An award-winning musical based on the Inuit legend about Sedna, the goddess of the Arctic sea, featured in Iqaluit’s Astro Theatre this month.
The children’s animation film contains themes of love and courage and also includes an anti-bullying song.
However, for at least one Iqaluit mother, the films raised concerns, particularly around the portrayal of Inuit culture.
Jerry Thevenet, who is from NunatuKavut in Labrador and wrote, animated and produced Sedna, Empress of the Sea, said his grandmother’s telling of the Inuit legend inspired the writing of the film. It’s won multiple awards including for Best Original Song from France’s prestigious Cannes Film Awards.
The intention of the film, he said, is to use the legend as a conversation-starter for children about residential schools.
“I was trying to come up with a film that I could use to introduce small kids to the concept of residential schools,” Thevenet said.
“I didn’t want something that was dark and is gonna frighten them … I wanted to come up with an idea that I thought could get little kids to watch and get engaged.”
Thevenet said he did embellish the story of Sedna.
“I turned it into like a 1960s … musical, you know, very colourful, very lively music that kids will be attracted to,” he said.
“I took a lot of liberties. You know, I’m getting a lot of flack … people are saying, well, that’s not the true story. Well, it isn’t supposed to be the true story. It’s my memories of this tale told to me by my grandmother.”
He also said it was “really meant to appeal to kids of every culture and kids across Canada.”
‘It’s educating people wrong about our culture’
Andrea Anderson from Iqaluit said she was shocked when she realized what the film was about.
She said she reached out to Thevenet with her concerns about information shown in the film specifically about Inuit.
For one thing, she said the film “was not even remotely about Sedna, it was about residential schools,” which she was not expecting.
“There needs to be a trigger warning, it needs to have a whole new revamp because the animation is amazing but the storyline and how it was portrayed was not.”
Other aspects that didn’t add up to Anderson include a scene of a stereotypical version of a traditional Inuit kiss, which she said she had to explain to her daughter was incorrect after seeing the movie.
“They did an Eskimo kiss on the nose. And that’s not how you kiss, they do the big sniff on the cheek. And it’s a stereotypical view of how the media portrays it. And that’s totally wrong,” Anderson said.
“And then my panik thought that’s how we were supposed to kiss and I had to explain to her no, that’s not what we do.”
There were also many Inuktitut words that were mispronounced, Anderson said.
“While we were watching the movie, one of the kids actually yelled out that they were saying the words wrong and people in the audience started laughing because [the child’s statement] was correct — they weren’t saying things properly.
“I was very concerned and confused. There was a lot in the story that didn’t really make sense,” she said.
Among Anderson other concerns were the clothing that to her seemed “more First Nations-based versus Inuit,” and that a young character already had facial tattoos.
“You only get your first tattoo when you become of age,” she said.
Anderson said she did appreciate the production of the film in terms of visuals.
“The animation was great,” she said. “It felt like a Disney movie.”
At the heart of the issue for Anderson was that she felt the film was an incorrect reflection of Inuit culture.
“As a parent, you’re excited for your child to see modern-day things about our culture. And then when you go and see this film, it’s a wrong depiction of it,” Anderson said.
“It’s educating people wrong about our culture. And it was very concerning, because this movie has won a lot of international awards and recognition for their screening.”
She said she didn’t think it was appropriate to fold multiple Indigenous cultures into one in this context.
“When you’re trying to educate, you don’t put them all together. And that’s what happened in this movie,” she said.
She added that she thinks it should not be shown further and that it should undergo a review, especially one that includes Inuit from each region.
The feature film will be widely released in Canada in December, starting in Ontario.
‘Reverence’ to Thevenet’s home community
When it comes to his film, Thevenet said he wanted to incorporate multiple Indigenous cultures from across the country.
“It’s really hard to find the perfect solution for everything. You know, it’s brutally hard to make a movie like that. It took me five years, it almost killed me,” he said, adding that he had to personally pay for half of the film’s production after some of the funds he secured for it fell through.
Thevenet was not able to give the amount the film cost.
Tanya Kelen, who is a distributor and executive producer for JerryCo Animation, the organization behind the film, said they “tested” the movie with children in the Labrador region to make sure the messaging around residential schools was appropriate.
“We had some great audience feedback from schools that have been seeing it,” she said.
“We don’t feel that it really needs a trigger warning at this point. And it’s something that we can look at if we get more and more of these types of comments,” she said.
And, she said the movie overall pays “reverence to the community that Jerry was born in.”
There are plans to come up with a “local version” for Nunavut, Kelen added, and testing of the movie will be done in other Inuit regions.
Tension around NunatuKavut community
Thevenet’s bio on the film’s website says he was born in NunatuKavut and is of both European and Indigenous descent.
Tension around the community’s identity has surfaced in the news over the years. Last year, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, which represents Inuit in Canada, sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rejecting the NunatuKavut Community Council’s (NCC) stance that it’s a separate Inuit organization. In the letter, ITK called for the federal government to exclude the NCC from any federal Inuit programs, policies, and benefits.
The NCC says it represents about 6,000 Inuit and people of Inuit descent in southern and central Labrador; it was known as the Labrador Métis Council until 2010, when it said it changed its name to reflect its members’ heritage.
In September 2019, Ottawa signed a memorandum of understanding with NunatuKavut, recognizing its members as Indigenous under Section 35 of the Constitution Act.
That memorandum sparked backlash from the Innu Nation, which represents Innu in Labrador, and the Nunatsiavut government, covering Inuit in northern Labrador. In September 2021, both groups rejected NCC’s land claim, although the Nunatsiavut government said NCC may have some Indigenous members.