*Trigger warning: this article contains references to suicide.
Canadian film The Grizzlies first premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival and quickly went on to win widespread praise, and a fair few awards.
Directed by Miranda de Pencier, the moving film — which has finally made its way to Australia — tells the true story of the Inuit high schoolers of Kugluktuk, a remote arctic town that boasted the grim distinction of having the highest teen suicide rate in North America, and how a youth lacrosse team transformed their lives.
Almost every character in the film is based on a real person and the casting process saw more than 600 youth in over 25 communities across Nunavut and the Northwest Territories audition for roles. One of those Indigenous youths was newcomer Anna Lambe, who received a Canadian Screen Award nomination for her portrayal of one of the teenagers, Spring.
Speaking to The Latch about taking on the responsibility of performing in a film that deals with real people and real, intergenerational trauma, Lambe said, “There was a lot of pressure telling such an impactful and heavy story, especially knowing that, though this story is based off The Kugluktuk Grizzlies, it portrays lived experience that a lot of us Nunavummiut have faced at one point or another.”
She continued, “Suicide, food insecurity and violence are not overexaggerated in this film. But, many of the experiences in The Grizzlies are so personal, and the pressure was surpassed by the responsibility and the passion to tell an all too common story in Nunavut. Many of our performances were out of love for our community, to share their stories, and that truly shines through in our characters.”
While the film does indeed delve into an intense and deeply heartbreaking story, it’s one with an inspiring outcome, given that the introduction, and continuation, of the lacrosse team, helped bring the teen suicide rate in Kugluktuk down to zero.
The person responsible for forming the Grizzlies team was teacher Russ Sheppard (portrayed in the film by Ben Schnetzer) who was on hand to help the actors learn lacrosse for the film. Sheppard was just one of the real-life characters Lambe interacted with during and after shooting, with the meetings making a lasting impact on the actress.
“It was an honour to meet them, to hear their stories about how they were able to empower their own community and inspire other communities not just in Nunavut but across Canada and internationally,” said Lambe. “The main takeaway I had from these encounters was that Inuit are so, so powerful, so smart, so creative, so adaptable, and there are Inuit all over Nunavut in communities doing amazing things. I am so grateful to have met them – they inspire me greatly to this day.”
For Lambe, who never imagined that being an actress was even a possibility for her as an Inuk woman, The Grizzlies was the perfect entry point into the world of filmmaking.
“I had never dreamed about being an actor or actively pursued acting in any way, and I had no idea what the film industry would be like aside from how Hollywood is portrayed in films,” Lambe recalled.
“Entering this film was weird, but I think it was the perfect step into acting. Because we filmed in Iqaluit and Iqaluit does not have studios, things were always shot on location, it was not super glamorous, but there was a lot of love shared and a lot of support amongst one another.”
While Lambe has continued her acting career and now stars in the CBC series Trickster, she is passionate about seeing more diverse casting in films and television series, and more opportunities for performers like her to have a platform.
“I want to see more Indigenous folks in this industry!” Lambe said. “I definitely see a shift happening in mainstream media that is Indigenous peoples taking up space and telling their stories, whether or not mainstream media wants to hear it.”
She continued, “It is so powerful to see this shift happening, to see people saying ‘I don’t want a seat at the table, I want to flip the damn table because it has actively denied my people’s stories for so long’ and going forward telling their stories in ways they want to see them: not whitewashed, not censored, but authentically Indigenous.”
Lambe asserts that everyone will find something to relate to in her debut film and urges Australian audiences to see it saying, “Though The Grizzlies is a story about Inuit in the arctic, the hardship, strength, and resilience is something that many can relate to and feel empowered by. It is emotional, heartbreaking, and frustrating, but it is also beautiful, empowering, and a powerful example of community.”
For this young actress, The Grizzlies may have been her first film, but the experience of making it will likely stay with her forever.
“I still look back fondly on my experience filming The Grizzlies, as it was an empowering thing to be a part of, and I am so proud to have been a part of telling the story,” Lambe said. “It wasn’t Hollywood — it was Grizzlies, and that is what I love so much.”
The Grizzlies is now showing in select Hoyts cinemas. Purchase tickets, here.
If you or anyone you know is struggling and needs support, call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or Lifeline on 13 11 14, both of which provide trained counsellors you can talk with 24/7. You can also speak with someone confidentially at Headspace by calling 1800 650 890 or chat online here. If you are in immediate danger, call 000.