A Conversation w/ Mark Kenneth Woods
The following email conversation took place in October 2016, upon the acquisition of Two Soft Things, Two Hard Things (2016) directed by Mark Kenneth Woods for active Video Out distribution. The interview was conducted by Matthew Ballantyne for a University of British Columbia undergraduate co-op placement with VIVO Media Arts Centre.
MB: Matthew Ballantyne
MKW: Mark Kenneth Woods
MB: What were some of your earliest influences in film?
MKW: This is going to sound totally strange given the documentary topic but John Waters! My work is very varied and I’ve had a really unique artistic journey thus far. I started making video art and TV that was largely influenced by the feminist, queer and post-colonial theory I was studying at the time but I’ve also always loved camp and comedy so I often integrate that theory into camp/comedy genres. I think John Waters does this, albeit perhaps sometimes unknowingly. His films also appealed to me in my earlier days because his heroes were always unlikely. They were on the fringe, the unrepresented, the anti-hero and I could relate to that. Even though “Two Soft Things, Two Hard Things” clearly isn’t campy, it’s still about a hugely underrepresented group of unlikely heroes and I think that is something that is present in all my work.
MB: How did you go about casting for a project such as Two Soft Things, Two Hard Things?
MKW: Casting is always strange to consider when dealing with a documentary. Particularly since my co-director Michael Yerxa and I didn’t have the budgetary luxury of being able to fly to Iqaluit beforehand to pre-interview and meet people. We did a lot of research in the initial stages and then just started reaching out to the organizers of pride in Iqaluit, politicians and some other locals. The response was mostly positive and many people had suggestions for us and offered other contacts. In fact, a lot of “the casting” happened rather organically during filming as we got to know people. I think we built mutual trust very quickly and authentically and that made all the difference. We really forged a lot of relationships that have continued long after the doc was complete and, of course, getting locals involved was imperative, particularly since these are their stories and we are outsiders.
MB: Were any of the subjects reluctant to open up to you? Did you face any skepticism or misunderstandings while filming?
MKW: Absolutely. Several potential subjects, after some thought, canceled and yet others we didn’t expect to interview came forward after hearing about our presence simply through word of mouth. It’s pretty easy to understand why people are initially and rightfully suspicious of two outsider’s intentions and we knew that was going to be a challenge for us. Again, it’s about trust in both us as outside filmmakers but also in the subject matter. Even with trust, the subject is still very much taboo and coming forward can put people at risk in their community. In the end, we ended up with a really well-rounded group of subjects and we are really grateful that they shared their stories with us.
MB: What drew you to the far north in particular? Had you ever visited before making the film?
MKW: We as Southern Canadians know very little about Nunavut and it’s quite a humbling experience to learn about the colonial history of the north. Growing up in our schools, we are taught very little about the Eastern Arctic or Inuit and, quite frankly, both of us were embarrassed about how little we knew. But we’re both passionate about LGBTQ2 issues and I’ve been exploring LGBTQ2 and intersecting issues in my work for 15 years so we were extremely intrigued about how the concept of pride would play out locally. Neither of us had ever been to the far north so we saw this as a perfect opportunity for learning, growth and documenting one of the most unique pride celebrations on earth.
MB: When you begin a project, do you have an idea in your head of a narrative direction, or do you allow chance or surprise to take over?
MKW: I’m a planner so, whether it’s a script or a documentary, I always do as much writing and research as possible. What makes documentary exciting, however, is that things rarely go according to plan and the process is always full of surprises. I think a mix of both is necessary, particular for the subject matter in “Two Soft Things…”. It would have been really insulting, insensitive and colonial to go up north without understanding all the history and issues ahead of time but that’s what many filmmakers going to the north have done in the past. We also wouldn’t have been able to forge relationships and ask the questions we did had we just left everything to chance. Yet we also have to be open to a variety of opinions and possibilities as events play out.
MB: Who do you imagine your audience for the film to be?
MKW: We knew the film might reach a mix of Nunavummiut, southern Canadians and also play Internationally so structuring the film was a bit of a challenge. Ultimately, I think anyone can watch the film and gain some perspective. Whether that be southern Canadians who don’t know much about the northern part of our country, Inuit whom don’t understand LGBTQ2 issues or colonized people in different parts of the world, I think the film offers a lot of empathy and numerous ways to relate and grow.
MB: When you heard about the translations that ended up being the title of the film, did you know right away that you’d found a title?
MKW: Surprisingly no! We had such limited time (it’s soooo expensive!) and filmed non-stop for 4 days so we were very focused in the moment. It actually took us a while to find the right title but, once we began transcribing the interviews, it sort of jumped out at us.
MB: How did you navigate the dynamics of being a non-indigenous person, while facilitating the stories and experiences of those who are?
MKW: We were concerned and very self-aware of our outsider, non-indigenous status and privilege throughout the making of this documentary and navigating these dynamics without the luxury of time or money was no easy feat! And it’s an issue we continue to struggle with through interviews and screenings. We originally wondered whether the story of LGBTQ identities in Nunavut was even ours to tell. However, we are LGBTQ filmmakers and felt that this story was too important to ignore. Particularly with the high rates of suicide and the general lack of discussion surrounding LGBTQ2 identities in the north. We may not exist in one particular region or homeland but these are our LGBTQ2 brothers, sisters and non-binary gendered family and they are hurting. It also became quite clear that it might be a very long time before anyone else facilitated this story and that, as outsiders, it was actually safer for us to push the conversation. But we are still non-Indigenous which is why we really just wanted to go to Iqaluit and listen. It sounds so simplistic but I think it’s really the best thing you can do when you are trying to be an ally. Southerners are still coming to the North and telling locals what to do and we didn’t want to continue that colonial process. We weren’t there to “save” anyone or tell anyone how to be LGBTQ2. We really wanted to let the LGBTQ2 community in Iqaluit tell their own story in their own words and to encourage Inuit to continue that dialogue. We really only scratch the surface in this documentary and there’s so much more to be done and history to uncover and it needs to come from within the culture.
MB: How do you go about building a trust relationship within the documentary context that allows a participant to maintain control over their contributions?
MKW: It’s tough because it’s ultimately our film and you cannot promise people ownership or editorial control of your work. At the same time, these are their stories. So if we are going to ask people to trust us, we have to give them the opportunity to work with us. We wanted to make sure people understood we were aware of their history and our privileges, sensitive to the issues and that we were listening and open to suggestions. If they shared a story on camera then decided they didn’t want it to be in the documentary, we removed it. Simple as that. The community ended up offering us rides everywhere, offering food and advice and all the subjects also became part of our tiny crew in a way. And truly, it is also their film so we decided early on to give it back to the community for free. We share the film with them in much the same way they shared their stories with us. I’m thrilled that, aside from free public screenings, it has also been used as an educational tool for suicide prevention for both teachers and for health and medical professionals thus far and I hope this does, in some small way, give the community some control over their own stories in the film.
MB: What is the overarching message you hope to impart on an audience who view this film?
MKW: I think the overarching message of the film is that there is a lot of healing that needs to occur in this part of the world. There is a significant amount of cultural shame (which directly affects sexual and gender identity), a deep sadness and tremendous work that needs to be done. That being said, there are many individuals, Inuit and non, who are working very hard to reclaim what was lost and what was taken from them and I hope this helps encourage some more work in that area. And I think we all must do better to know our history and it’s colonial effects and make steps to right some of our nation’s darkest moments.