When Toronto filmmaker Alan Zweig brought When Jews Were Funny to TIFF in 2013, that hilarious documentary walked away with the prize for best Canadian feature.
But there was a hidden agenda behind the making of that documentary. Zweig says he wanted to make a film about Jewish culture before he trained his lens more explicitly on societies and cultures that weren’t his own.
“I’ve just never been sure that my Jewish culture is in my blood,” he tells The CJN. “My connection to Jewish culture is very strong but it’s nostalgic. I don’t feel the connection [to culture] like [the Inuit communities] have.”
Four Toronto film festivals later, the award-winning documentarian returns with There is a House Here, which explores Canada’s Inuit community.
In the documentary, Zweig sits down for personal, poignant interviews with residents of the hamlet of Iglulik, in Nunavut. Several of them share openly their experience in Canadian residential schools and the traumas and deep scars with which they live.
Nevertheless, There is a House Here is also a document of hope and happiness. Despite some initial hesitations among the Inuit subjects to speak with the sometimes-abrasive Zweig for the camera, many are happy to welcome the director and his crew into their homes.
“For all that I heard about indigenous problems and issues, I didn’t really know who they were,” Zweig told The CJN a week before the film’s world premiere in Toronto.
“I felt like I was just one of many liberal-minded, left-leaning Canadians who had sympathy [with indigenous communities] but not really any familiarity.”
Zweig’s five-year correspondence with Inuit rocker Tatanniq Idlout (also known by her stage name, Lucie Idlout) spurred him to visit the North.
Idlout is present as the director’s guide for much of the film, although she is not shy about chastising Zweig for the way she perceives he wants to stereotype the indigenous subjects. Their dynamic provides a tension that lingers throughout the documentary.
Still, Zweig says he has a profound appreciation for the “genius” of the Inuit inhabitants he met during the production, due to their ability to survive and thrive in a beautiful but uncompromising winter climate.
The resourcefulness of the Iglulik population to hunt, fish, build shelter, and keep warm throughout the year astonished him.
“It’s deeply shameful that [Canadians] went up there and saw these geniuses and thought that we were better than them because we were ‘civilized’ or whatever that means,” Zweig says.
The film, filmed over three seasons in chronological order, also shows Zweig developing as a sensitive, insightful interviewer. At first, he keeps asking the Iglulik inhabitants about what he can do to make their lives happier. Unsurprisingly, the subjects view this question as obtuse and overwhelming.
After a shaky opening section, though, the subjects are more open to his lines of inquiry, and a more mutual respect and understanding flows between Zweig and the Inuit community.
Many of the children filmed in Iglulik are far from camera-shy. The same is true for several of the adults, who, while recounting stories of struggle and violence, do not placate the disturbing details of these events.
Several Inuit participants discuss the need for housing in the region with Zweig, and mention the overwhelming neglect communities in the North feel from the Canadian government.
The award-winning filmmaker says he realizes his lack of Inuit heritage means some audiences could dismiss There is a House Here immediately. Nevertheless, he hopes that people realize that his intentions are pure.
“I understand how some people can feel like, Hey, just leave us alone, let us make films about ourselves,” he says. “[But] making documentaries is curiosity about things you’re ignorant of and things you want to learn.”
There is a House Here, which gets its title from an English interpretation of Iglulik, will have its world premiere on Tuesday, Sept. 12 at 6:00 pm at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. It will subsequently screen at the festival on Thursday, Sept. 14 and Saturday, Sept. 16 at Jackman Hall.