Champions of the North demonstrates the far-reaching power of the game

The first thing you need to know about the daughters, mothers and grandmothers on the legendary Uluit women's hockey team in Nunavik is they don't like to lose.
Champions of the North

The first thing you need to know about the daughters, mothers and grandmothers on the legendary Uluit women’s hockey team in Nunavik is they don’t like to lose.

Indie filmmaker Ari A. Cohen knows this because, while shooting the fifth and last episode for his five-part APTN documentary series The Uluit: Champions of the North, a rival team that didn’t show for a tournament match left the Inuit women players in a funk.

“They didn’t get on the ice. The Uluit won by forfeiture, but they were upset. They spent money and they wanted to play the other team and beat them on the ice, or lose and play,” Cohen told Playback Daily.

Here the character-driven doc about an all-female hockey team on a mission to win the 2010 Great Whale Hockey Cup marks new-found territory for Canadian TV as it manages to show the Inuit much like Canadians in hockey rinks coast to coast to coast.

Sure, there’s traditional throat-singing in the dressing room pre-game, and the Uluit team members speak Inuktituk to one another.

But the women also bond by playing a sport that impacts people and builds relationships and a community.

“They’re very much like us. They have the same interests and want good things for their family. They love to joke around, and I think I got along with them,” Cohen recalls.

To be certain, the doc series does not come near to the pulse-racing, bone-crunching intensity of the Montreal Canadiens that the Inuit hockey players worship and watch as loyal fans.

At the same time, the APTN doc series is less about hockey playoffs, tryouts and coaching than about human perseverance in Canada’s deepest and darkest north.

Consider: the Inuit not long ago lived in igloos and tents and lived off the land.

So Cohen captures the womens’ lives in new homes, and in their second home, the community ice rink.

“That’s the story of this project, of grandmothers and mothers and daughters and sisters and friends who come together to play hockey and make up a community,” he said.

Cohen traveled to Inukjuak four times over a one-year period to shoot the documentary.

To dispel skepticism about the media and get close to the Uluit team members, Cohen teamed up with Arnait Video Productions, the women’s film collective in Nunavut best known for Before Tomorrow, the Inuktitut-language movie that snagged the best Canadian first feature trophy at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival.

“They show the Inuit in a way that is not just about the issues and challenges they deal with, but also the positive things they have in their lives,” Cohen explained.

Film intimacy was built in part by giving individual team members their own cameras: “We wanted to make them part of the (film-making) team. We were looking for a collaboration,” he added.

Here Cohen succeeded in capturing an Inuit culture steeped in tradition, and yet grappling with modernity as team members face life off the ice as workaday teachers, midwives, students and social workers.

The indie doc at times captures an embattled community that faces isolation, unemployment, high food prices, substance abuse and housing shortages.

And there’s tragedy, including a young girl who dies during a fire after drinking, and another young woman who faces a spell in a Montreal jail for assaulting another woman.

One team member, Deseray Cumberbatch, who plays defense and was an Olympic torchbearer for Nunavik, in the film explains hockey is her way to keep troubles at bay.

“When I’m on the ice, there’s nothing in my mind. When there’s negative thoughts in my head, they come out when I play hockey,” she explained.

Besides the APTN broadcast, Cohen is combining the documentary’s five episodes into a theatrical feature edit for the festival circuit, and a one-hour TV episode for international broadcast distribution.

“Every country has an aboriginal community, and here we have one trying to live a healthy lifestyle through sport,” the director said of his project’s international sales potential.

The Uluit: Champions of the North was produced by Cohen, Marie Helene Cousineau and executive produced by Susan Avingaq and Madeline Ivalu.

Financing for the doc came from APTN, the Canada Media Fund, the Rogers Documentary Fund, Rogers Cable Fund and Quebec and federal Canadian tax credits.