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Living With Giants: The Filmmaker Interview

This week Hot Docs Jots is joined by the three person team behind the stark and beautiful Living With Giants, a portrait of an Inuk teenager named Paulusie who yearns for his independence while faltering along the way. We speak to co-directors  Aude Leroux-Lévesque and Sébastien Rist and producer Jean-Simon Chartier about their experience being entrenched in a tumultuous narrative while trying to tell a coming-of-age story.  

Hot Docs: I want to start by asking about your storytelling decisions, because tragic events happen in the film that your team never foresaw. Was it important to honour the story you initially intended to tell or did you consciously decide to shift because of what happened?

Aude Leroux-Lévesque: It’s interesting because the text we first wrote for the film was about how Paulusie is such a special person: He is so positive and we wanted to get into his mind and dreams and poetry, and get away from the stereotypes of what we hear about the Inuit, and I think those elements stick. Of course we couldn’t, and didn’t want to, wash over the realities we saw, like alcohol and suicide, but a positive image of Paulusie and his community came more into the foreground than we had imagined after these events happened.

HD: Was it difficult to maintain the pacing and the experimental style you imagined? It’s a very quiet, intimate film and the white landscape and open space help to inform the pacing, regardless of a plot that may not seem conducive to this style.

AL-L: It didn`t seem forced; the way of life out there, the way people communicate, that’s what really helped us shape the style. 

Sébastien Rist: The fantastical and magical elements of the film came from Paulusie himself. He wrote, he kept a journal, and was heavily influenced by legend and myth, that’s just the way he was and that element made everything more rich and complex.

HD: You’re present as two young people are navigating through adolescent intimacy. What they’re doing is so innocuous, but that almost makes it more engrossing. Why are these moments integral to Paulusie’s story? And personally, what is it like to be present during these moments?

SR: This isn’t the first documentary we’ve done about teenage stories. I don’t know what brings us to that, but we have this inclination to be interested in that part of life. Before filming, we knew that Paulusie was going to have to face a lot of adult responsibilities: his adoptive parents were elderly and he was taking care of them, and he was looking for his first relationship with a girl. We were close, we trusted him and he trusted us. He let us get to the intimacy and see things you never see. But yes, they also just lie in bed and go on Facebook.

AL-L: The fact that Sebastian and I are a couple may help. I think it puts people at ease because we have to make our personal lives available to them, maybe it makes people want to talk about personal stuff, I don’t know.

Jean-Simon Chartier: From my perspective, the reason why I got involved in this project at first, was the kind of involvement I felt from both Sébastien and Aude together as filmmakers, you feel that there’s something special there. Paulusie and his family had to feel that, I think this true involvement with the people in this film and in their relationships makes the film stronger.

HD: Nikuusi (Nik), Paulusie’s girlfriend, seems so natural in front of the camera. She says really profound things so quietly and easily; they just kind of knock you back. What was it like to have her as a subject?

SR: I knew Paulusie a good two and a half years before I met Nik, she showed up one day and I asked if I could film the both of them. I called Aude that night and just said “Nik is a natural.” 

AL-L: I don’t know how to explain it. Things had happened in her life before, so she learned how to deal with emotions and learned how to express them, which is a great thing because too often people don’t and can’t express themselves. We spent so much time together, she trusted that she could say anything and we would never put anything in the film she wasn’t comfortable with. The last time we filmed her was this October when she went back to school.

We wanted to prepare her for seeing the film, it was going to be hard and I asked her, “How is it going to be watching this film for an hour and a half,” and she said something wise: “I know it’s going to be hard, but I also know that 10 years from now I’m going to be very happy to have that.”

SR: After tragic events happened we just wanted to get up there again to be with people. We weren’t thinking about what we were shooting, how we were shooting, but she was the one who said, “Bring your camera, let’s continue this.” She has a great sense of maturity and wisdom that we admire. That’s why we love her, she’s so strong. She also said “I’m fine with myself, why would people judge me if I’m fine with myself.” There was nothing she ever hid from the camera.


HD: Do you have a plan for how you’re going to share the film with other Inuit and Aboriginal communities?

SR: There’s one organization we’re working with. We definitely have to get it out there. We want to screen in the north and in northern Quebec. We’re in talks with those who can help us; it’s just a question of time.

HD: What was your experience of being at the Hot Docs Forum in 2015 like, and how you prepared for that?

AL-L: The Forum was so amazing. We had pitched a couple months before at RIDM, so we only had one previous experience pitching in public, and the film had changed between that first pitch and the Forum. We sat as a team, the three of us, and wrote what we thought were the most importance elements to mention in front of all these people, and wrote again and again and again, to communicate what the story really was. It was the first Forum for all of us, but that day we were really excited to be there and very appreciative of the opportunity. We also did a practice pitch the day before with a few experts. That helped us a lot. That was most critical for me, the practice pitch.

SR: We were obviously nervous, but good nervous. Frederick Wiseman was pitching right before us but we were like, “Let’s go, this is our story, this is our film.” We knew our pitch, and we were very happy with it.

HD: What happened after the pitch? Who is providing support?

J-SC: The confirmation of financing from documentary Channel was key to bring us to the table. Everyone who said something positive about the project has been followed up with; so hopefully at some point in the following weeks we will hear more. It’s going to be the same film, the film we want, whether we have the money to finish it or not."

SR: We had our last shoot in October and then a rough cut a couple of months ago, so we’re just getting it out there. We also got other grants following the pitch: the Rogers Cable Network Fund, Conseil des art de Quebec came in for production, and of course we had the Shaw Media-Hot Docs Funds completion grant. So in terms of the financial structure we’re fairly happy with where we are right now. Hot Docs has been integral to our production from the beginning. We got constant support, professional support but also moral support.

HD: What did this experience teach you about storytelling?

SR: For me it was patience. We met Paulusie in 2011 and right away our link was special, but in order to do this properly I knew it would time, we let the story evolve and let time pass naturally. I think that is what really makes the film what it is. So I think for me the key word would be “patience.”

AL-L: I learned how to trust our ideas but also to be very honest about them. It can be difficult to express something so complex in a visual way, like integrating myth and legend when you’re just filming people doing regular stuff. So I think I really learned the importance of a human approach, versus a filmmaker approach, when interacting with people who are in front of us.

HD: When can we see the film?

AL-L: We’ve already begun submitting to festivals and hope to hear back soon.


Interview conducted by Madelaine Russo.

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