In 1988 Kunuk started, with New York-born Norman Cohn and monolingual Inuktitut-speaker Pauloosie Qulitalik, an independent production company called Igloolik Isuma Productions, based in Igloolik, Nunavut.
Zacharias Kunuk, "Zack or Sak," video maker, sculptor (b at Kaupivik, Nunavut 27 Nov 1957). An internationally acclaimed media maker, Kunuk has played a crucial role in the redefinition of ethnographic filmmaking in Canada and has been at the forefront of the Inuit's innovative use of broadcast technology. After building a reputation as a soapstone carver (his work is in the Canadian Museum of History, formerly the Canadian Museum of Civilization), he turned to video in the early 1980s when he bought a small-format camera during a trip to an Inuit art gallery in Montréal. He worked as an independent video maker in Igloolik, going on to become senior producer and station manager for the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation's (IBC) Iglooik station. He left after 7 years and became a staunch critic of the IBC, complaining that too much authority is vested in southern bureaucrats.
In 1988 Kunuk started, with New York-born Norman Cohn and monolingual Inuktitut-speaker Pauloosie Qulitalik, an independent production company called Igloolik Isuma Productions, based in Igloolik, Nunavut. IBC veteran Paul Apak Angilirq joined the group a bit later, and died of cancer in December 1998. Igloolik Isuma has produced widely acclaimed videos such as Qaggiq (Gathering Place, 1989) and Saputi (Fish Traps, 1993), detailed recreations of traditional life using local people of the Igloolik region as actors and shot in a style that melds documentary and fiction. With Igloolik Isuma, Kunuk also made the series Nunavut (13 30-minute episodes, 1993-95), produced in a similar docu-fictional style and also detailing various aspects of traditional life. These productions are completely in Inuktitut and all are set in the 1930s or 1940s, although southern audiences have sometimes failed to notice the titles announcing the date and have incorrectly concluded that this is how most Inuit still live. Kunuk's preference for making videos about Nunavut's past rather than its present might be understood as sentimental and nostalgic, but there is a distinctively activist character to his work. His videos are an attempt to intervene in the cultural crisis of the post-war Inuit. They are a means of staving off further collective memory loss by mixing modern technology with traditional, orally transmitted narrative history.
In 1998 Kunuk began work on Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, billing it as "the first feature-length fiction film written, acted, produced and directed by Inuit in the Inuktitut language." An exciting action thriller set in ancient Igloolik, the film unfolds as a life-threatening struggle of love, jealousy, murder and revenge between powerful natural and supernatural characters. Its production was plagued with funding and logistical problems, but was completed in 2000. The film was acclaimed at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival and won the Golden Camera (first-time director) award for Kunuk. This is the first time that a Canadian has won the coveted award.
Despite Kunuk's initial difficulties acquiring a domestic distribution deal in Canada, Atanarjuat went on to become the second-highest-grossing Canadian film of 2002 and won 5 Genie Awards including best feature, best director, best screenplay, best editing and best original score. Kunuk was additionally honoured with the Claude Jutra Award for noteworthy direction of a first feature film.
Igloolik Isuma Productions has collaborated with 2 workshops, Arnait Video Productions/Women's Video Workshop of Igloolik and Tarriaksuk Video Centre, both of which train local people in basic video production so that they can make media works about their everyday lives. It was this leadership in developing and encouraging the Inuits' unique storytelling style that led to Kunuk's induction as an officer into the Order of Canada in 2002.
Kunuk has continued his work in the short subject documentary with internationally exhibited works such as Angakkuiit (Shaman Stories, 2003) and Kiviaq Versus Canada (broadcast nationally in 2006). He completed a second feature film, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (2006), with longtime collaborator Norman Cohn. A Canadian-Danish co-production, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen is set in the Arctic in 1912 during a weather-induced famine. It is purportedly based on actual events described in the journals of the Greenlandic cultural anthropologist referred to in its title. The film is a lament on the beginnings of the devastating effect of European influence on Inuit culture (and shamanism, specifically) just a few decades before government settlements became the dominant way of life. The Journals of Knud Rasmussen received tremendous acclaim within the international film festival circuit after its world premier at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival.
In 2008 Igloolik Isuma Productions completed a third feature, Before Tomorrow, directed by Marie-Helene Cousineau and Madeline Ivalu, with Cohn and Kunuk as executive producers.
He has shot dozens of videos (available for download from Isuma Productions, an online broadcast service co-founded by Kunuk) ranging from relatively straightforward interviews with community elders to cellphone movies documenting Inuit traditions still practised in contemporary Igloolik. He has worked tirelessly to ensure that the multimedia reception and production equipment used by Inuit video artists and the general public remain up-to-date and that media companies specifically within the Igloolik region remain among the most video-literate in the Western world.