By Douglas Gosse (Toronto, ON, CAN)
Michael Kenneth Woods & Michael Yerxa. Photo Credit: Douglas Gosse
Directors Woods & Yerxa Contemplate Identity, Colonialism, and Language
Two Soft Things, Two Hard Things (2016) is a seventy-one-minute documentary about the complexities of identity, sexual orientation, religion, colonialism, and language in understanding Inuit sexualities and gender expression. The struggle for equal human rights, intertwined with Inuit lore and history, is at the core of this thoughtful film set in Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut—the newest, largest, northernmost, and least populated Canadian territory, where a stalwart group of LGBTQ residents hold a pride celebration.
Not only is Two Soft Things, Two Hard Things the first feature length film to explore these issues in Nunavut, but it also highlights several inspirational Inuit community members and leaders. Alethea Arnaquq-Baril is a filmmaker who produces Inuit cultural documentaries and Inuktitut language productions. Excerpts of her short film about two women in love in the 1950’s, Aviliaq: Entwined (2014), are interspersed throughout Woods and Yerxa’s documentary. Politician Jack Anawak made a remarkable speech, Who is equal? The passage of Nunavut’s first Human Rights Act (2005), beseeching the Nunavut Legislature to affirm their time honoured beliefs about the “value and integrity of all people”, and accept sexual orientation into their Human Rights Act. Passages from Anawak’s speech provide a powerful beginning and end to this film. As well, local LGBTQ activists, including Jesse Mike and Nuka Fennell, share personal stories of growing up in Nunavut amidst heart-wrenching homophobia, including psychological, spiritual, and physical violence. Towards the end of the film, several teenagers have just come out, and their uplifting stories of support and acceptance in their home, schools, and larger community, display a rapid change in attitudes over the course of several years.
What transpired over the last seventy years in Nunavut, this little known Canadian territory, particularly since the onset of the 21st century, to account for this shift?
1qaluit, Nunavut. Photo Credit: Mark Kenneth Woods
I met with directors Mark Kenneth Woods and Michael Yerxa at the TIFF Bell Lightbox during the Inside Out Toronto LGBT Film Festival, prior to the June 3rd, 2016 world premiere of Two Soft Things, Two Hard Things. As a queer theorist and pop culture critic, I wanted to hear their views on the interplay between sexual and gender identities, colonialism, and language in Inuit culture, as interpreted in their documentary.
Woods and Yerxa spoke humbly and candidly, with an overall message of admiration, respect, and confidence in the agency of LGBTQ people in the North.
Interviewer: You read an article about a small pride celebration in Nunavut that was a catalyst for your documentary. Tell me about that?
Michael Yerxa: We had worked on a previous documentary project together for OUTtv, Take Up the Torch (2015), which documents the history of LGBTQ athletes in Canada, and we were looking for another project to work on together. We read this article that came out in Daily Extra about a pride celebration that was happening in Iqaluit. It seemed so fascinating that a pride party was happening in this area of the world. All sorts of interesting performances were happening, and it was a cross-culture celebration. It was sold out and there was a drag queen. I just thought, “How is this existing in this part of the world?” We always consider the North to be so remote, and so shut off, and this just felt kind of out of place.
So from there, we thought this was something that we should investigate, that we were curious about, and I think that the world would be curious about, too. We thought we’d go up and investigate their pride party, so we reached out to them. We started to do our research months before, and came to realize, this is so much bigger than a pride party. We have to understand so many parts of this puzzle that lead to a pride party in 2014-2015 being able to exist.
Interviewer: Colonialism displaced many of the traditional Inuit family structures. What did you learn about traditional Inuit family structures and sexual practices? How were these traditions uncovered?
Mark Kenneth Woods: When the government and Christian missionaries went up North, they tried to erase traditional values, spirituality, and family structures, so the Inuit could live more like Southerners. That didn’t happen all that long ago—sixty or seventy years. Effectively, there’s a generation or two there that have lost touch with some of their cultural heritage, especially since it was usually passed on through oral traditions.
One of the problems in going up there and uncovering this stuff is that we don’t actually speak the language. We had to rely on local people who had done whatever research there was. One of them was Alethea Arnaquq-Baril who made the film Aviliaq: Entwined (2014), and had done quite a bit of research before she wrote that. Then there were some locals like Jesse Mike, who had talked to some elders and heard two words, what might be considered lesbian and gay today—they translated in English as “two soft things rubbing against each other” for women, and “two hard things rubbing against each other” for the men, which is where we draw the title from.
In Alethea’s research for her film, traditionally, the roles for men were as hunters, and for women, as seamstresses and taking care of the home. They were nomadic. For survival, we learned that every family had to have a hunter and a seamstress. So it would be very odd to have two men together in a relationship as a family unit, or two women. Instead of having two men together and two women together, families had multiple wives or husbands, not necessarily because they were attracted to each other, but because a hunter went off and died during the hunt, and left his wife and children behind. Another family would take her in and suddenly that hunter had two wives, for example.
