The Down Low
Michael Sicinski on Dominic Gagnon’s Of the North

Of the North played Sunday, January 10, along with Gagnon’s Pieces and Love All to Hell, at Museum of the Moving Image as part of First Look 2016. Gagnon will appear in person.

Dominic Gagnon’s feature-length compilation video Of the North is abrasive, overlong, and uglier than homemade sin. However it’s also a compelling work that is not easily ignored. It would have to be categorized as an experimental film, because really, what else could it reasonably be? But often the idea of the avant-garde implies a somewhat detached, contemplative mode of viewing, and this aesthetic stance is kilometers away from Gagnon’s bailiwick. Of the North seems to invite rubbernecking more than any conventional audienceship.

Pitched somewhere along the continuum of such provocations as Harmony Korine’s faux-redneck masterpiece Trash Humpers (2009) and the meticulously ramshackle logorrhea of Ryan Trecartin, Gagnon’s film is a 74-minute barrage of auto-ethnography, after a fashion. Almost all of the video clips that comprise Of the North were shot and uploaded by the citizens of Nunavut, Canada’s large Arctic province, which is 83% Inuit (as self-reported in the most recent federal census). The resulting image set, which Gagnon culled from nearly 500 hours of available online material, tells a very specific story about the Great White North, and this is where the trouble begins. The film has become a lightning rod for controversy since screening at the Montreal International Documentary Festival (RIDM) this past November. Much of the cultural friction produced by the film seems inevitable, and much of it endemic to the very project Gagnon is undertaking. The extent to which he and his film are cognizant of their position as “bad objects” in a debate about representation and appropriation remains to be seen.

Gagnon’s catalog tagline for Of the North has consistently been the following: “The Arctic filmed by its inhabitants.” As such, the film argues on its own behalf as a form of auto-ethnography, albeit with the non-Inuk Gagnon as its semi-invisible curator. The resulting pastiche of YouTube videos is a fairly random assortment. We see the odd baby video, some party footage, and a fair amount of unadorned tundra. But the dominant tones Of the North are absurdism and despair. We see dirt-poor neighborhoods, young guys attempting unsafe stunts on snowmobiles and summarily wiping out, ill-fated whale and seal hunts, and a whole lot of drinking and puking. In between, Gagnon shows us the hulking industrial machines dragged out along the tundra to strip the region of its oil and mineral reserves. The soundtrack moves in and out of sync, with transitions often bridged using extended passages of Inuit throat-singing.

Between the consumer-grade texture of the original footage, the secondary culling of the visuals from the web, and the tendency of video to blow its light ratios when confronted with large expanses of white, this is a film that is physically hard to watch. The film militates against any conventional notion of aesthetic experience, or even basic viewing pleasure. Its flattened, pixelated deterioration seems somehow of a piece with the lowbrow pleasures and gonzo immediacy that Gagnon’s film tends to favor. Even in its organization, one is hard-pressed to discern patterns or formal editing logics. Sometimes a sound/image rupture will occur, such as a first-person duck hunt or a burning building cut to a lovely passage of traditional music. It’s enough to prompt us to think Gagnon is going for a contrapuntal effect, dialectically heightening the horror as Peter Kubelka did in Unsere afrikareise (1966). But the audio will just as quickly slip back into unmediated sync sound, and any sense of purpose evaporates.

Gagnon leaves Of the North as a kind of semi-composed provocation without an explicit social or political message. Its seeming lack of obvious purpose has left the film open to charges of racism, and the very nature of the project as such makes it difficult for Gagnon or his champions to mount an effective defense. One of the harshest critics of the film, Inuk musician Tanya Tagaq, challenged Gagnon on multiple fronts—that he used her throat-singing recordings without permission, and that Of the North is fundamentally offensive in its representation of Canada’s northernmost First Peoples. Furthermore, she and others argued that taking on this project is “not his place.” While this could be seen as simply making an identity politics claim, the question for some critics of the film (and the RIDM’s choice to screen it) had more to do with Gagnon’s position vis-à-vis the material, and whether he had the knowledge, or interest, to place it in a meaningful context. As Inuk filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril told the Huffington Post, “[Gagnon]'s never been north, he's admitted that, and he's got no stake in our communities, in our reputation.”

