The highly anticipated Inuit-focused film Restless River premiered October 12 at Montreal’s New Cinema Festival to a lively reception. “We had a lot of our cast in attendance,” said director Marie-Hélène Cousineau. “The public was great.”
Set in Kuujjuaq after the Second World War, the film follows Elsa (played by Malaya Qaunirq Chapman), a young Inuk woman whose life takes a sudden turn when she meets an American soldier, who rapes her. In shock from the loss of her innocence and the eventual birth of a son, Elsa navigates change while remaining as strong and steadfast as the great river that flows through town. As she comes across social norms introduced by colonizers and her rebellious son, Elsa ultimately finds peace in her life’s ever winding course.
Based on Gabrielle Roy’s 1970 novel, Windflower, the backdrop of the boreal forest and the Koksoak River serve as a guiding metaphor for Elsa, who often seeks refuge in the tundra as her life seemingly unfolds like the seasons before her.
Qaunirq Chapman read Windflower to better understand Elsa as a character, but in turn discovered how deeply their lives differed. “She doesn’t just let things happen to her, she takes charge,” Qaunirq Chapman said. “Being who I am now, I’m grateful to have a choice, that I have control over situations in my personal life. Elsa and I are very different people.”
In the film, Elsa’s son Jimmy is the result of a rape. Qaunirq Chapman, who now lives in Kuujjuaq, remarked on how many people she knows who are the result of sexual assault either by RCMP officers, priests and, in some cases, soldiers. “Playing the character of Elsa,” said Qaunirq Chapman, “I really thought about how that must have been.”
Cousineau credited Kuujjuaq community members for their part in the making of the film. For instance, all costumes were made by local craftspeople, and her relationships with community leaders, mayors and Elders helped kick-start the filmmaking process.
“We’re always trying to involve as many people as we can from the community so that they can own the experience and the results,” said Cousineau.
Cousineau is no stranger to the North. She founded the women’s film collective Arnait Video Productions when she moved to Igloolik in 1990, as well as the first artist-run video and film centre in the Canadian Arctic, Tarriaksuk Video Centre. Restless River is the latest in a series of films conceived by her production team.
“For the Northern people, I hope that they feel comfortable with the portrayal they see on the screen, that it’s touching and respecting who they are,” said Cousineau.
The film will screen in Kuujjuaq November 7 and in Iqaluit later that month. “I’m excited,” laughed Qaunirq Chapman. “My family is in Iqaluit and they’re always supportive of whatever I do.”
Restless River compliments Cousineau’s recent films Uvanga and Before Tomorrow, since it depicts the very beginnings of the settler mentality in the North. “It was an important time period, colonization became more aggressive,” noted Cousineau.
Cousineau hopes audiences leave the theatre with a broader perspective of life up North. “Every film is like a human experience,” she observed. “You’re traveling with the film. You’re experiencing the culture that’s portrayed in the film.”
Qaunirq Chapman’s recommendation for young Indigenous actors is to keep self-doubt at bay. Not unlike Elsa, a young actor must believe what they’re doing is the right thing and be steadfast in their choice.
“If you’re bad at something at first, you will get better at it,” she said. “If you really want to do it, if this is your calling, follow that little message in your heart. Just don’t give up.”