Film and Cosmopolitics: An Interview with Mario Blaser

The November 2016 issue of Cultural Anthropology included the research article “Is Another Cosmopolitics Possible?”, by Mario Blaser, who is Associate Professor in the Department of Geography and Canada Research Chair in Aboriginal Studies at Memorial University Newfoundland. Blaser and a group of collaborators have worked to produce a film called “Atiku Napeu” about Innu survival during the time of the Canadian government’s caribou hunting ban. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of an interview that contributing editor Julia Sizek conducted with Blaser about the film and its relationship to his article.



Julia Sizek: Can you tell our readers a little bit about the origins of this film and how this particular project started?

Mario Blaser: The film came out of the conjunction of two initiatives that originally were independent from each other. As I mention in the article, our research group had been thinking about various interventions to tackle the problem of declining presence of atîku in the terms that had been defined by the elders. In other words, how could proper protocol and respect for atîku be bolstered among younger generations? One of the ideas was to make a documentary focusing on protocols and the mukushan ceremony that was to primarily target an audience of younger Innu. So my research collaborators—Damian Castro, who was a PhD student at the time, and Anthony Jenkinson, a member of the Innu-run nonprofit Tshikapisk—and I began to gather visual materials and to draft a script.

In parallel, Nikashant Antane (Alex Andrew), an intellectual, photographer, and writer from the community of Sheshatshiu, was also planning to do a documentary about the mukushan in the context of a book project on Innu history. In both cases the projects were moving very slowly, for a variety of reasons. In January 2013, when the ban on hunting was passed, the Innu Nation decided that they would not abide by it and quickly a community hunt was organized. Our associates invited us and Nikashant Antane to join the hunt in order to film the mukushan. I was not able to go at the time, but Damian did, and during the trip he struck an agreement with Nikashant Antane to work on a film together.

The final shape of the documentary was, to a large extent, shaped by events. We did not know this at the time of the hunt, but wildlife officers filmed and photographed the event and almost a year later charges were filed against hunters using this evidence. The case moved very slowly through the courts and our team heard several times that the charges would likely be dropped, but this was not the case. So, in 2015, when it became evident that hunters would be tried in court, Damian and Nikashant Antane decided that without losing the focus on the mukushan, the story of the documentary would be largely framed by the conflict over the hunting ban in an attempt to educate the wider public about the Innu’s position.

JS: The question of translation is evident early in the film, as most of the dialogue is in Innu-aimun and subtitled in English. In your article, you use the work of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro to critique the notion of translation as a “common ground.” Instead, you insist on the importance of translation as a means of maintaining difference in the translation process, as seen in this clip (13:34–15:30), which shows one of the ways in which Innu care for atîku. Both in your scholarly work and in the project of collaborating on the film, how were these issues of both linguistic and material-semiotic translation discussed?  

MB: Your question makes it clear for me the importance of stressing something that might be lost in the article and that I say at the end of it, namely, that “it is not a matter of either/or but of both/and.” When I put the spotlight on translation as controlled equivocation as a form of translation that works without the need for a common ground, I am not implying that there is never common ground or that it cannot be built. I am simply making evident that sustained relations are still possible even if that common ground is not there. Thus whether we can or should pursue a translation of one kind or another is largely dependent on the situation at hand. For me this is always a pragmatic question of what a given situation offers in term of performing different kinds of translations and what difference these various kinds of translation might make. In the interactions with the local wildlife managers, and given the situation we faced, there was no point in looking for an agreement between wildlife managers and Innu hunters based on the assumption that the thing at stake was a common ground. Rather than getting stuck on this impossibility, attending to difference enabled us to propose a possible way out of the impasse. Of course this might not always be the case and relations will fall apart and conflict ensue.

Now, with regard to the documentary, its approach to translation was very straightforward or standard, if you like. This is related to the purpose of the film, which was to educate the wider public about what the Innu meant when insisting that hunting was for them a way to show care and respect. The CBC commentator’s dismissal of Innu claims of caring for atîku made evident that, in relation to the general public, the situation was the reverse of the situation we had to tackle with the wildlife officers. With the wildlife officers, we needed to foreground that the thing at stake for the parties was not the same and that the conflict was escalating because of the government’s insistence that it indeed was (that atîku was caribou and had to be treated accordingly). We did not attempt to make the wildlife officers understand the point of view of the Innu; rather, we pointed out the futility of imposing their own definition of the problem and then suggested another possibility that would cater better, albeit not perfectly, to their concerns precisely because it also catered to Innu concerns. Although rooted in the same equivocation as that generated with wildlife officers (i.e., caribou = atîku), the problem with the notion of care was precisely that the difference was too striking.

In effect, the non-Innu public was saying, “if hunting caribou in the present circumstances is caring for it, then your version of caring means something so different from our version that it is not care at all.” Of course the caring was different, for there were different things being cared for! You do not care for your goldfish in the same way that you care for your guinea pig, but whatever the specific protocols you follow, in each case you are caring. For us, the situation thus demanded a kind of translation that would render caring for atîku somehow equivalent to caring for caribou, rather than stressing the difference. Our challenge was how to connect very different (for some, even opposed practices) to a common word, caring. Nikasant Antane and Damian Castro responded to this challenge by trying to build an affective equivalence between forms of caring that have different referents. In the film this is partly pursued through showing the painstakingly meticulous process of skinning, fleshing out the bones, and grinding them for the ceremony, as well as through the body language of Innu elders.

JS: There are only a few moments in the film when Canadian officials appear—perhaps, in the language of your article, as bearers of a reasonable politics. In this clip (19:49–22:50), one official appears to disregard the suddenness of the proclamation for Innu people, and instead declares that a dialogue will ensure the best possible outcome. His statement is juxtaposed with images of a helicopter that appears to be performing monitoring work, watching Innu people as they move toward an atîku. Can you comment on this scene in light of your discussion of reasonable politics and its asymmetries in the article?

MB: The Minister of Environment’s reference to dialogue (but also to the presence of wildlife officers) is very illustrative of how reasonable politics, as a space for controlled disagreement, is constituted through coercion. Notice how the minister expresses himself: first, he recognizes the “cultural importance” of the caribou hunt; then comes the but—“the herd is under tremendous pressure”—that marks the limit of reasonability; and finally comes the threat of what will happen if the Innu are not reasonable. The dialogue that the minister proposes is no dialogue at all; he is inviting the Innu to come and talk about caribou in a way that is already foreclosed to Innu concerns.

But notice that the space of reasonable politics is, to some degree, elastic; it can expand or contract depending on what, for ease of argument, we could call ideological positioning. This becomes evident if we consider the clever challenge that Shimeon Tshakapesh, chief of Natuashish, poses in the documentary to the idea of a reasonable dialogue. He says that the Innu will stop hunting if the province bans mining and industrial development on the land. The chief made this challenge with tongue in cheek, for he knew that this proposition was a no-go, but it did put on the spot and contested the government claim that the reasonable measure to be adopted in caring for caribou is a ban.

This connects back to the decisions made by the filmmakers to focus on care, rather than stressing the difference between caribou and atîku. There is already some discussion to be had about what caring means to the provincial government when it deems a ban on hunting reasonable but would not even consider for a moment to stop further industrial development that almost all caribou biologists agree is one of the main drivers of population decline. Here we can see how a developmentalist and pro-business ideology restricts reasonability to one policy option: the hunting ban.