In more ways than one, director Miranda de Pencier and Indigenous actors Paul Nutarariaq and Anna Lambe felt the weight of history and responsibility while making The Grizzlies (which opens in major Canadian cities on April 19 and expands to additional cities on April 26 and May 3). A passion project close to the hearts of all involved, The Grizzlies tells the inspirational, but unflinching true story of how a sports team helped a grieving community heal and move forward.
Set in 2004 when Nunavut had the highest suicide rate in North America – most notably among young people – The Grizzlies looks specifically at the predominantly Indigenous community of Kugluktuk, which is “about as far north as you can go” as one character puts it in the film. Toronto native, lacrosse enthusiast, and untested high school teacher Russ Sheppard (played in the film by Ben Schnetzer) is sent to teach history in Kugluktuk in a bid to pay off his student debts as quickly as possible. Naively, Russ thinks he has an easy job ahead of him, biding his time until he can get a better placement in a big city private school. He quickly realizes that he the community that has little use or need for white man’s history. In a school where there’s next to no funding and over half the students choose not to attend because of family traditions or believing that classes are a waste of time, Russ has a hard time connection to the local teens. The town is also in the grips of a major mental health crisis, with teens committing suicide at an alarming rate. Wanting to help in some small way, Russ falls back on what he knows and starts up a lacrosse club, the Kugluktuk Grizzlies. Slow to win over potential players and having to work extra hard to win the trust and minds of understandably jaded teenagers and adults who’ve known nothing but broken promises from outsiders over the years, Russ eventually turns the team into a positive rallying point for students and the community at large.
It took the story of The Grizzlies over a decade to make its way to the big screen, due to a variety of factors tied to making the film as authentic as possible, including a previously unheard of casting call for young people across Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. From the over 600 kids, teens, and young adults who auditioned, de Pencier was able to create the core unit of The Grizzlies, and it was important for the filmmaker and her Indigenous producers – Stacey Aglok MacDonald and Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, both from Nunavut with the former hailing from Kugluktuk – that the people being cast were familiar with the weighty and emotional issues being depicted.
“Everyone was already excited to do this movie because everyone has heard of The Grizzlies,” Nutarariaq says during a recent interview in Toronto, flanked by his director and Lambe the day after the Canadian Screen Awards, where the two co-stars were nominated in leading actor and supporting actress categories, respectively. “They’re a pretty famous team, and they’ve been around for awhile now. They’re one of the most dominant sports programs in all of Nunavut, and not just in lacrosse, but also in things like table tennis, volleyball, and soccer. What they’ve been able to do has been catching on quick in Nunavut, and through the efforts of these teams, people have been noticing the importance of mental health, which I think is so important.”
For de Pencier, a white woman from “the south,” a big part of the equation was surrounding herself not only with an Indigenous cast, but as many Inuit collaborators as possible. In addition to aligning with and learning from Baril and MacDonald, over one-third of de Pencier’s crew was comprised of Inuit locals. The filmmaker understood that The Grizzlies would be depicting something delicate and deeply personal for the members of the team – many of whom still live and work in Kugluktuk or surrounding communities – and the town at large. Understanding the sensitivity of people worried that a white person making the film could lead to some degree of cultural appropriation or a narrative that would only show positive outcomes, white saviours, and shy away from harsh truths about the not-so-distant colonial past, de Pencier worked especially hard on building trust and listening to any and all concerns.
“I was an outsider, and the first time I went up to Kugluktuk was the first time I ever met an Inuit person,” de Pencier admits. “I had seen a seven minute ESPN piece about this story, and I was so moved by it. This was about youth in a small Inuit community that are dealing with the highest suicide rate in North America, and they were transforming their lives not only through sport, but through the community they were building with each other. I felt huge responsibility to the people portrayed in the film. I thought, ‘Holy shit, I better not fuck this up.’ And then I thought, ‘Holy shit, I had better find lots of Inuit partners to do this with.’ It was bigger than I ever imagined, and I knew that I can’t be responsible for it alone. The experience of the movie became, I think, like a form of living reconciliation, and every person has taught me more than I’ve taught them. As a director, you often come onto set, and you’re seen as a sort of dictator. You collaborate creatively, but you’re dictating towards a vision. On a project like The Grizzlies, you can’t be like that. There’s a lot of exchange. It’s really scary and fragile at times. I was so grateful that they trusted our process, but ultimately, I think, we stayed in touch with people and showed them versions of the script, and we were always making sure that we were doing our best to tell the story.”
Talk of Nunavut’s mental health crisis as depicted in The Grizzlies also spoke to de Pencier on a deeper level, allowing her to open up publically for the first time about similar feelings. Making the film also gave the director an opportunity to put those experiences and her relative privilege as a white person into greater context.
“I had struggled with depression in high school,” de Pencier says about seeing a lot of herself in some of her characters. “I learned a lot about the nature of shame while making this film, and it has allowed me to open up and share things that I normally wouldn’t have shared five years ago. There were times in my life where I was suicidal. When I first got the Arctic and I met the real Grizzlies, they were dealing with so many issues that I never would’ve faced as a young person in the south, and they were finding ways through it. That was so much bigger to me than just making a movie about a sports team, and I knew it was going to be something much larger than I did when I first started working on it. A lot of young people in the North are struggling with these issues as a result of residential schooling and colonization, and you cannot spend time in any community in the north and not experience any sort of trauma.”
