Examining White People

Qallunaat! Why White People Are Funny by Mark Sandiford, National Film Board of Canada

 I just watched a great film, Qallunaat! Why White People are Funny, an anthropological study of White people featuring the Inuit writer Zebedee Nungak. He begins:

We Inuit are deeply fascinated by Qallunaat and their ways. The word “Qallunaat” is used universally by Inuit to describe White people. But it doesn’t refer so much to skin color, as a state of mind, a culture that has reached all corners of the whole planet, including the Inuit homeland. Qallunaat ought to be some subject of study by other cultures… When I thought about that, immediately came to mind the academics, people who work at universities, anthropologists who’ve done that studying Inuit ways. And one day it just sorta clicked. Why don’t we examine them? (1:24-2:20)

The film–half documentary, half satire–explores the 20th century cultural exchange between the Inuit and the European-Americans from an Inuit point of view. Serious, academic discourse is punctuated by scenes like the one where an Inuit comedian does his impression of a White government official for several Inuit seniors (7:00-9:50). The English speaking viewer may have no idea what he’s saying, but should at least appreciate how much the comedian’s antics resonate with the people in the room.

zebedee nungak375Perhaps the most interesting moment of the film for me was the last interaction between Nungak and the filmmakers, who ask “what’s the best thing that’s happened as a result of the Qallunaat coming up here?” (48:30-48:34). This question is certainly worth some academic analysis, perhaps by anthropologists who are neither Inuit nor European. In the context of the film, however, Nungak has just finished describing the purposeful, ongoing destruction of an entire society by the Qallunaat. Nungak initially responds as though he is genuinely trying to think of something, anything good that might have come from Western civilization’s conquest of the Arctic. Next, still silent, Nungak begins to roll his eyes and shrug his shoulders, as though he has just been asked ‘what is the best thing that’s happened as a result of the time that person came and murdered your entire family?’ Finally, Nungak breaks into laughter and motions for them to cut the tape, dismissing in one motion the absurdity of much Western anthropological discourse.

Fritz Tucker–Zeteo Contributor

One comment

  1. John K Leslie

    During the 50s and 60s I worked on the Distant Early Warning Line,stationed mainly near Tuktoyaktuk/Atkinson Point. I often wondered what Inuit thought of Whites. Of course, they were too polite to express their feelings. This NFB documentary/commentary gave me the answer, although in a moderate way. The descriptions of White people were hilarious, not to mention truthful. What did we bring to the Inuit, other than disease, a weak culture, a mystery religion, alcohol and junk food? Add to that – racism, broken promises and interference in culture. And we have never apologized. Shame on us!


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