by James Martin
Daniel Cross may have literally built his film career on the downtown
streets of Montreal, but these days youre just as likely to find
him above the 60th parallel, miles from any paved roads.
The part-time instructor at the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema, and director
of the documentaries S.P.I.T. (2001) and The Street (1996),
is now working on a film with eight Inuit high-schoolers in the Kativik
School Board of northern Quebec.
Cross says the National Film Board project, tentatively titled Inuit Teens,
marks a return to the community/social activist responsibility
which defined the NFBs Challenge for Change initiative
in the late 1960s.
Its the projects philosophy which has lured Cross away from
the métro stations and congested intersections of his first films,
and into the isolated Canadian north.
Documentary films not only engage me as a practitioner, but they
inspire the activist side of me, he said in an interview.
Cross began interviewing homeless people around the Guy-Concordia métro
in the second year of his BFA studies at Concordia, a project which turned
into his masters thesis, and, eventually, The Street.
By his own admission, the decade-long project not only traced his filmmaking
apprenticeship, but also his personal shift away from romantic ideas about
homelessness as freedom from the constraints of conventional life,
and toward the serious issues of physical and substance abuse.
I was naive when I started that film, he admitted, and
by the end I wasnt. For his second film, S.P.I.T. (Squeegee
Punks In Traffic), Cross worked closely with a Montreal street punk named
Roach to help advance my ideas by using Roachs enlightened
firsthand experiences in an area I was entering with only general stereotype
Cross is approaching Inuit Teens with the same open mind. Following on
the idea of the Roach Cam (which offered viewers a uncensored
squeegee-kids-eye view of the world), Cross and S.P.I.T.
cinematographer Mila Aung-Thwin provided the eight Inuit teens with three
video cameras in an effort to engage them at the highest level:
Im not going to film you, youre going to film you.
Its a real learning thing for me, how to engage with them
in a way that they have a desire to be engaged, and not just my way.
Being of a different culture, I realized they didnt have that
investigative journalism-type analysis in their way of looking
at life. Its not apathy as much as its a cultural style: they
dont quiz each other, they dont look for scandals.
By nature, they have nothing to say to the camera, and no interest
in being a star. Its a bit odd; anywhere else in the
world, you can always find a cheese-man whos going to give you something
It was hard to see what they were going to film, so Id bring
up discussions about suicide, or gambling, and try to find out what the
issues are with them. I challenge them by saying, Come on, you guys
are teenagers, and every teenager conflicts with society in some way!
Cross and Aung-Thwin are preparing to make their fourth northern visit
at the end of the month, and Cross says he can already see the students
becoming a little more extroverted with their thoughts.
They know the camera is an opportunity for them, he said.
One of the guys is really interested in his grandfather, whos
a polar-bear hunter and thats great status in an Inuit community.
He asked, Does this mean I can ask my grandfather some questions?
because hed never engaged with his grandfather in that way before.
Its pretty simple, yet pretty huge at the same time.
Cross plans to work with the teens until the fall, when most of them plan
to leave their community to enter CEGEP in Montreal.
He is also developing a feature film about urban skateboarders, building
an online archive of video testimonials by homeless people from across
and helping Aung-Thwin make his directorial debut with a documentary about
Montreals métro buskers.
Diverse as these subjects may seem on the surface, Cross locates a strong
unifying undercurrent in all his work.
Theres a real social relevance to engagement, to not just
hanging out and being lost and confused.
The whole point for me is to use the same equipment that corporate
media, for lack of a better term, uses all the time to present a very
small percentage of the populations voice.
You can use the camera as a way, for example, to ask a question
to your grandpa about polar-bear hunting; its a tool of empowerment.
Im hoping to take that same equipment and give other people