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Glory & Honour, Iqaluit Goes Hollywood
by Penny Williams
The sled dogs lie about on the snow-covered ice, traces every which way, the very picture of resigned but reproachful patience. Ken MacRury watches from a slight distance. He's quick to restore order, but affectionately amused at their body language. "They're bored," he says. And they are. Movie-making, for all its glamour, sure involves a lot of lolling around, waiting for something to happen.
For what we have here, on a mid-May afternoon on Frobisher Bay, isn't just an Iqaluit civil servant out with his team for a run. This is rehearsal time, part of the daily routine in a project that numbers a handful of Americans, some 75 Montreal-based film-production people and a good 50 or so Inuit and other local residents. Together, they're making a TV movie about arctic explorer Robert E. Peary and an expedition colleague, Matthew Henson. One went home to acclaim, one did not, and yes indeed, the fact that Henson was black pretty well accounts for the difference. Titled Glory and Honor, the movie will appear on Ted Turner's cable TV network sometime in 1998.
"Our Iqaluit locations are standing in for coastal Greenland and the Ellesmere region," explains production manager Daniele Rohrbach, a Montrealer with both southern and Arctic film-production experience. "We never really considered going anywhere else. With 125 people around the lunch table every day, this is a good-size crew, and only Iqaluit has the infrastructure we need--easy access, accommodation, food, equipment, snowmobile drivers, cast, everything."
What the "everything" amounts to (from sunscreen in the local pharmacy to warehousing, rentals, purchases, catering and salaries), she adds calmly, is a direct boost to the local economy of over $1 million.
This is what $1 million looks like. First, a flotilla of 70-odd rented snowmobiles, many with komatiks bouncing along behind, driven either by some of the Montrealers or the 20-30 drivers hired locally. Simanuk (Sam) Kilabuk is one of them - hunter and carver in his regular life, but now a veteran of two films as well. "Six years ago I drove Daniele around when she was scouting locations for Shadow of the Wolf," he says, in his distinctively husky voice. "I drove for them when the made the movie, too. This time I'm driving the camera equipment." He smiles. "I like meeting all the people. It's fun."
Rohrbach is just as happy with him. "Oh, Sam!" she exclaims. "The first time I came north, I didn't know anything. He was so patient, he taught me so much. and he's an excellent driver, very precise, smooth and dependable. That's why I use him for the camera equipment - I know he's not going to dump it all over the ice."
About half-way to Monument Island, the site of today's activity, we pass an impressive tent city, lines up green-white-cream in precise formation. It's the commissary, where those 125 people have their meals. "They feed us well," says Larry Audlaluk approvingly. Known as the vice-president of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association (formerly the Baffin Regional Inuit Association), or perhaps through his fuel business and co-op involvement in Grise Fiord, this May, he, too, is caught up in show biz, an actor with a speaking part. "We get country food - fish and caribou, every day." So there's another slice of the $1 million, paid out to the Toonoonik Hotel for catering and worth the price, since both southerners and Inuit seem happy.
Audlaluk isn't working today, so he's on the set in regular clothes rather than the traditional skins he wears (his own, he points out) for his role as Ahanlkah, the Greenlandic second-in-command to another Greenlander played by Baker Lake's Sampson Jorah. "I tried out once before for a movie that John Houston was casting, but I wasn't chosen. This time I tried again, and he hired me." (Houston, son of James Houston of Inuit-art fame, handled local casting, and is also the film's first assistant director.)
Audlaluk is just one more person in a busy, sprawling scene, out there by Monument Island. Line everyone else, he keeps a respectful distance from the cast and crew rehearsing by the (fake) igloo and obeys the "Silence, please" call that occasionally rings out. He's here today to take souvenir pictures of some Inuit cast members at work. "You rehearse your line," he muses, " and then you have to remember them - and act at the same time! but I really enjoy it. And there's not as much stress acting as there is handling the dogs on the set. I did that for a Japanese crew making a movie in Resolute Bay in the early 80's. It was very hard work - you have to watch your animals every minute. so I don't try to talk to Ken (MacRury) very much, I know he has to concentrate."
Which he does, though the team is dependable enough that MacRury can spare amoment to talk about a dog's life, film-set version. "They're really just background, that's why they spend so much time lying around," he says. Raymond Ducasse and his Pro-Film Animal Inc. came north with 32 dogs;MacRury and Paul Landry (Northwinds Arctic Adventures) provided the rest.
