The fight for animal rights has always been a near-impossible battle, but groups like Greenpeace, PETA, and The Humane Society can claim at least one unequivocal victory: global condemnation of seal hunting. With the help of celebrity activists and the proliferation of horrific images — seal pups getting bludgeoned to death — activist groups brought awareness to specific acts of animal cruelty carried out for commercial gain, and in doing so created a positive change: in 1983, the European Union banned the importation of certain types of sealskin. The negative reputation around seal hunting and further restrictions from countries around the world have all but collapsed the industry, and now, over three decades after the EU’s initial ban, Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s Angry Inuk brings awareness to the long-term consequences of anti-sealing protests on the Inuit community, who rely on the practice as a source of income and sustainability.
Arnaquq-Baril has an undoubtedly difficult challenge on her hands: convincing viewers that slaughtering seals is, in fact, a good thing. It’s a challenge she doesn’t seem to have the nerve to properly address in the documentary’s opening sections, which follow a group of hunters in the Canadian Arctic as they slaughter a seal, skin it, bring it back home and dine on the meat with their extended family. The sight of a hunter eating a seal’s raw brains will surely disturb more sensitive viewers, but Arnaquq-Baril has no intention to provoke with these moments. Instead, she’s giving insight into her own culture, in her small town of Kimmirut, for whom eating seal meat is common. Later on, one of the film’s subjects shows off a photo of two young children grinning ear to ear while covered in seal’s blood, and points out that in any other culture people would be horrified by the picture; for this community, it’s nothing more than a cute image.
But highlighting the differences between cultures won’t go a long way to changing people’s minds when they see people feasting on chopped up animal parts, and when Arnaquq-Baril takes this approach there’s a faint whiff of condescension that threatens to make Angry Inuk a project whose personal slant makes it easy to dismiss. “At some point in my childhood, I realized there are some people out there who don’t like seal hunting” Arnaquq-Baril narrates, making sure to raise her tone on the words “don’t like” to feign a sense of shock that others wouldn’t take kindly to the Inuit tradition. At the family gathering after the seal hunt, she hones in on a middle-aged man casually browsing Facebook, and the moment comes off as Arnaquq-Baril trying to say that Inuit people are just like everyone else. But making this point also means assuming a level of ignorance on the audience’s part that’s more akin to the films of Michael Moore, and it doesn’t do anything to help address the bigger issues people have with the violence and cruelty of sealing.
Angry Inuk carries on like this for about half of its runtime, providing a primer on the seal hunting debate before bringing up more convincing arguments. While animal rights groups insist they are only against commercial seal hunting – the aforementioned EU ban has an exemption for the Inuit – they conveniently ignore the fact that selling sealskins is a main source of income for these communities, and restricting commercial trade means there’s no more money in sealskins. This, in turn, leads to searching for other sources of income, like letting mining and oil companies access the land and arguably causing more damage to the environment and wildlife than seal hunting ever could. This appeal, a more pragmatic and logical one, is far more effective than the emotional appeals in the first third, and it’s especially strong in the way it turns things back around to the activists themselves. It doesn’t come as a surprise that, despite plenty of attempts to interview someone from an animal rights group, no one from the other side of the debate bothers to step in front of the camera.
It’s only when Arnaquq-Baril aims her lens at others that Angry Inuk shows a potency in trying to turn the tide against the perception surrounding sealing, and that issue of branding is one the film is well aware of (at one point she spends several minutes describing her attempts to make the topic go viral on social media, a sequence that’s about as invigorating as that description). When the focus stays within Arnaquq-Baril’s small town in Nunavut, the film’s arguments come from an emotional viewpoint that feels inert as an effective tool, since not many things can stand up to the image of a white seal pup being clubbed to death. But Arnaquq-Baril understands the difficulty in trying to sway opinions over to her side, and as frustrating as some of her attempts may be, Angry Inuk is, at the very least, a small step forward in acknowledging the complexity of an issue that’s long been portrayed as black and white.