Grizzling with Stacey Aglok MacDonald

March 18, 2021
Originally from Kugluktuk, Nunavut in arctic Canada, the Inuit The Grizzlies producer was reticent to join the production team that was making the inspirational drama about the town’s transformative lacrosse program.

Can you discuss your journey to come upon a filmmaking career?

“I’ve always been keenly interested in storytelling. Whether they were stories of long-ago times told by Elders or ghost stories told by my mother… I loved all of it and have so many fond memories of moments where I felt like my soul was being fed as I sat and listened and imagined. I also grew up loving movies, my dad owned and operated the only video rental store in Kugluktuk, Nunavut and then books were my cherry on the top. But, I got my very first film related job when I was 22, I worked as a production and post-production assistant on a documentary series. Fifteen years later – I’m still at it.”

How did you become involved with The Grizzlies?

“I met our Director, Miranda de Pencier in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut back in 2008. I was there teaching a youth film and photography workshop and Miranda was there on her first research trip. Anyway, we ended up having dinner together at a mutual friend’s house and we got to sharing our work with each other and decided that we wanted to collaborate. So, a few months later, we ran a youth acting and performing workshop and then did our first short film, Throat Song, together. Eventually, and after a lot of nudging from de Pencier, I did finally join The Grizzlies producing team!”

To tell such a story, of the Inuits, were the filmmakers required to have engagement with the community?

“Absolutely and without any question, from day one community engagement and mental health was at the forefront of our thoughts while making this movie. There are so many phases to making a film like this, and in such an isolated part of the world, so each phase looked a bit different in terms of how we engaged, but each one of them was important. I’m so thankful to all the people who helped, whether it be by sharing their own personal stories with our writers, or for helping youth across the arctic submit their auditions, or for providing space to us for our consultations and our workshops. All of it really added to the value of the movie and I think everyone will be able to see that on the screen when they watch it.”

Having come from the town yourself, was the story of The Grizzlies, and the teacher/coach, something that you were aware of before the film came along?

“Yes. The story of The Grizzlies is a very personal one to me. My younger sisters were Grizzlies, I volunteered with the Grizzlies when I worked at the high school as a substitute teacher, and I grew up during one of the darker times in our community’s history. I lost many classmates and a few family members – and so, with all that, you would think I would be eager to jump into this movie project with Miranda, to sort of protect it… but it actually took some time for me to agree to join the producing team, because truth be told, I was terrified. I didn’t want to be the one to get the story wrong. I didn’t want to hurt my community if we did get it wrong. I was very aware through the entire process of just how much responsibility it would take for all of us involved to tell this story and to give it all the love and respect and thoughtfulness it deserved…and even though it took us ten hard years to make it, I’m so happy that I eventually did find my courage to make this movie with Miranda and Alethea Arnaquq-Baril [Producer]. I’m very proud of it and I’m very proud of my home community.”

What is the depiction of the town/school like in the film, and has it been given any ‘Hollywood’ treatment at all?

“Yes and no. Yes in that, you know, we did have to adapt the story to make it fit into an hour and a half long movie. It needs to have an arc that is compelling and drives the story forward and where the ending feels earned. We have a kickass soundtrack full of amazing Indigenous artists (and that felt very Hollywood to me! –being in a recording studio to see it all happen was kind of ridiculously exciting and so much fun). Then, there were parts of it that were the exact opposite of Hollywood; we filmed it in Iqaluit rather than makeshift locations that could ‘pass’ as the arctic and then of course, that we worked so hard to find the cast of our movie, who were almost all first time actors. So, I think we maintained a good balance of authenticity while still wanting to make a commercially successful movie.”

Did the film shoot in the town where the film takes place, and was it a difficult shoot? Was it far away and difficult to accommodate crew? Were locals encouraged to get involved?

“Unfortunately, the movie was not shot in Kugluktuk, Nunavut. It was just logistically impossible. Kugluktuk is a very tiny community, there are two hotels and not a lot of commercial space for a production like The Grizzlies. So, we opted to shoot the movie in Iqaluit, the capital city of Nunavut.”

Was it a difficult film to cast, and if so, why/how?

“There were very real challenges to casting this movie. The arctic isn’t like Hollywood. There aren’t line ups of people who come over to an auditioning room. We often have to target people or groups and spaces and kind of hustle and even convince people to audition! But there are no roads in Nunavut, every community is fly-in only and it’s very expensive to travel. So we rely had to rely on teachers, schools, youth centres and more to get the word out and to help record and submit auditions for youth interested in trying out for the movie. It was a long process and I think it was something like 500 auditions we got over a period of a few years. But, it worked out! I love every single one of the performances our amazing cast delivered. They were so powerful, and smart and beautiful. I’m just forever blown away by each and every one of our young actors.”

Has the town seen the film, how, what did they think?

“Yes! We actually did a few screenings in Kugluktuk. We did a small, private one for several of the original Grizzlies who inspired the movie, and we did it before our world premiere at TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival). Then after TIFF we travelled back to Kugluktuk and held three public community screenings in the same recreation hall that the Grizzlies still use to this day (also, Kugluktuk doesn’t have an actual theatre)! Again, I was terrified – dry throat and shaky hands, the hall was packed, there weren’t enough seats in the house and my mom and entire family were in the audience and I remember when the movie ended and the lights came back on, the sound of thunderous applause, foot stomping and the Grizzly cheer roaring through the air. I was just like, ‘thank frikken god…I need to go take a 28 hour nap now cause my nerves are shot!’ It was incredible and I was just so in awe and again, so, so proud of Kugluktuk and every single person in that room.”

Stacey Aglok MacDonald (left), Miranda de Pencier (right), with a cast member from The Grizzlies

What’s next for you?

“I’m still working with Miranda de Pencier and Alethea Arnaquq-Baril. I’m developing and writing an idea for a tv series. I’m also writing a feature film right now which is loosely inspired by a story my mother once told me – it’s a coming of age story about first love – set in a residential school. So, I’m still hard at work, trying to write stories… we’ll see which ones actually get made!! Fingers crossed that we get to put more out into the world soon.”

The Grizzlies is in cinemas March 18 2021

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