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White people are funny

in Behind the Screens with Cinema Politica by

I’m white (as far as I know) and I live in North America, where I was born. Because of these privileges, I’m not usually the butt of race-related jokes. But on Friday night I was. And it was awesome.

On Friday evening at Jumping Bean Cafe on Water St., Cinema Politica St. John’s screened Qallunaat! Why White People are Funny. The 2006 docu-comedy film by Mark Sandiford turned the tables on the usual relationship between Indigenous people and white people. Based on his own experience as a white person moving to an Inuit community in Canada’s far north, Sandiford’s film gives the settler population a sense of what it’s like to be treated as an oddity. 

Qallunaat is an Inuit word for ‘white people,’ which in this context refers to the Europeans who colonized North America, and their descendants. The film uses scenes from the fictional Qallunaat Studies Institute (QSI), which is a brilliant mirror image of research institutions set up by settlers to study the culture of Indigenous people in North America. 

At the QSI’s mock conference on the peculiarities of qallunaat culture, the Inuit explained white people’s strange greeting systems, lack of common sense when conducting research in the North, and one woman pointed out that qallunaat often smell like detergent and museums. The qallunaat constantly ask each other “how are you?” even though they don’t seem to care, and there are so darn many of them that the Inuit propose assigning them numbers. 

The ridiculousness of the fake conference invites white audiences to realize what it feels like when one’s way of life is judged as ‘uncivilized’ or ‘abnormal’.

At the QSI conference, the Inuit propose that the “Department of Qallunaat Affairs fund a voyage of discovery to the lands where these mysterious tribes [of white people] live,” so the Inuit can teach them “the values of a civilized society.” This sarcastic proposal calls on white people, like me, to realize how Canada’s own Department of Indian Affairs can degrade and patronize an entire culture. (Canada’s Department of Indian Affairs is now known as Aboriginal/Indigenous Affairs and Northern Development.)

Satire can be uncomfortable, especially when it gives you ‘a taste of your own medicine’. But it is powerful precisely because it reverses our normal expectations. By switching positions, we see ourselves from another perspective. Qallunaat! makes a mockery of colonialism, but it is not vicious or guilt-inducing. Rather, Qallunaat! is a friendly mockery for anyone who wants to learn more about themselves. I and the audience at Friday’s screening were delighted and charmed by the laughable, but loveable, role reversal. 

If you couldn’t attend the screening, Qallunaat! Why White People are Funny is available to stream online thanks to the National Film Board of Canada.

Follow Cinema Politica St. John’s on Facebook or email cinemapoliticastjohns@gmail.com to join the mailing list. Our next screening is This Changes Everything, on Thursday, Nov. 26, at 5:30 p.m. in Memorial University Arts & Administration building, room A2071.

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