie, director and co-writer Nyla Innuksuk, to find out just how you pull off making a feature film in a town so small it doesn’t even have a movie theatre.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

APTN: Congratulations. I got to see the movie, and I’ve shot television in Pangnirtung before, but that is just one camera and one tripod. How do you shoot an entire film in Pang? Logistically, how do you fly everyone in, how do you get everyone somewhere to sleep, how do you feed everyone?

Nyla Innuksuk: It was a real challenge from a production standpoint from the very beginning. We had been told at different stages that it was basically impossible to film a feature-length movie that was ambitious like this one, in a community like Pang. We really did push the limits of what was possible, in part because the communities in the Arctic, they have issues. Just getting access is expensive, there’s a housing crisis in the Arctic. There aren’t enough homes for families. For us to come and bring a large crew in to the community for the summer was going to be a big imposition. So we had to be really creative. One of my producers and I, we went to Pang for a little visit, a couple of months before hand, for basically a location scout, and to kind of see if this was even possible. We went to Iqaluit as well, and Apex, to see if we could cheat them as Pang, which had been done in the past for other communities. Then we landed in Pang and it is just so amazing and stunningly beautiful and everyone was so welcoming there, it really did feel it would be so special to try and just live here for the summer and make it here. So I went to the schools and met with the principals and we basically asked if it would be possible for our crew to move in for the summer. We ended up shipping up about 60 beds and mattresses, and turning all of the classrooms into makeshift bedrooms for our crew and cast. They were living two people to a classroom, with the bookshelves and musical instruments and what there. It was a crazy experience that really bonded us all. All of the meals were served in the high school gym, because there are no restaurants in the community. Because of those kinds of limitations, we were looking for crew to come up with us, and we ended up getting the most amazing people. It was such a wild learning experience for me and my teenage cast, but we had such a supportive crew and the support of the community and it really wouldn’t have worked if everyone hadn’t of come together to make it happen.

I have some questions about that teenage cast. I interviewed (Nunavut Language Commissioner and mother of Slash/Back actress Tasiana Shirley) Karliin Aariak for a different story last week. She’s very proud of how her daughter performed. How challenging is it to work with a small group of actors that don’t necessarily have much experience in this large setting?

The kids are amazing. They’re now teenagers, they’re got drivers licenses. A lot of them are just prepping for their Grade 11 exams right now. I’ve known them since they were pre-teens. It’s a really special relationship. They’ve helped inform the script. Getting to go and travel together to Pang after with just us with a proof of concept and the idea we could make this alien invasion movie. Then we figured out how to get everyone involved to make it happen. It was really their trust in each other. Some days were harder than others, it was really hard work. The girls, I’m so proud of them, and Rory as well. It’s been so nice to travel with the movie and to share the movie with audiences and have the cast be a part of that. Just seeing how much they’ve grown and what it means to them to be telling a story with teenagers that are a lot like themselves.

Slash/Back is Nyla Innuksuk’s first directorial effort. Photo courtesy: Mixtape SB Productions Inc.

One of the themes of the movie that I really recognized as from Nunavut was the bonding between the characters. There is a really specific kind of small town best friends, bonded forever, dated the same boys in High School. I think you recreate that in the film, was that intentional going in? Were you trying to create that Inuk small town best friend vibe?

Yeah, I think so. It’s also, for me, having been a teenage girl once, even if it feels a long time ago, your friendships when you’re 12 and 13 feel like the most important thing in your life. When I had this idea for this kind of Gooniesesque movie set in the Arctic, and I started doing some work with young women in Iqaluit, and spending time with them, and seeing what they were up to, it just was really clear that all they wanted to talk about was their friends, and boys, and Justin Bieber. So, they’re just like any teenage girls anywhere, but just like the girls in the movie, they have some unique circumstances. Unique to southern audiences perhaps. The relationships are real, and friends fight and say mean things to each other and then figure things out again. When you’re that age, you’re trying to figure out who you are, and where you fit in, and your friends are a big part of that.

I’m trying to stay away from spoilers here, but there is one rant from one character that I want to get into, the Inuit Art rant. When she’s saying at the party, “Why does every house in Nunavut have these things on the wall?” and how much she hates it. That rant, with a young Inuk who is not digging their culture at all at the moment, where did that come from?

