In Conversation with Nyla Innuksuk and Devyani Saltzman



We all grew up with horror stories that spooked us in our dreams. We got older and either befriended the monsters or feared them. Filmmaker and media artist Nyla Innuksuk and arts administrator Devyani Saltzman befriended them and took their fascination with horror films to fight the monsters they face in reality as BIPOC women.

DEVYANI        What inspired your desire to be a storyteller?

NYLA       My Mom is really great at telling scary stories — or maybe kind of bad at it, I don’t know. But she gets very passionate telling scary stories. She introduced me to horror movies at a young age. I remember watching The Birds when I was in Grade 3 and being quite scared at the time. It was something that I carried with me throughout my teenage years, this love of horror movies and genre. Then I went to film school.

DEVYANI        I'm a big horror geek and my Mom also introduced me to horror when I was really young.

NYLA       That’s amazing!

DEVYANI        And scarily, the first thing she showed me was Alien. I was ten years old and couldn't go for walks because I was afraid they were going to descend like they do in the film. Why do you think horror is so appealing and important right now? I feel I watch horror to relax, and I'm not sure why.

NYLA       Likewise. I don't know if everybody does that though. The thing that you can do with the horror and sci-fi genres is deal with some heavy subject matter with metaphor. A good horror movie can touch on human impulses and instincts, and then also with larger questions such as “Who am I?” “Who are we?” “Where do we belong?” And using different kinds of narrative devices to fill the space those monsters take up.

DEVYANI        Do you have a favourite in the genre that brings up our social realities through those tropes?

NYLA       I'm currently obsessed with Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum. I think that movie does it well, but leans on ideas and moods that are already familiar to us. Jaws is one of my favourite movies. The idea that this picture-perfect place was confronted with this invading force is something I drew inspiration from.

Going back to my introduction to horror, my brother had a party for his thirteenth birthday with a bunch of teenage friends over. They were watching a movie called The Shining. I wanted to watch, but my Mom stopped me saying I wasn’t allowed because, “it's the scariest movie that's ever been made.” She had allowed me to watch some pretty scary stuff, so for this one movie to be absolutely off-limits made me hold it up in a magical place. My brother was only a year-and-a-half older than me so I asked my Mom: “How old do I have to be to watch it?” She said thirteen. So, on my thirteenth birthday, I went to the video store and rented it. I watched it a bunch of times that weekend.

DEVYANI        Can you talk a little bit about what you're seeing in terms of Indigenous arts more broadly and maybe arts from the North in terms of trajectory? There's been so much over the last decade. What moment do you think Indigenous arts are sitting in now?

NYLA       It’s an exciting time for Indigenous art for multiple reasons and for different communities as well. For Nunavut, and for all Indigenous creators, it feels like a time of reclamation.

I've been watching Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, who is such an inspiration to me, as well as Danis Goulet and Zoe Hopkins, all amazing filmmakers. These are all people that have become my friends. Alethea was strong in Slash/Back; Danis is someone I can send scripts to for great advice. And Zoe, I message her all the time for anything. I've seen the work and advocacy that they’ve had to do to get to where they are — to get where we are.

They have been doing the work within institutions such as Telefilm Canada and Canada Council for the Arts making it plain that when you have an Indigenous fund, you should be giving the money to Indigenous people. And the people that are deciding which Indigenous people get access to funds should also be Indigenous. These things that seem like common sense to us now are things that they really had to be fighting for ten years ago. It makes it a lot easier because when I went to go and pitch a project to Telefilm Canada, Adam Garnet Jones — who himself had to fight to get his first two features made on a shoestring budget — is there as Content Analyst and Indigenous Liaison to advocate for our side of the story to be supported and told properly. That has huge influence and makes a big difference. It also meant that I had someone I could talk and build with, whether that was a question about the application process or anything I was unsure about. This is the power of a community like ImagiNative. It is a time where projects are getting funded and getting made.

DEVYANI        You've worked within the National Film Board; you've also worked independently. I work within a large institution as the first woman of colour Director of Programming. How do you serve community and still work with what have been historically oppressive spaces? I'm thinking of Jesse Wente, Kerry Swanson and the Indigenous Screen Office. Tanya Talaga went independent from The Toronto Star to create Makwa Creative. It sounds like you're suggesting one can succeed within institutions if people are within bridge positions inside them. How do you navigate that tension between being an independent creator and working with an institution?

