Interview – Rob Lutener of Up North July 12, 2010

The following originally appeared in the The Peak. I got to talk to a buddy about a piece of documentary filmmaking he was involved with. Pretty neat stuff and a cool story.

t’s a cold, grey expanse. The sun rarely rises very far over the horizon and thick fog sometimes hangs like a veil over its entirety. You may go days without seeing a familiar face. The hard ground lets little grow, making the prospect of finding food a difficult notion at times. The people who love it stay and make it work, but time and change have driven as many away as it’s attracted. Man and beast alike struggle to adapt. Also, seemingly no one will let you use their phone. Stuck on SFU’s Burnaby campus with a dead mobile, student Robert Lutener plugs money into a payphone to answer a few questions about his award-winning documentary, Up North, a treatise on the effects of rapid change on one of the world’s most fragile social and environmental ecosystems.

“Up North is a film that documents the social, cultural, economic, and linguistic change in Canada’s Arctic,” says Lutener. He, along with collaborators Drew McIntosh and Aaron Bocanegra, packed a van and headed north from Edmonton, Alberta with a camera in tow to document a region he calls “a magnifying glass for how change affects human beings and the environment around them.” Through interviews with locals — community leaders, elders, artists — Lutener and company constructed an oral record of the Canadian North. “We wanted to let them tell the story of the North in their own words, as opposed to setting out with our own story. We wanted the people who populated [the North] to speak for themselves.” The result was a feature-length documentary that won an award for Best Art Documentary at the Mountain Film Festival in Colorado.

While taking the structure of an oral history, Lutener insists Up North is first and foremost a documentary. Exploring rapid and fundamental change in progress and being invited into their private lives, including the Council of the Yukon First Nations General Assembly and being allowed to document those proceedings were, for Lutener, “an incredibly humbling and powerful experience.” The lives of First Nations residents factors heavily into Up North’s observations, documenting “their reclaiming of their political and civil destiny.” From conversations with survivors of residential schools and Nation elders familiar with the Canadian government’s attitudes and policies governing the area, Up North paints a living portrait of the “past half century and beyond.”

“We knew there was a story up there, but we didn’t know what it would be,” he says, but describing how a lack of a political bent or message from the outset enabled the North to find them, not the other way around. “We discovered that much of the cultural impacts of development . . . has had a significant impact that was completely unexpected.” It was a life-altering experience for Lutener. “I cannot express the gratitude that I have for the people that invited us into their homes and their lives and their history.”

The enthusiasm to participate spanned their journey and came in the unlikeliest of places. “We were crossing the delta on a ferry and we met this woman, Kerry. She had her motor home with her husband and was selling snacks. She came out and asked us what we were doing and we told her and she said ‘Well I’ll talk, won’t I?’ looking at her husband. He says ‘oh yeah, you will!’. We were given the most amazing . . . to me one of the most important parts of the entire film.” Using the lens of her experience to describe what has happened to her homeland, her contribution is a microcosm for the film and an emotional peak in documentary with many such moments. The destruction of her way of life weighs heavily on Lutener, a personal anger that doesn’t detract from the objectivity of the film. “It’s a heinous injustice on a grand scale. It’s remarkably dreadful. The last residential school in this country closed in 1996. An apology and some cheques don’t necessarily equate justice. But a more determined and courageous group of people I have never met in my life.”

The film begins with a lengthy calculation of the carbon footprint inflicted by the production, and while mindful that a discussion of the Arctic usually finds its foundations in discourse on global warming, Lutener is emphatic about the lack of an environmental bias. “It’s up to the viewer, I think. We were asked the question on a continual basis, people asked us ‘What’s the bias?’, and the answer was always ‘Well, it’s your bias’.” Lutener hopes that the film can be used to make people better informed about change in the North and the world.

Armed with little but the money in their pockets and camping gear in a temperamental minivan, Up North succeeds in being a story of parallel journeys, the change evident in both those filmed and filming. It’s a compelling look at Canada’s uncertain northern land mass. Like Klondike forays into the Yukon, Lutener says the experience was well worth its trials. “We pretty much went out there blind, and we came out with gold.”

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