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Playback’s 5 to Watch: Nyla Innuksuk

Slash/Back director, co-writer and producer Nyla Innuksuk has devoted her busy slate to projects that stay true to her roots.

It’s the calm before the storm for writer, director and producer Nyla Innuksuk. Speaking to Playback from a landline in Pangnirtung, Nunavut, Innuksuk is just a few weeks away from beginning production on her first feature, Slash/Back.

Described as an ’80s horror throwback, Slash/Back tells the story of four Inuit teenagers who find themselves fighting against alien invaders. A fan of horror since she was old enough to watch it, the concept for the film came to her eight years ago. The film’s producers include Scythia Films’ Daniel Bekerman, who says Innuksuk’s vision helped sell the film to producers and buyers. U.S. sales outfit Sierra/Affinity, a subsidiary of Entertainment One, has already picked up international rights.

“There’s a clarity to her ideas that’s hard to come by with any director,” says Bekerman, noting that the filmmaker understands how to balance “pragmatism and lofty artistry.”

Innuksuk, who is of Inuk descent, was born in Igoolik and raised in Iqaluit before she moved to Toronto to study film at Ryerson University. She steeped herself in the industry, learning under Indigenous-led prodco Big Soul Productions through the CMPA diversity mentorship program.

It was in 2015 that Innuksuk discovered a passion for VR filmmaking. She became involved in the online VR community and took part in group meetups in Toronto. In 2016, she joined a VR lab held by the Canadian Film Centre, NFB and FilmLab, welding cameras together to find new ways to make VR films. “Everyone was on the same playing field,” says Innuksuk. “No one was more of an expert than anyone else because it was so brand new.”

Her career was really just beginning to take off when a sudden health scare changed everything. It was serious enough that she was given the news she had a 50-50 chance at survival and, in May 2017, Innuksuk underwent a liver transplant. At the time, she was one year into development on Slash/Back. She had co-written the script with Ryan Cavan with plans to produce alongside Bekerman, Christopher Yurkovich and Alex Ordanis.

Following her recovery, Innuksuk decided that if she wanted to do her vision justice, she’d need to direct the film herself. “It’s about girls in Nunavut struggling with identity, shame and their Indigeneity,” she says. “I realized it didn’t make sense to pass [Slash/Back] to someone that’s not from the community.”

In fact, her illness served to put her entire career into perspective. More than ever, she knew she had to focus on passion projects and avoid overwork to keep her health in check. That meant dropping her growing workload and learning how to say ‘no’ to consulting jobs that she said were on the verge of “tokenism.” Instead she opted for projects where she could truly become part of the process.

Enter Jim Zub, a writer for Marvel Comics.

The two were introduced by a mutual friend. Zub was interested in creating a new Inuk superhero: Snowguard. Innuksuk consulted on the character’s creation, penning a story for the character’s annual in which the hero returned to her hometown, Pangnirtung. “Something we say is ‘not about us without us,’ Innuksuk says. “Consultations are fine, but true collaborations are what we should be striving for.”

Innuksuk’s connection to Pangnirtung, a small hamlet located on Nunavut’s Baffin Island, dates back to 2012. It’s where she shot her first short film, a documentary for the NFB’s Stories from Our Land series, that focused on the community’s dance traditions. Coming full circle to film Slash/Back there was only natural.

By 2018, Innuksuk had followed her second passion and launched her own VR company, Mixtape VR, which is also a coproducer on Slash/Back. The company is producing a VR exhibition on Indigenous shamanism to run at the Winnipeg Art Gallery in 2020, in partnership with the Glenn Gould Foundation, with a potential tour to follow.

She admits that the busy slate may look like she’s back to overworking herself, but the difference is that she’s busy creating her own vision, not anyone else’s.

This story originally appeared in Playback‘s Fall 2019 issue 

 Photo by Ksenia Stassiouk

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