How an Inuit Filmmaker Is Using Virtual Reality to Tell Her Culture's Stories

Nyla Innuksuk is trying to break free from stereotypes while using new media to tell traditional and modern narratives.

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Sep 16 2015, 5:00pm

Nyla Innuksuk wearing an Oculus virtual reality headset. Image: Ryan Oliver

Nunavut may not be the first place that comes to mind when thinking of tech startups—and no wonder, with its aging infrastructure and hefty internet costs. Yet, borne of the place beyond the treeline (and LTE connectivity) is Nyla Innuksuk, a young, Inuit entrepreneur whose foray into immersive, virtual reality filmmaking has already led to collaborations with the likes of composer Philip Glass and hockey player PK Subban.

Armed with a 360° camera rig she built herself, Innuksuk has been capturing scenes around the globe and testing out new ways of expressing and representing herself and her culture—and bringing both technology and teachings back to her home of Nunavut.

"At the core of who I am, I'm an Inuk," she told Motherboard in an interview, "[and] I'm proud of where I come from and I am trying to do the most with what I have been given. And for me that is telling stories."

Innuksuk was born in the hamlet of Igloolik (population: 2,000) and spent her early childhood in Iqaluit (population: 7,000) before moving to southern Ontario. She remembers being drawn to filmmaking and movies at an early age, when on her 13th birthday, she was allowed to watch The Shining for the first time. "That weekend, I must have watched it five times," Innuksuk said.

Innuksuk makes it a point to ensure any work she does in or about Nunavut is done in conjunction with "people who are from or were raised in Nunavut"

In 2009, she earned a film and production degree at Ryerson University before going on to work on various movie sets. Innuksuk recognizes that living away has offered her opportunities and advantages she may not have had in Nunavut, but is quick to note that she has "missed out on a lot of equally valuable privileges as well, such as the immediate access to a beautiful culture."

"I don't speak my language," Innuksuk said. "My biological father went through the residential school system and I think that played a part in him not really being a part of my life."

To bridge this gap, Innuksuk makes it a point to ensure any work she does in or about Nunavut is done in conjunction with "people who are from or were raised in Nunavut" on all aspects of productions to development to distribution. And, despite her not being fluent in the language, she insists her films are predominantly in Inuktitut, the dialect that is spoken by most Inuit in Canada.

Last September, for example, Innuksuk brought the story of isolation and survival on the harsh Arctic tundra to TIFF with her short film, Kajutaijuq: The Spirit That Comes. Innuksuk produced the film and co-wrote its story with Craig Stewart and director Scott Brachmayer. Filmed entirely in and around Iqaluit, Kajutaijuq is a re-telling of an old Inuit myth—which she thinks might be the first Inuit horror film ever made.

In April of this year, Innuksuk joined Pinnguaq, a not-for-profit startup that was founded in Panginirtung, Nunavut (population: 1,500), as a partner. Pinnguaq, which means "play" in Inuktitut, has a mission to embrace "technology as a means of unifying and enabling Nunavummiut"—and a big part of that is rooted in education and cultural preservation.

The studio, which was founded in 2012 by Ryan Oliver, started with Code Clubs in a handful of Nunavut communities, teaching young participants the basics of programming. They then branched into app and game development with products such as Singuistics, an app that helps users practice Inuktitut through songs, and the video game Art Alive, which allows players to enter and interact with elements of a drawing by late Inuit artist Pudlo Pudlat.

When Innuksuk joined the company, it added Pinnguaq Productions, a 360° virtual reality filmmaking division, to its roster, and which Innuksuk runs. "I am an adult that wears a backpack with virtual reality headsets inside," she confesses.

In just a few months, Innuksuk has led her team on a number of groundbreaking projects. Innuksuk travelled to Ecuador in July to film the Pope's visit, capturing the 1.8 million people in 360°. She partnered with Daniel Beckerman of Scythia Films, to produce a virtual reality trailer for the TIFF-favourite, Bang Bang Baby, wherein users can interact with one of the characters from the film.

She has also filmed live performances of Tanya Tagaq and A Tribe Called Red, and is planning a more immersive project with the latter.

"You'll be in the middle of an urban pow wow and...you will be able to 'mix' your own track," Innuksuk explained. "If you are looking at just the pow wow dancers, you will only hear traditional music. If you are looking at the city skyline, you will only hear electronic music. There will then be a gradient that will allow you to adjust the song according to what you want."

This immersion is an integral part of what makes virtual reality an important innovation, but for Innuksuk, the technology can have an important cultural purpose as well—especially when it comes to creating indigenous content.

Innuksuk's upcoming film is about "a group of badass chicks on bikes in Nunavut that kill monsters"

"I think that allowing people to stand in the "virtual" shoes of a minority group that is struggling with issues of identity rooted in the genocide of its cultural foundations through the residential school system is incredibly important," she said.

And that's just what Innuksuk is planning to do with her upcoming project, a film about "a group of badass chicks on bikes in Nunavut that kill monsters." The feature film will be accompanied by a serialized virtual reality component of "found footage." The currently untitled film will begin production next summer, with a planned release date of late 2017.

"Heavy dramas about social issues and documentaries are important," Innuksuk explained. "What is equally important is making movies that people actually want to watch for entertainment, but also representative of Indigenous cultures. Or not, to be honest. I think it is also enough that Indigenous filmmakers are making content, even if it isn't Indigenous specific."

As she did with Kajutaijuq, Innuksuk is trying to break free from stereotypes, while using new media to tell traditional and modern narratives, with both cultural and personal authenticity—and that means sticking to a pretty basic formula for success.

"I want to make cool shit," Innuksuk said. "I want Inuit kids to make cool shit. That's enough for me."