NYLA     It's a lot of work and sometimes I question if it's worth it.

DEVYANI        Me too.

NYLA       It feels like a lot of the time you have to fight for your value. It’s fantastic that these institutions exist in Canada for filmmakers and for artists in order to have funds allocated towards our work. As a first time filmmaker, it's hard to make your first film. People are just not willing to take the risks. I'm not saying that Telefilm is the greatest, but I got a lot of support from there. I've also had a lot of support from the NFB (National Film Board of Canada) in the form of training and mentorship as well as CBC. I haven't really done anything large scale with any of those institutions. I've directed some shorts through some outreach programs from the NFB, which was a good experience for me. But I think when it comes to [sighs], I’m not exactly sure....

DEVYANI        I’m sorry for making you uncomfortable. I think it's really important that spaces exist with budgets to support artists. I'm not advocating for one or the other. It's interesting when you're a person of colour or an Indigenous person straddling both.

NYLA       I definitely think that it is a matter of straddling both. There's an awareness that you have when you realize how they might think that I'm a good fit for this place. Then this relationship of who's helping out who becomes a question as well as what do I have to give up in exchange.

DEVYANI        I'm going to read a quote you wrote about your consultancy on the creation of Snowguard, Marvel's first Inuit superhero. You said, "There is a certain amount of hesitancy that I feel when I hear about a non-Indigenous organization interpreting Inuit culture for a commercial project. What I valued with Champions was that Jim [Zub] and the team at Marvel had reached out early in the process to have input from an Inuk collaborator."  

Do you think there is a risk of commodification around Indigeneity, especially in relation to larger spaces where the line between fostering the pipeline for the next generation of creatives and commodifying them is a tension?

NYLA       There has to be acknowledgement, there has to be a reason and there has to be an interest in Indigenous cultures. There also has to be an idea of what Indigeneity means to the Canadian identity. If there’s going to be an Indigenous project, Indigenous themes or characters, having Indigenous people involved from beginning to end will make it better.

DEVYANI        Always.

NYLA       That seems like a no brainer, but a lot of people unconsciously hold a belief that bringing Indigenous people on board somehow lowers the quality of the project when the opposite is true. If a project wants to be rooted in Indigeneity and authenticity, the skillsets, ideas and lived experiences of Indigenous people as part of your brain trust is a competitive advantage.

With Snowguard, there’s a lot of crossover with the indie gaming scene and comic book scene in Toronto. I'm entrenched in nerd culture, virtual and augmented reality spaces. One of my friends put me in touch with Marvel writer Jim Zub; we met up, broke bread and came up with a character.

There is no idea of gender and superpowers. All of her superpowers came from conversations and work that I am doing independently, and on projects with other institutions, which are the Winnipeg Art Gallery and Glenn Gould Foundation. One is a project specifically about Inuit shamanism, and the idea of Sila — which literally translates to breath — and the concept that everything is connected by this breath.

DEVYANI        That’s awesome!

NYLA       And it was so fun. My nephews are now four and six-years-old and obsessed with superheroes. They're from this tiny community of Pangnirtung, that is the most beautiful place on the planet, which is also where I filmed my movie Slash/Back.

In the middle of the gigantic fjords, these huge mountains, is where I said we had to set Snowguard, her character, from Pangnirtung. My nephews can see their town —and themselves — in Marvel.

DEVYANI        I love Amka [Snowguard’s name]. I love that she speaks so much to strength, especially female strength. Your movie Slash/Back has an all-female cast fighting an alien invasion. Your documentary work for the NFB on youth culture in the North featured all girls too. What's the importance of reflecting strong, young women back to the community for you?

NYLA       From hanging out up North, the vibe I got was the young girls [from Pangnirtung] were in charge. If there were to be anyone that would be up to fight aliens, it would be them. Yes, the script has girls fighting an alien invasion, but it also deals with teenagers as they struggle with their identity, who they are as Indigenous girls living in the Arctic, how they deal with their self and Indigeneity in different ways.

DEVYANI        The global pandemic has changed everything, including festivals and distribution. What is happening with Slash/Back?

NYLA       We still have some of the movie to make. A small team of us will go back and film the final scene, but we're not going to be the team that brings Coronavirus up to Nunavut because they have zero cases. We're going to wait patiently, which means missing Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) 2020, and that is fine. It's a weird time to release a movie anyway. We're working on the VFX right now; have A Tribe Called Red producing the score and Tanya Tagaq, this amazing throat singer, working with our sound designer to create all of the alien creatures.