Archival still, Oldest hunter of Forsyth Bay, Northwest Territories [now Nunavut] in 1927
Then the government and missionaries came up and told them, “No, this isn’t right”. They separated them, and told them, “No, you can’t be taking care of these children”, and made them the “right” Christian way—one male and one female to a household.
Michael Yerxa: There’s a story of a man who grew his hair very long, and was taken on as a second wife by a family. They treated him, or her, I should perhaps say, as a second wife to this family. This person was born male. There were these really interesting family structures that existed for the 3600 years prior to colonization. But because it is an oral history, you’re hearing sort of broken telephone stories. You can’t really say, “In our written history, look at this.” It really is elders passing down these stories.
Mark Kenneth Woods: It’s a pressing issue. We’ve got the basics and we’re scratching the surface. We hope that this motivates youth and filmmakers to go out and speak to their elders before it’s too late, to fill in the blanks, and find out more information.
Interviewer: The documentary shows a generation gap between twenty- or thirty-somethings and older generations in Nunavut, and then teenagers today over a relatively short time, perhaps ten years. How do you account for this rapid change from homophobia to broader acceptance?
Jesse Mike. Photo Credit: Mark Kenneth Woods
Mark Kenneth Woods: That was a big surprize for us. We thought that this pride event would have been very difficult to put on because teens were probably being bullied at school. Not to say that doesn’t go on. We were also only in Iqaluit, which is the largest community. This is obviously due to the efforts of all the people whom you’ve met in the film, and other people who have worked in the schools. They were doing events. They had just done a queer prom, and a health symposium day at the school. I mean, these are things that are not going on in my old high school.
Michael Yerxa: I think there’s something that happened within even the last two-year period in that community. The pride flag was raised outside Iqaluit city hall in solidarity with LGBTQ athletes in Sochi back in February of 2014. I think that started a conversation in the community of, “Why is this flag being raised?” Some of the elders and some of the people on city council objected to it, and that started a larger conversation. We don’t highlight that in the film but it is something, I think, that is paramount for the pride event that happened later that year.
It’s funny. Just the other day we were asked, “Why aren’t there more of the kids in the film?” I said, “Well, those kids have basically come out within the last six months.” That’s how fresh it is. You know, we’d love to feature more kids but their journey is just beginning.
Interviewer: Alethea Arnaquq-Baril produced a short film, Aviliaq: Entwined (2014). I wonder if you could tell me how your partnership with her came about?
Michael Yerxa: Well, there’s a funny story. In our research, we had heard about her, and then members of the pride community of Iqaluit said, “You have to talk to her. She’s a filmmaker. She’s a proud Inuk, and she made this film that to our knowledge, is the only film in existence that mixes LGBTQ identities and Inuit culture.” So I got her number and texted her. It turns out she just happened to be in Toronto. She was staying one block away from where I live, just at that particular moment.
Mark Kenneth Woods: And she was leaving in twenty-four hours!
Alethea Arnaquq-Baril. Photo Credit: Mark Kenneth Woods
Michael Yerxa: So we booked the interview for the next morning at my house. Those DVDs in the background of my shot are my DVD collection. She was a really great place to start because she is so incredibly articulate, passionate, and really cares about these identities being featured in a larger way. Well, Mark asked her plainly, “What do you think of two White gay guys going up to Nunavut and filming this story?” and she said, “You know, there may be people who don’t like it. There may be people who are resistant to it, but if you don’t do it, maybe no one will.”
Getting her blessing right off the bat was a really nice place to start. It also allowed us to reach out and say, “Hey, we’ve met with Alethea. We’ve interviewed her.” I think people started to see, well, if Alethea is on board and met us and trusts us, then we can, too.
Interviewer: So how did you come to incorporate excerpts from her short film?
Mark Kenneth Woods: It’s a beautiful film but like we said, it’s the only one. I mean, this is brand new stuff. Trying to find any research is difficult, because there isn’t really any scholarship on this particular topic, that I could find anyway. It would make a great PhD thesis, for anyone reading this. She had already done quite a bit of research and as far as incorporating the visuals, it perfectly illustrates what we’re talking about—the potential sexualities and identities that could and probably did exist prior to colonization. It’s very difficult to show something that we weren’t around for, and that generations don’t remember.
Michael Yerxa: Right. There’s no written text of this. Her talking to an elder of how this kind of family structure might exist is really the genesis of her film, and the conversation that we had with her, I think, also became the kind of genesis of our film.
Mark Kenneth Woods: Even though it was a short, it’s such an important film [Aviliaq: Entwined]. It’s such an important part of the activism that happened up until this point. We just really wanted to take it a bit of a step further and hopefully, someone else will continue on and take it further.
