Queer Inuit identity and the legacy of colonization collide in this new documentary

The Québecois motto might be “Je me souviens”—in English, “I remember”—but Canadians as a whole are quick to forget the history of Nunavut, their northernmost territory, and the people living within it. A new documentary aims to reverse that course by not only shining a light on the very recent Christianization and colonization of the North, but by connecting the past actions of the Canadian government with the unique struggles and experiences faced by LGBTQ Inuit people in Nunavut today.

Two Soft Things, Two Hard Things is a film by Mark Kenneth Woods (This is Drag, The Face of Furry Creek) and Michael Yerxa (Take Up the Torch, 1 Girl 5 Gays) that’s set to premiere this Friday at the Inside Out Toronto LGBT Film Festival. While Woods and Yerxa initially set out to document the fairly new annual Pride celebration happening in Nunavut’s capital of Iqaluit, their focus soon expanded outward. They couldn’t make a movie about a Pride party in 2015, they realized, without first examining the harmful assimilation tactics of the past—Christian missions, residential schools, forced relocation, systematic cultural suppression—that made such a self-affirming event necessary in the present.

The documentary gets its name from the English translation for the equivalent Inuktitut words for lesbian (“two soft things rubbing together”) and gay (“two hard things rubbing together”), which Woods and Yerxa learned from one of their interview subjects, Iqaluit community member and former President of the National Inuit Youth Council Jesse Mike. Mike said that she learned the terms from her elders, which only highlights how recent the Canadian government’s colonization of the North was—not to mention how vulnerable Inuit oral knowledge is, as those fluent speakers who were alive pre-colonization continue to age.

I spoke with Two Soft Things, Two Hard Things filmmakers Mark Kenneth Woods and Michael Yerxa over the phone in two separate interviews on Tuesday to discuss why their film matters, how the Canadian government marginalized—and continues to marginalize—the people of Nunavut, how they felt about telling a story about LGBTQ Inuit identity as white gay men, and more.

Fusion: So, how did Two Soft Things, Two Hard Things come about? How did you two get involved?

Michael Yerxa: We had done a previous documentary project called Take Up the Torch on OUTtv in Canada and were looking for another chance to work together on something we felt was interesting to us. We read an article about a Pride party happening in Iqaluit, and we were both really taken aback. It just seemed incredible that in this remote part of the world with a community of about 7,000 people, there was a sold-out Pride party with all this kind of cross-pollination of culture and tradition and identity. We initially thought we’d go up and cover this cool, innovative, culturally specific celebration of Pride.

Mark Kenneth Woods: But what we thought was going to be a relatively straightforward project turned into a very complicated and layered discussion. In order to talk about LGBT issues in the North, in the Arctic, in Inuit culture, we had to start with colonization. Present-day influence stems from that. You can’t really have a discussion about Iqaluit’s LGBT celebration without looking back.

MY: Two Soft Things, Two Hard Things is so much more about the history of the territory of Nunavut and its people, a history of cultural identity, an exploration of colonization and Christianization, and everything else that got us to the point of having this sold-out Pride party in 2014. It was really eye-opening for Mark and me.

Former President of the National Inuit Youth Council Jesse Mike shares the unique struggles LGBTQ people in Inuit communities face

Former President of the National Inuit Youth Council Jesse Mike shares the unique struggles LGBTQ people in Inuit communities face.

How well known is the history of Inuit oppression among white and other non-Inuit Canadians? Do you feel like the Canadian school system gave you a “good” education when it comes to Inuit history?

MKW: No, I definitely would not say “good.” I’d say minimal, at best.

MY: We don’t learn a ton about Nunavut or the Inuit.

MKW: Of course, we learned about the history of colonialism in Canada. We learned about First Nations people prior to European settlement. But really, it ended there. Some First Nations people fought with the French or against the English or with the French against the English, but our textbooks don’t talk about residential schools, forced relocation, and the other assimilation tactics used by the Canadian government in the 20th century. When we talk about First Nations issues, the North gets ignored, even though the colonization of the North only happened about 50 or 60 years ago. I don’t think a lot of us in the South know that it’s that recent. Iqaluit’s own curriculum is actually based on the system used in the western province of Alberta, and it has little or nothing to do with the history of the North. So for generations, Inuit and non-Inuit people in the North haven’t been learning their own history.

Filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril discusses colonization of the North and LGBTQ Inuit representation

Filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril discusses colonization of the North and LGBTQ Inuit representation.