DEVYANI        The Sci-Fi genre is so much about imagined futures. Where do you see futurism in terms of the Indigenous lived experience?

NYLA       Indigenous futurism is an exciting idea, especially if present day stories in which cultural trends, traditions and connection to your cultural identity are maintained with pride and without shame. I think those are a form of rebellion. When you look at the cultural history of Canada and the goals of the Co-op systems within Nunavut, our Inuit art, prints and sculptural works came through those systems. They came in with the residential schools, which were built to take the Indian out of the child and assimilate Inuit with the rest of Canada. To be able to make stuff with this knowledge that could have been lost, to be able to include imagined futures or imagined presence or Indigenous people just existing in the future, that's powerful.

DEVYANI        What’s next?

NYLA       I’m working on a script that explores some of the above along with the commercialization of Indigeneity, and what it means to balance that relationship. It’s a present-day story with a horror theme.

I get offers all the time from different producers with ideas about TV shows or movies they want to make with Indigenous themes or Indigenous characters. They're looking for a writer, producer or director to be involved that’s Indigenous for things that have nothing to do with Inuit culture. It might be First Nations.

DEVYANI        How do you navigate that?

NYLA       I have agents now. But there are still things that get through that I say No to if it doesn’t feel right. Recently, a producer — who’s produced quite a lot of recognizable TV shows — asked me for a meeting. He had read and liked Slash/Back, which is my script, as agents send out your script to everybody. He was developing a TV show and explained his relationship with Netflix and Amazon. He then tells Amazon he developed this show — when all he did was put together a little pitch for them — and Amazon was really into it. He wanted to know if I was down to come on board as a co-creator and co-producer with 50% of everything. It sounds like a good offer to someone with a lack of business acumen or less experience. “Sign your rights away here… “ But I interpreted that as a slap in the face because if they liked the script that I wrote and if they liked my ideas and if they were inspired to do a show in the Arctic…

DEVYANI        They’d buy that.

NYLA       Why wouldn’t they ask me to develop a show with them? It was clear to me that they weren't looking for my ideas or me. They were looking for an Indigenous person to attach to the project.

DEVYANI        And legitimize it.

NYLA       As part of their pitch to the network, there was a section entitled: Why Are We Making This Show? The pitch wrote, “We’re doing this because we want to help the filmmakers of Nunavut and help foster the future of Canadian showrunners.” while not following exactly the same rules as…

DEVYANI        As colonial settlers.

NYLA       I think it's being able to recognize that and recognize the value that Indigenous stories have, the value I have as an Indigenous storyteller and navigating that. There have definitely been times when I’ve forgotten that.

DEVYANI        That's a hard one but it sounds like you've found your way through by at least having that barrier of protection and awareness.

NYLA       My peers in the industry and the Indigenous film community have been amazing in supporting me. The Indigenous film community that centres around imagineNATIVE has been a place that has allowed me to develop as a filmmaker, supported my interactive work and basically created an AR/VR artist-in-residence. To have that opportunity for people to say, “We believe in you and the work you’re doing. We want to have you take some time to focus on that stuff — it’s incredible.

Danis Goulet, Zoe Hopkins, Laura Milligan, these are Indigenous producers, directors, writers and women who are working in the industry and shaping it. It's so much easier for me to make it now then it was just ten years ago. It's only now that we have implemented these rules about what an Indigenous story is and who gets the right to tell that story. These are conversations that are still happening.

And things like the Truth and Reconciliation report along with independent reports from imagineNATIVE like their pathways and protocols that was developed in large parts based on Australia's pathways and protocols, it gives Indigenous creators a piece of paper — or actually a big stack of papers — that we can hand to settler Canadian producers and say, “These are the rules that you have to follow when it comes to filming with Indigenous people and Indigenous communities.” It alleviates some of the work that I have to do. It also legitimizes the stuff that I am saying.

It was only a couple years ago when Jesse Wente was considered controversial for the stuff he was saying and now everybody is pledging support on their Instagram wall. It took us a minute. But now that people have pledged it, we can hold them accountable.

© Marvel Comics

Photographs by Chris Yurkovich

Illustration by Jim Sub/ Line Art Sean Izaakse, Colours Marco Menyz © Marvel Comics