Nutarariaq, who stars in The Grizzlies as Zach – a reluctant team leader who doesn’t care much for school, but cares deeply for the well being of his younger brother – also struggled with suicidal feelings, hopelessness and homelessness. Today, the actor, who previously worked alongside MacDonald, Baril, and de Pencier on the director’s 2011 short film Throat Song, is studying social work, and hopes that The Grizzlies will show the realities of living on a reservation in the far north that only locals previously understood.
“Growing up in Nunavut, you’re exposed to a great deal of trauma, so for us, these stories of people taking their own lives sometimes starts to feel like they aren’t that big of a deal,” Nutarariaq says about his experiences living in communities devastated by mental illness. “You can become hardened by it. I drew from my own experiences that were burning inside me.”
The actor also adds that while things are certainly more hopeful than it has been in many communities, they’re not necessarily getting better in a hurry. Most of the north has only been colonized for about fifty years – “going from igloos to iPhones in the span of a single generation” as Nutarariaq nicely puts it – and that jarring transition, which includes the all too prevalent spectre of residential schooling, hasn’t allowed for past traumas to be healed. As the film continues a tour of Canada’s northern territories and communities, Nutarariaq and his fellow cast members are finding out that the same issues that plague young people in the film still persist.
“We’re still struggling a lot with mental health,” Nutarariaq says with great passion. “We’ve been touring the north with this film, and we’ve had to cancel a few of our appearances out of respect and due to suicides that are still happening at such a high rate. I want the message of this film and the importance of mental health to get out there, especially for my people. We’re still struggling a lot, and within the past nine months, I’ve known nine young guys who’ve taken their own lives. Even at a young age, taking the initiative and working towards creating a caring and understanding community can mean so much to someone.”
The communities de Pencier and Nutarariaq speak of aren’t insignificant in size and importance. Kugluktuk is home to over 1,400 people, which puts the local suicide rate into stark contrast. In some communities larger and smaller across Canada’s north, that ratio is even worse.
Lambe, who plays Spring, an artistically minded teenager mourning the loss of her boyfriend, said that the cast members were all able to find common ground when it came to talking about these issues in a public setting.
“One of the first things I thought about and we all talked about was shared experiences,” Lambe says, elaborating on some of Nutarariaq and de Pencier’s earlier statements. “In any community you go to in the North, there are stories like this, so when you have to create a community of people for a movie like The Grizzlies, it’s invaluable to have those people around who’ve had those same experiences. There was already a connection between us. We already had personal reasons for wanting to do the movie, and it made it that much more possible to portray that and come together as a family towards the end. We started by building up ourselves as a community, but we ended up being a family.”
Some members of the community gave their life rights to de Pencier and The Grizzlies with understandable reluctance. Some understandably didn’t want to relive the painful events of the past. Others, perhaps more poignantly, wanted to ensure that such sharing would make a genuine difference in these communities. Many of the original team members and townspeople agreed to go forward with telling their stories hoping it would serve as a reminder for future generations. It was a unique and empathetic problem that de Pencier and the rest of the filmmaking team wrestled with, but completely understood, especially when it came to casting young people who were still going through similar issues in their daily lives.
“One of the things I was most worried about was that working with non-professional actors who deal with a lot of the same issues as the characters in the movie could be triggering,” de Pencier says about being attentive and open for sometimes tough conversations. “For some of the young actors that we did cast, working on it was an immense release. It helps to get emotional and release those feelings. During one of our auditioning workshops, a young woman was talking about her mother’s alcoholism and the challenges of living with that. But instead of saying that she was angry, she said that she had a lot of compassion for her because her mother was a residential school survivor. I hadn’t really known the idea of not attaching shame to something like addiction that we deem – in the South – as shameful. In the North, this is part of everyday life, but there isn’t shame attached to it. I found that’s what made these kids so resilient, and in some cases made them separate themselves from the trauma and start to heal. Even when they had parents, siblings, and loved ones who were struggling, they started to find ways of healing themselves. I found that profound. I think we’re all getting better at sharing, and that’s part of working on something that’s made by both indigenous and non-indigenous people. It’s a relationship based on sharing, and together we’re trying to figure out how to have a talk about these issues with grace and respect.”
With the film screening at various festivals across North America (including the Toronto International Film Festival, where The Grizzlies had its world premiere this past fall) and continuing to tour communities in the north, the director and cast members have noticed not only differing reactions to the story, but also that the sharing de Pencier talks about goes beyond talking only about mental health issues and into deeper issues close to the heart of Canadian history.
