A new children’s film is about an unlikely friendship between two girls – one a Syrian refugee, the other an Inuk living thousands of kilometres to the north. Their meeting is possible thanks to an enchanted portal, with one end in a Montreal alley and the other in a cabin near Igloolik, Nunavut.
Using magic and Inuit legend, Tia and Piujuq tells a story about how friendship can create possibilities and hope in our lives.
“I found it important for my generation and younger generations to continue to hear these legends that I’ve heard since I was a kid,” director Lucy Tulugarjukt old the Nation.
Tia – played by Tia Bshara – is a 10-year-old Syrian girl who recently came to Montreal with her mother and father. Tia and Piujuq is set during Tia’s long, quiet summer vacation from school.
The other children in Tia’s neighbourhood either ignore her or laugh at her. Her family is preoccupied – her mother is pregnant and worried about relatives back home. The stressed adults often watch news from Syria but hide the violence from Tia, who still has nightmares about the war. Restless and lonesome, Tia spends most of the lush Montreal summer drawing and daydreaming behind the neighbourhood grocery store where she helps out.
When a nurse gives Tia a copy of My Name Is Arnaktauyok: The Life and Art of Germaine Arnaktauyok, Tia is captivated. She muses that she’d like to visit snowy mountains in the north.
Soon after, Tia finds herself drawn to a shed behind the grocery store. When she enters, she teleports 2700 kilometres to the north. Her discovery makes Tia an adventurer – curious and brave, she returns day after day, exploring and drawing the tundra.
Tulugarjuk wanted Tia’s visit to Igloolik to give the character a sense of healing, peacefulness and possibility – “for her to see that this world can be full of magic,” the filmmaker said.
When Tia first meets Piujuq – a girl of the same age, who lives with her grandmother – the two are instantly warm and open with one another. Piujuq is played by Nuvvija Tulugarjuk, the director’s daughter. As the only child in the camp, Piujuq is also lonely and accepts Tia’s presence with no trace of disbelief.
Piujuq’s grandmother – played by Madeline Ivalu – has shared Inuit myths and stories about the supernatural world with Piujuq throughout her life. “When this mysterious girl comes in, they accept the person as she is,” Tulugarjuk said.
The girls’ friendship reflects how easily children can connect regardless of their ethnicity, Tulugarjuk observed.
“In two days, we became really good friends,” Nuvvija said of her real-life relationship with Bshara.
The idea behind Tia and Piujuq started with Nuvvija. She and her mother were in Germany promoting the 2013 film Maïna, in which they both acted. When an audience member asked Nuvvija about her hopes for the future, she answered that she wanted to play a “supergirl,” Tulugarjuk remembered. The idea for a children’s film about a girl with supernatural powers was born.
To act in Tia and Piujuq, Nuvvija had to improve her Inuktitut. “I was trying to find a way to encourage my daughter to speak more Inuktitut, and through the script I was able to do that,” Tulugarjuk said.
Bshara’s family arrived in Quebec as refugees from Syria six months before she was cast in the film. She learned English, French and a little bit of Inuktitut in order to participate. “Her energy, her enthusiasm and her confidence” were among the reasons Tulugarjuk chose to cast Bshara as Tia in spite of the language barriers.
“Within two months she was able to communicate with me without an interpreter,” Tulugarjuk noted.
Ghaiss Gharibet, who plays Tia’s father Samir, is a long-time television and theatre professional who moved to Montreal from Syria 13 years ago. He accompanied Bshara when she travelled to Igloolik to film, staying in the community for about two weeks.
“This is the story of the people who own this land and the people who are coming, who are new. It’s very important to have this relation,” Gharibet said.
“I think this film leads that doorway to open up for more connections with Indigenous people and Syrian people, or any person,” Tulugarjuk said.