What about the history of non-normative sexualities and gender identities that existed in the North prior to Christianization and colonization? What did you find out about while filming?

MKW: I mean, we’re not from Iqaluit, so we have to rely on local people who have done work on this, who can speak Inuktitut, and who can talk to the elders who were alive before colonization. They said there were plural marriages. Also, the male hunters would go away for weeks at a time, leaving women behind to take care of the children. Chances are, there was something going on between some of the women at home and between some of the men out hunting. And sometimes a man would go off hunting, get in an accident, and never come back, and so his wife would be taken into a new family that would then have two wives. The structures were very complicated. There’s a lot more to discuss.

Is there any outreach between LGBTQ communities and organizations in larger Canadian cities like Toronto, Montréal, or Vancouver and those in the North?

MY: From our experience, there’s a real divide between the South and the North in general. There’s no roads to Nunavut, so you have to fly—and the cost is astronomically high.

MKW: The average cost of a flight from Ontario or Québec is $2,500 Canadian roundtrip. There’s just all these assumptions. “You’re gay and from a small town? Just move to Toronto! Move to Ottawa!” But that’s not something you can do when airfare’s going to cost you an arm and a leg and you have to abandon life and your culture in Iqaluit.

MY: In terms of LGBT support from the South, Michelle Zakrison—the Aboriginal rights lawyer who launched the Iqaluit Pride party in 2014—is a Southerner who moved up here. There used to be the annual Pride and Friends of Pride Picnic from 2001 to 2006, but there wasn’t anything after that for about eight years. She wanted to do something Pride-related, but there was some conflict there. First of all, she was a white Southerner coming up there to throw a Pride party. And even the word “pride” is complicated in Inuit culture. It has connotations of being arrogant or boastful, so it was an interesting thing to watch Pride as she knew it in the South get pushback from people for culturally specific reasons. To Southerners like us, Pride is a parade. It’s colors. It’s drag queens. But that’s maybe not the most effective party for the community in Iqaluit. There’s tension over this, but they’re still trying to figure out something culturally sensitive that works for everyone.

Former MP Jack Anawak (L) and LGBTQ rights activist Allison Brewer (R) speak at Iqaluit Pride on Oct. 24, 2015.

Former MP Jack Anawak (L) and LGBTQ rights activist Allison Brewer (R) speak at Iqaluit Pride on Oct. 24, 2015.

Not to be presumptuous, but you’re both white, right?

MY: We’re both white. Not Inuit. Not from the North.

Did that present any challenges for you two in terms of telling a story that some might argue isn’t necessarily yours to tell?

MY: We were constantly asking ourselves: Is this our story to tell? Do we have license to tell this story? Very early on in filming, we talked to Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, an Inuit filmmaker from Iqaluit who is featured in Two Soft Things, Two Hard Things. She made a short film about queer Inuit women called Aviliaq: Entwined, and she told us she struggled over whether it was her story to tell as a straight woman. She said that if she didn’t make a film about this, it would be a long time before someone else did and that there are people who need to hear these stories now. Mark and I, we both love working on media about LGBT identity—being, you know, LGBT ourselves. But it really is a fine line. I recently went to a talk about this and Paris is Burning, which had a white filmmaker making queer black media. And my counterargument to that criticism is, would it would be better if Paris is Burning didn’t exist? It’s a really tough conversation to have, but we just thought that the story of Two Soft Things, Two Hard Things is a really strong story to tell. Our film belongs to the individuals in Iqaluit’s LGBT community. Our names are on the credits, but it’s their film—not ours.

Are there any plans to screen Two Soft Things, Two Hard Things in Iqaluit?

MY: Our goal is to get it back to Nunavut. We want the film to reach a larger audience, but we also want it to register for the community it’s about. For us, it’s really important to organize a screening in Nunavut so that they get the chance to see it. We’re also going to donate copies of the documentary to local high schools and colleges in Nunavut, so if anyone’s curious to investigate further it will be readily available for them.

These interviews have been edited together and condensed.

Two Soft Things, Two Hard Things premieres Friday, June 3 at the Inside Out Toronto LGBT Film Festival. The documentary will also be screened at the Santa Cruz Film Festival on June 5, the Frameline40: San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival on June 25, and the Queer North Film Festival in Sudbury, Ontario, on June 26. For more information on these and other screenings, visit Two Soft Things, Two Hard Things’ website.