“One of the biggest things I’ve noticed is that when we’ve done screenings in the South, is that obviously there are a lot more white people attending, and their reactions are usually along the lines of: ‘Thank you for coming and sharing your story. Thank you for changing our perspective and creating a deeper understanding.’ What I’ve gotten from back home is more along the lines of: ‘Thank you for telling our story. This is a real healing experience. I feel represented. I feel like my story is being told.’ There’s always thanks, but in the North, that sense of strength and empowerment becomes so much more personal,” Lambe says about her experiences touring with the film.
Nutarariaq remembers an interaction with a viewer from the south that will stick with him for a long time: “There was one non-indigenous woman that I can remember when we went to the Kingston Film Festival who didn’t so much have a question as she did a comment that touched on the nature of reconciliation. She apologized for the way her ancestors treated us, and that was something that I was really taken aback by. For this woman to put herself out there and say that she’s sorry for what we’ve had to experience means a lot to me. I’ve never been apologized to for the plight of our people outside of some political bigwig who’s only doing it because he feels like he has to. This woman stood up, hand to her heart, and apologized for her ancestors. That’s beautiful, and in the age of reconciliation, that’s so important. She wasn’t on television. She was there in person and only feet away from me. When you’re that’s so much more meaningful than watching someone through a screen who’s reading from a teleprompter from remarks that have been scripted by someone else entirely and has been paid for with a government paycheque.”
With all of the discussion about the important issues of mental health and reconciliation touched upon, our discussion turns to the sports movie aspects of The Grizzlies, something that took just as much preparation as the performances. While some of the film’s extras, including Colton Hart and Christopher Church from Six Nations (whom Nutarariaq remains good friends with), had previously played lacrosse, the sport was as foreign to most of them as acting was. The cast picked up on the sport quickly, and almost too well for de Pencier’s liking when one considers that The Grizzlies is about a team that starts off with a minimal skill set.
“The real Russ and Kyle [Aviak] came to teach the actors lacrosse, which could’ve been like a whole other movie within this one,” de Pencier says with a chuckle. “It was a lot of fun, but we had a problem once the actors started to be too good to play a team that was just starting out. I actually had to halt the rehearsals because of it!”
“I’m not a fairly active person,” Nutarariaq admits, “and I don’t have the best metabolism, so for a lot of the scenes where we’re just running, we got really tired. It was fun, and it’s such a beautiful and healing sport. It might’ve hurt to play, but it’s good on the soul. We could feel what they felt playing the game.”
But The Grizzlies program in Kugluktuk, as Nutarariaq mentioned at the start of our conversation, gave rise to more community building programs than just lacrosse. These other systems of coping are exemplified and Lambe’s character, who isn’t a part of the team. Instead of taking her frustrations out on the pitch, she channels her inner anguish into art.
“One of the most important and touching things that I’ve learned from portraying someone like this is to be unapologetically confident and to just be yourself,” Lambe says about playing one of the few characters who isn’t part of the titular team. “There’s no shame in taking yourself away from a situation and healing from within. I thought that was so touching and important. Spring is strong in a lot of ways, and she knows what she wants and how to deal with it. She copes through art. Instead of committing suicide, she turned her pain into art. I think using that pain is a great example of how creative Inuit people are. They know how to express themselves through that art. There are so many amazing young Inuit artists out there, and to be able to portray that and show how some use it as a coping mechanism is really important to me.”
“I hope that a lot more Inuit youth can see this as something they could put their energy into,” Lambe continues. “Maybe they aren’t coordinated when it comes to sports, or maybe it’s not their thing at all, but they can see this as another way to channel their feelings. That was something that the real life Spring, who’s actually named Winter, thought was really important for us to show. There were some people who just couldn’t get involved with sports for a variety of reasons, so the team and the people around them helped to find different ways of helping them cope. Through their art, they got to be a small part of something bigger than themselves. It taught me a lot about finding myself and grounding myself and moving forward.”
Lambe also adds that while The Grizzlies tackles some heart-wrenching subject matter, the vibe on set was frequently joyous and celebratory, something she chalks up to the resilience of Indigenous people.
“This movie teaches you a lot about learning to cope, but one thing that’s stuck with me through all of this is that the Inuit have an amazing sense of humour. This movie was so hard to do emotionally. It’s taxing to keep putting yourself out there and keep reliving these sometimes terrible experiences, but we had these moments on set where we would be dying of laughter and we would be so happy. We kept a balance of life on the set. We knew the value of letting go through both showcasing these issues and feelings, but also through laughter. That reminds you of the good things in life.”
And while The Grizzlies has already succeeded in entertaining and enlightening audiences across Canada, de Pencier says that the ultimate goal of the film – spreading awareness about Indigenous issues – is only just beginning.
“We’ve been sharing the film with government leaders in Ottawa and the North in order to raise money for education and hopefully a non-profit suicide prevention program in the North. One of the Inuit leaders who saw the film said that he hadn’t cried in four years. He said that The Grizzlies helped him ‘find his cry.’ He said that if the film could help people to find that sense of release at the same time, then we could heal and find joy. To me, that’s an honour.”
The Grizzlies opens in Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver, Halifax, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton, and Victoria on Friday, April 19, 2019. It expands to additional Canadian towns and cities in the coming weeks.