As an Indigenous person, like I was saying about trying to figure out who you are as a teenager, there’s an added layer of being Indigenous or mixed race like me, half Indigenous half Inuk, and you’re trying to figure out what that means, and where you fit in. When I was working with the teenagers, I realized that there was a layer of shame in their Inukness that came through in their language. It was really important that we talk about this. When we’re using Inuk as almost a negative description, it felt really sad for me. I know for me, it took work to get to the point of being a proud Inuk, Indigenous woman. These young women are going through that work and that journey. For Micah as well, she’s having to figure out where that shame is coming from and shedding that, and really realizing for her that not only is this the place she’s from worth saving, and that her and her friends are uniquely capable of doing that.

I watched the movie with two Inuit kids around the same age as the actors. What do you want Inuit kids, or teens because the little kids might want to hold off on this one, what do you want Inuk kids to take from this?

It’s a teen or pre-teen movie I think. It’s just exciting for us to be able to see ourselves reflected in fun, and fantastical scenarios. Growing up, for me, I had so many adventures with my friends in Nunavut. When I think about my time growing up there and whenever I’m back visiting, this sense of community and fun. Not just in the summer, in the winter and in the dark also, it is this beautiful place. A beautiful place to be with your friends, and to explore. That’s so special. We deserve to be seen in so many different ways. I think when I was younger, I used to feel a little bit guilty about loving horror and monsters and Sci-Fi. I’ve got these amazing friends like Alethea Arnaquq-Baril who is a producer on this movie and has made amazing activist films. I was thinking, should I be doing that kind of work? Is this somehow less important? I think it is different, but it is important to see ourselves in movies and comic books and representations of us kicking butt and having fun.

The second the movie ended, the boys I was watching with immediately asked me if there was going to be a sequel. Are you doing a part two or are you working on something different?

I don’t know. I’ve had a bit of a break from the Slash/Back world. I know it doesn’t seem like it, but we shot it three years ago. Post was a long process, but it has been a minute. I could almost see myself dipping back into that world. I also have other movies and TV projects that I’m excited about as well.

It is up to these four to save Pang when aliens show up.  Left to Right: Nalajoss Ellsworth as Uki, Chelsea Prusky as Leena, Sadie Vincent-Wolfe as Jesse, Tasiana Shirley as Maika in SLASH/BACK. Photo courtesy: Mixtape SB Productions Inc.

The attention to detail in the film is amazing. It is clear that you are in Pang, and it is clear you are in Inuit households. One of the characters opens the refrigerator, and you see the stuff that is available at the Pang Co-op. How did you make it look so authentic, because it looked authentic to me.

My production designer Zosia Mackenzie is amazing. Our art director as well. It was really important to Zosia and I when we were thinking about production design that nothing exists that didn’t exist in Pang. We weren’t coming up with what the houses would look like and shipping up stuff. If we needed to make new curtains, we were buying the material from the Co-op, the fabric that they had there. The same with wardrobe as well. If they needed sneakers, we were getting the sneakers they would get at the Co-op. The bikes, at one point there is a pile of bikes, and I was a little worried. All the kids have the same bike, but it also was true. In town, all the teenagers have the same bike and they have to put their initials on it because that’s the bike that’s for sale at the Co-op. So it’s OK that all the kids have the same bike. We had a huge binder filled with a list of all the cushions or doilies that we had rented from all the different houses. In her first week in Pang, she was just visiting houses and if she liked something in someone’s house, she would just offer to rent it for the summer. That’s how she built the sets. Micah’s house was an empty house, we had to fill it from scratch.

It is on the poster and in the trailer, so I don’t think it is too big a spoiler to talk about. When the girls decide to use make-up to put on traditional Inuit face tattoos, for the big fight. Those tattoos are very personal, I don’t go around asking Inuit women what their tattoos mean. What I’m wondering is, were the tattoos designed individually for the characters? Was that a design choice, a writing choice?

Because it is a personal choice, when I asked all of the girls if they had ideas of what they would want their tattoos to be, they all knew. I think for Inuit women, we all think about if I was going to get the tattoos, what would I get? When I asked them, they already had ideas, so it just made sense for us to go with what they had chosen. It was a personal choice for each of the girls.


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