Michael Yerxa: Added to that, it was interesting because she had felt the same sort of tension. She has said, “I’m a heterosexual-identified female doing a LGBTQ film”, whereas we’re LGBTQ filmmakers making an Inuit film. So, it brings up that whole story of whose story is it to tell? Who has license to tell this story? And for us, we’re LGBTQ. It’s part of LGBTQ history and that’s our history. We felt we could offer something in terms of this perspective.
Interviewer: Jack Anawak played a pivotal role in helping to include sexual orientation in the Nunavut Human Right Act. I was blown away by what an articulate and compassionate man he was in the film, and he went to the pride celebration. Tell me about him, your interactions, how you got him on board, and so forth, for your documentary?
Mark Kenneth Woods: We had heard that he had given this amazing speech in the Nunavut legislature to convince the last one or two people to come on board and to go with keeping sexual orientation to the Human Rights Act. We ended up getting a copy of the speech. We had already pre-planned to interview him, and it took all of twenty-four hours for him to get back to me on his phone and he simply said, “Yes! Where? When?”
Interviewer: The excerpts of the speech in your documentary were very powerful. It reminded me of a Martin Luther King, Jr. speech.
Michael Yerxa: It was incredible, the speech that he offered! It’s funny. We had arrived in Nunavut, and the same week he had actually lost the federal election, and in the same week he was being interviewed by us. He’s really well respected in that area. I think that speech is truly a human rights moment in the territory of Nunavut. That speech will go down in history as, yes—a Martin Luther King speech.
Mark Kenneth Woods: That’s why we built it the film around it. We used his speech throughout. We began and ended with it. The whole point of the speech was to convince the Inuit who were against LGBT rights, or inclusion in the Human Rights Act, that they were looking at that with a colonial lens. That they were looking at that through Christianity, and not through their traditional core values.
Interviewer: The issue of ‘pride’ is problematic for usage in the Inuit language. In many parts of Canada, when we talk of “Pride”, it’s about public displays and marches. It’s in your face. There’s an anti-status quo provocation to it. I understand the reality is quite different in Nunavut, and local people may be trying to re-envision something that is more fitting with their language and culture?
Michael Yerxa: Well, as Alethea had said in the film, Inuit feel emotions just as strongly but they’re expressed a little more subtlety. I think there’s a real tension between even the events they’ve thrown the last two years, and maybe what the community is looking for? “Pride”, as you just mentioned, is not necessarily seen in Inuit culture as a positive thing. It’s arrogance or being boastful, and I think that they really need to come up with a term that works for this type of celebration in Inuktitut that is in tune with what the community needs. I think there is a tension there now because they’re having a pride party that has much in common with how we celebrate pride here in the South. However, I think that this community needs to find something that is very specific for themselves, something that really works for all members of the community. I think something that is going to come out of this film, and the last two events, is that they’re going to find something that is very specific to their community—a way to celebrate gender and sexual identity in a larger type celebration, that is maybe more community-based, and maybe won’t be called “pride”? But I think that’s really nice because I think they need to find something that is very specific to their culture and this region.
Interviewer: Has there been, or will there be, viewings in Nunavut?
Mark Kenneth Woods: We are working on one now for Iqaluit. Essentially, we want people up there to see it, and also people in the South to see it because the South can learn a lot, but the North can learn a lot, as well. We’re also going to donate a copy to the Department of Health in Iqaluit who asked if they could use it as a resource for youth all over Nunavut.
Michael Yerxa: It works both ways, really. It’s of the community, and it’s for them, but it’s also for anyone who doesn’t know anything about what happened in the North, which is the majority of Canadians.
Mark Kenneth Woods: When we released the trailer, within a matter of hours, I started getting emails from people in Labrador, and in Northern Quebec. They were saying, “This is amazing. Thank you so much for doing this. I wish I had known that there were LGBTQ identities in Inuit culture.” Just knowing that this existed for their people and culture was really touching for them. So we decided that this is important—especially in small communities where they don’t necessarily have access—that we were going to send distribution. You can play it anywhere. It’s free in the North. As a thank you to the community, who are the story, the rule is: If it’s North or Inuit, you get it for free.
Directors: Mark Kenneth Woods; Michael Yerxa
Writers: Mark Kenneth Woods; Michael Yerxa
Producers: Mark Kenneth Woods; Michael Yerxa
Cinematography: Mark Kenneth Woods
Editor: Mark Kenneth Woods
Cast: Jack Anawak; Alethea Arnaquq-Baril; Jesse Mike; Nuka Fennell; Allison Brewer; Maureen Doherty; Jerald Sabin; Suzanne Schwartz; Kyla Gordon; Kieran B. Drachenberg; Catherine Lightfoot; Michelle Zakrison; Miali Buscemi; Franco Buscemi; Paul Okalik
Music by: Palvialok Akoak (Barbara)
Sound: Mark Kenneth Woods
Film Language: English, Inuktitut
with English subtitles
Runtime: 71 minutes
Pride Event: produced by Michelle Zakrison