Nevertheless, it would be wrongheaded to dismiss Of the North as racist, however, since Gagnon is pretty obviously on the side of the Inuk voices he is appropriating. Not only does he continually juxtapose their poverty and self-documented hijinks with oil rigs, mobile fracking units, and all manner of diesel-driven extraction devices. The purpose of this inclusion is unmistakable. This, Gagnon indicates, is the heavy industry that colonizes Northern Canada without regard for the environment, much less paying its fair share into the local economy. The dialectic is not a subtle one. And in comparing the film to Tagaq’s music (for example as her stunning 2014 album Animism), one would certainly be hard-pressed to take Gagnon’s side in any argument regarding matters artistic. Nevertheless, his broad political intent is fairly obvious.

As for whether the images Gagnon has selected are degrading, this is a complicated question. As a piece gleaned entirely from Internet sources, based on various kinds of amateur video, Of the North can make certain claims to represent not only some basic realities of contemporary Inuit life in Canada, but in particular to proffer a series of unfiltered self-portraits of ordinary Nunavummiut in various states of work and play. They absolutely do not abide by any politically correct concept of “positive images” of First Peoples (although I do not think this narrow concept is what Tagaq or Arnaquq-Baril are calling for). The question of appropriate images of Arctic peoples is a deeply political one in Canadian culture, particularly with regard to “official” aesthetics—that is, artwork that has made its way through grant-giving bodies like the Canada Council or the National Film Board. Much of this work tends to focus on either cultural preservation (what is sometimes decried as “salvage ethnography”) or community-based media work. Zacharias Kunuk’s widely praised Atanarjuat The Fast Runner (2001) could be seen as an example of the former; the Stories from Our Land series is an example of the latter, inasmuch as it is based on a collective authorship model, rather than elevating the individual maker.

What is frequently missing from these positive images, however, is a sense of the contemporary class struggle, or the banality of ordinary working-class lives. These lives are often as blemished and fucked-up as any similarly classed lives in non-Native communities, and as such they are usually just as remote from the official channels of culture. Whatever YouTube’s failings (and they are many), its rampant democratizing of the means of global self-display has allowed subjects usually excluded from official representation to image themselves on their own terms, and send those images out into the ether. (The question of how much freedom any subject has over his or her own image construction, and to what degree they are enacting available tropes, is of course one of the great philosophical conundrums.) By drawing his source material from this trough of “bad” representations—and by selecting a title that explicitly harks back to Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), the ultimate wrongheaded-liberal celebration of the “Eskimo”—Gagnon is drawing battle lines against the good taste of official Canadian culture and the picture of the model Inuit it constructs.

Gagnon occasionally tips his hand with some pointed inclusions. One of the two pornographic clips in Of the North, in which a crass Guy Fieri–looking white dude has a “real live, honest to goodness Eskimo” naked on his lap, is also the clip with the highest production value. By contrast, a rather shoddily recorded passage from a community center dance features a DIY rap song with the refrain “from the land of ice and snow/don’t you call me ‘Eskimo.’” But overall, Gagnon is so utterly hands-off in his approach to compilation and editing that it is no surprise that some viewers would find Of the North offensive, or question his good faith as an ally. While the broad allegiances of the film are clear enough, it tends to run roughshod over some fairly critical subtleties.

Largely amorphous and inclusive of too many different kinds of material, Of the North seems to go out of its way not to produce an interpretive context. Given this strategy, Of the North ultimately becomes less of a film than a rhetorical act. As such, many of Gagnon’s viewers find themselves confronting the ethos of its maker. Is Gagnon qualified to make this statement about the North? In his hands, does it lapse into parody or “Eskimo-sploitation”? Again, there is little doubt that Gagnon understood that, as a non-Inuk filmmaker, he was putting himself in the crosshairs. As a public gesture, this in itself may very well vouchsafe Of the North’s lasting cultural value.

Image courtesy of Videographe