A story that’s been waiting 20 years to be told through film had its premiere to a full house in Yellowknife Saturday. The emotions were running high from the first scene of Grizzlies on the Kugluktuk tundra.

Directed by Miranda de Pencier, the feature film tells the story of a Kugluktuk youth lacrosse team who beat the dark forces of depression, suicide and other legacies of colonization in their community through sport. The film stars many first-time Inuit actors and was a great example of Indigenous and non-Indigenous collaboration says producer Stacey Aglok MacDonald.

“When people watch it in the south they’re going to experience something completely different and very intimate because these stories are real stories that we’ve tried to tell so honestly and respectfully,” she says.  “I don’t think that could have been achieved if we didn’t have Indigenous producers that were so involved right from the beginning right to the end.”

The film tells the true story of first-time teacher Russ Sheppard, played by Ben Schnetzer, who moves to the Nunavut hamlet of Kugluktuk in 1998. Overwhelmed by the issues facing youth, including one of the highest suicide rates in North America at the time, Sheppard introduces the sport of lacrosse and slowly gets them onboard. Aglok MacDonald says the story itself shows how development can be done right, with Inuit youth leadership.

“The reason why the Grizzlies was so successful was that power was given to the students – power and leadership – and they were involved in making the decisions and running the program.”

Filmmakers conducted an extensive search for Inuk actors across Nunavut, many of those casted are first-time actors. Even with poor internet access and many remote communities, Aglok MacDonald says filmmakers were able to audition 600 youth from Nunavut and the NWT.

“We were really relying on kids to do self-taped auditions and getting ahold of schools and trying to find the drama teachers to see if we can organize auditions that way.”

Touring the film across the north with Aglok MacDonald and other cast and crew was an original member of the Grizzlies team Adam Kikpak. At the time he joined the Grizzlies he says he had been out of school, caring for elderly parents and dealing with the trauma many fellow youth faced.

“I was just kind of lost in my own world, didn’t know what to do,” he says. “So much energy and frustration all at once…I was not really a sports guy and from there I was like, yeah I want to try something new.”

Kikpak says the experience is still so real for him and it was an emotional thing to see it on the big screen. “I’m still kind of shaken thinking about it now, so I’m still kind of nervous going out to the premieres.”

Aglok MacDonald is also from Kugluktuk so the process of making the film and showing it to her community was an important one. “I felt a very specific and very heavy responsibility to tell our story respectfully and honestly, still within the thread of ‘its a movie and entertaining’, but to really honour a story and (give) all Inuit communities a voice in terms of how we were trying to heal the trauma.”

The film premiered in Kugluktuk last week to tears and standing ovations. “Before the movie even started people were standing up and doing the old grizzly chants. They were so excited to watch it,” says Aglok MacDonald. “At the end of the movie, the community hall was packed, there was no space at all…Everybody just kind of stood up and everybody was clapping, and crying and they started cheering again. They kind of crowded our young actors, trying to get their autographs.”

Grizzlies continues its Northern tour across 33 communities until May. It will also be screened in 100 theatres across Canada on April 19.

– with files from Keven Dow