"I've supplied my dogs for films before, " says MacRury, "but this time, since I'm in transition between the GNWT and the Interim Commissioner's Office with the Nunavut government, I have time to handle them on set as well. And they're exactly the right look," he adds. "They're Canadian Inuit dogs, a pure-bred, registered aboriginal breed - same build, same colour combinations as Peary's Greenlandic dogs." Everything else is authentic as well, from sled design to traces and harnesses. Well, except for the plastic runners and the fact that these teams barely get to run 15 metres at a time, all for long-distance effect. "Sometimes I'm the one out there in costume, standing in for 'Peary' or whoever, running the dogs."
A half-dozen humans manage to do their waiting almost as gracefully as the dogs, stretched out on snowmobile seats, sunglassed faces to the sky and feet up, as if lounging on a California beach. Others cluster, chatting. Some stride about with clipboards, some duck into the tent signposted "toilet", and everybody cruises past the snack table laden with mineral water, coffee, oranges, pretzels, potato chips and six varieties of granola bar.
Delroy Lindo paces about, rehearsing his lines. His credits include Malcolm X, Get Shorty, Clockers and Feeling Minnesota. Here is Matthew Henson, whose polar exploits weren't enough to propel him past the colour barrier to anything better than a parking attendant's job. Lindo is an arresting sight, not only for his fierce concentration but for his size - basketball player proportions, and every centimetre custom-clad in fur and skins.
Enter Elisapee Davidee, wardrobe coordinator. She has considerable experience with film and TV productions, all of which is coming in handy. "This shoot is a major challenge. We had to come up with more than 100 costumes, and do it very quickly. We rented as much as possible but even then we had to do some alterations for the right Greenlandic look. We made everything else, including two complete outfits for each of the stars. That's a lot of caribou skins, and they had to be the right ones, the thinner August skins. In just three weeks, we got it all done! I had up to eight women working on it. Everything was done the traditional way. One spent most of her time just chewing the skins." Davidee laughs at the mention of Delroy Lindo. "Oh yes, his costumes were certainly the biggest! And I had to teach him how to pull on his parkas. They're a bit awkward until you're used to them, and you don't want to rip them."
Lindo plays opposite Henry Czerny, the Canadian actor (The Boys of St. Vincent, Mission: Impossible) who has the role of Peary. The two spent a night on the land with some of the Inuit, helping to make an igloo, hunting (with unreported success) for caribou and preparing the evening meal. "It helped them a lot with their acting," says Turner TV spokesperson Brandee Brooks. "For example, they thought an igloo would be really cold, but they found out it's cosy inside! That saved them from behaving all wrong when they're doing scenes inside the movie's igloo."
Rohrbach says Inuit regularly provide feedback and suggestions - right down to how to cut meat the Inuit way. "We really pay attention, especially when they talk about how to get somewhere, or when we should do something. They're the ones who can read the situation." It's the way outsiders should behave," she explains. "We didn't want to come up here wearing big boots, you know?"
Apparently they've done a good job of avoiding those big boots (apart from Sorels). Larry Audlaluk compares this shoot favourably with his earlier experience, saying, "The Japanese were very hierarchical. Everybody had his place, from the important people on down. Dog handlers were 'way down!" He pushes his hand close to the snow in illustration and laughs. "But here, everyone is friendly and open. when they're not busy, you can talk with them about anything - not just the film, but world events, fashion, anything. They're regular people."
Mind, the shoot won't change Audlaluk's personal ranking on the various arctic explorers. A close student of their expeditions, his heroes are still the Polar Inuit, on whom all those explorers depended, and Otto Sverdrup, the only one to respect both the land and the Inuit. "Not like Peary, barking out orders," murmurs Audlaluk, but his eyes crinkle in wry amusement. History's history, but there's nothing wrong with enjoying a bit of movie-making. He says, "I feel privileged to be here, to wear our traditional clothes and to work with all these people. They're a good group."
Penny Williams is a Toronto-based freelance writer with a special interest in the North.
This article first appeared in the summer 1997 issue of Above & Beyond magazine. It is reprinted here with the blessing of the folks at Above and Beyond and the gracious permission of the article's author, Penny Williams of Toronto, Ontario.