In this interview, we speak with director Miranda de Pencier on The Grizzlies, her inspiring drama about finding “a way through”.
The protagonists of Miranda de Pencier’s inspiring true story are a group of Inuit students who live in Kugluktuk, a small Arctic town with one of the highest teen suicide rates in the world. Having to deal with traumatic experiences and extremely tough realities on a daily basis, it’s no wonder that these students are completely uninterested in engaging with any scholarly activities: they are struggling to stay afloat. It’s only when a young teacher from Toronto introduces them to the game of lacrosse that they are finally able to get involved in something and make some changes in their lives. Playing lacrosse doesn’t just teach them how to become a team: it enables them to connect as a community and ultimately gives them hope, courage and, most of all, something to believe in.
What’s truly impressive about The Grizzlies is that it tells its story in an unexpected, unconventional way. It’s not the kind of film that tries really hard to hit your emotional chords and make you cry with sentimental scenes. This true story is a surprisingly unpredictable, engaging, insightful drama that draws you into an unfamiliar world and immediately grabs your interest with well-developed characters, impressive acting and a fresh screenplay. It tells a story of loss, change and acceptance with genuine authenticity, it raises awareness on important cultural issues and it sends its message across in a raw, delicate, respectful way.
We interviewed director Miranda de Pencier at the Edinburgh Film Festival, where The Grizzlies had its European Premiere on 20 June. Here’s what she told us about her film, the themes it approaches, the communities it is about and how the project was developed for the screen.
The Grizzlies: how it all began
What made you want to tell this story and how did the project take shape?
Ten years ago I was sent an ESPN news piece – a 7 minute clip about the Kugluktuk Grizzlies. I was so inspired by these young kids in a small Arctic town. They were facing immense challenges and living with the highest suicide rate in North America, yet they were somehow overcoming their trauma through sport. I’ve always been inspired by underdog stories and I’ve always been a fan of sports dramas, so I was excited about the idea of getting involved in telling this true story right from the start.
The Grizzlies approaches important cultural issues in a very delicate and respectful way. How did you approach the locals whose stories you told?
When I first started working on developing this story for the screen, I thought I was making a sports drama – and originally I was producing, not directing. Ten years ago, not enough people in Canada were having conversations about the idea of reconciliation and decolonization. The more time I started spending up north in Inuit (Indigenous) communities and learning more about the culture and history, the more I realized there was no way we could make this film without partnering with Inuit producers and talent.
From the very beginning, the process of making the film was deeply collaborative through culture and acting workshops and working with Inuit producers Stacey Aglok MacDonald and Alethea Arnaquq-Baril. It was important to all of us to create opportunities for learning and mentorship for Indigenous cast and crew throughout the process. We ended up with 33% of our crew and 95% of our cast being Indigenous. We also built in a paid mentorship program to train Indigenous crew in every department during the making of the film.
The Community: selecting which stories to tell
Your film doesn’t just tell the story of Russ Sheppard, a coach who brings a sense of community in these kids by giving them an “outlet to get involved in something”. It’s certainly one of the stories you tell, but there’s more than that. You also showed us the very tough situations these kids had to face, most of which involved abusive relationships or realities that a “kid” shouldn’t have to endure.
How did you select the stories you told in your film, and how did you approach the kids whose stories you told?
There were many conversations about which characters to follow and which stories to tell. Both of the screenwriters, Graham Yost and Moira Walley-Beckett, are incredibly gifted writers and storytellers. They had access to the real stories of the kids and crafted storylines to ensure that we were telling a story, overall, that was specific but also universal and touched on the biggest variety of issues in the North.
Every person living in the Arctic is touched by issues of trauma because of the history of the residential school experience in Canada. Much like Indigenous peoples around the globe are facing similar challenges because of how their governments treated them, we’ve all got a long way to go towards reconciliation and how Indigenous peoples were treated and continue to be treated. The more we all learned and shared, the more we all (indigenous and non-indigenous cast and crew) bonded, and we understood how important it was to reflect the true Indigenous experience with honesty and respect.
Finding the actors: auditions and cultural workshops
Your film is important and insightful, but it’s also very moving. The quality of every single performance really helps making us connect with the kids on an emotional level, and all cast members did an excellent job. How did you find the right actors to play your “Grizzlies”?
We auditioned 600 kids all over the Arctic circle. We wanted to give an opportunity to every young person in the North to audition. From the 600 auditions, we flew 60 youth to the Eastern Arctic for a series of culture and acting workshops. It was important for Inuit teachers to teach Inuit youth about culture and art during the workshops, so the youth could take that knowledge back to their communities, whether or not they ended up acting in the film.
The focus of finding the cast became as much about building lasting and positive education as it was about finding young actors for all the roles. I’m so proud of the extraordinary performances from our young cast members – many of whom are on screens for the first time! I can’t wait for more of the world to see their extraordinary work in the film.
The Grizzlies‘ Message: celebrating resilience
The Grizzlies touches upon so many important issues. What is the main message you would like audiences to get from your film?
More than anything, I feel this film celebrates the resilience of Inuit youth in Canada and teaches us all how even in times of crisis there is always a way through.
The Grizzlies premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last year. Its European premiere happened at the Edinburgh Film Festival on 20th June, 2019, as part of the festival’s World Perspectives Strand. Follow The Grizzlies’ Facebook and Twitter pages to keep up-to-date on its future news.