Following Footsteps in the Snow: Ashley Qilavag-Savard Finds Her Way In Inuit Film
“I grew up thankfully not in that first generation that had to break open those doors to get into film and to be taken seriously. I benefit very much from that first generation,” says Ashley Qilavaq-Savard, reflecting on how far Inuit film has come and the opportunities that lay before her thanks to the advocacy of her predecessors.
Qilavaq-Savard is from Iqaluit, Nunavut and she loves writing, storytelling, solving problems and being creative. Over time, she’s found a way to combine those passions into a profession: working in film and being an artist. Spending time doing what she’s good at, she’s thriving and seeing the difference her work makes.
When she was just a teen, one of her friends said she wanted to go to film school and the idea really upset her. Qilavaq-Savard later realized it was because it was her dream, too, and it felt out of reach. With limited examples of Inuit film, she didn’t see her stories or culture represented on screen. She wondered how that could change. Thanks to Inuit film productions happening in her hometown, she was able to get her foot in the door as an extra and she went on to attend Vancouver Film School, a life-changing and challenging journey.
In Vancouver, she didn’t know any other Inuit in the area but she loved everything she was learning. “It was different to be in such an international space where race and ethnicity didn't really matter. It just matters what you can do, and your skill level and how quickly you can learn,” Qilavaq-Savard recalls.
She learned even more about writing through the International Sami Film Institute. Her project was picked and she got to learn how to write scripts and film treatment, meeting with a producer, casting, planning and revising her script. Qilavaq-Savard decided to take introduction to production and direction courses with Vancouver Film School to expand her skillset further and understand how everything works. At ImagiNative Screenwriting Features Lab she got to learn how to write a feature film and received so many resources to keep learning. Gaining experience and staying open to new lessons, she’s working to understand all the moving parts and keep making films.
Her advice to Indigenous youth inspired by her path is, “Anything is possible. You need to go out of your comfort zone.” She knows leaving your home community can be hard and she encourages people to get informal experience on set outside of school. “If you want to figure it out, just jump right in if you get the opportunity to because it's not always easy,” Qilavaq-Savard continues.
What she also wants them to know is that building a career in film takes time and work, laying a foundation and building on that with new skills. While the film industry can feel fast-paced, it can take years to get a film made, which can be frustrating. From funding to development, everything takes time. “It takes immense patience to build the skills you need to get there…But if you can continuously work towards it, you will get there,” Qilavaq-Savard explains.
One of the challenges she’s observed is that there isn’t often enough consistent work to leave a day job but getting started with training and gaining technical skills helps build skills and capacity. Working in film is a team effort and she’s found there are many opportunities to grow. With funding from Nunavut Film, Indigenous Screen Office and Telefilm she was able to do development work and training. Some of what she learned was through trial and error with her peers.
“I think what's amazing is as Inuit, we often naturally teach each other a lot all the time,” Qilavaq-Savard reflects. Working on her first short film with a mostly green local cast and crew, they figured things out together. Her versatile skill set has served her well, allowing her to wear many hats on set.
Lack of funding was the biggest barrier she’s faced in building her film career. Qilavaq-Savard wasn’t able to get funding to continue her studies beyond her first year, a challenge she’s heard many Inuit face. During the pandemic, she was able to attend online programs from home in the evenings but the lack of financial support got in her way. The other barrier she faced was working in film as someone who is very shy.
If Qilavaq-Savard could give a message to her younger self it would be to slow down because she found she would get ahead of herself sometimes, lacking direction and would have to re-orient herself and backtrack. Learning script writing involved reading a lot of scripts and books which she didn’t enjoy as much as actually writing. It was tedious but beneficial, in the end.
To balance her mental health and get through writer’s block, she spends time going for walks, chatting with people, and driving around. Qilavaq-Savard enjoys spending time on the land just breathing and finds ideas come when she least expects it. Her way of achieving clarity may be different than other people’s but she finds it’s a matter of figuring out what works best for you.
Looking at current opportunities compared to ten to fifteen years ago, she’s full of excitement for how many different stories are coming out. Before, there were mostly only documentary and pre-colonial stories but with new emerging genres, Inuit film is becoming more diverse. It’s starting to address the intersectional identities of Inuit people, showing how differently people live and how varied their experiences can be.
When it comes to finding inspiration, Qilavaq-Savard looks to the stories of other storytellers, the messages and issues they delve into and the healing they portray. “I don't even know yet the kind of film that's going to come out in the next 10 years. That is very exciting to see what stories are brewing right now and what will come because we have a lot of talented storytellers,” she beams.
Thankful for the first generation that broke open the film industry’s doors and fought to be taken seriously, Ashley Qilavaq-Savard is charting a path as a filmmaker and artist. Seeing how far Inuit film has come already, she’s emboldened to see how far she can go and who else she can help along the way. Learning from each other and sharing their stories, she’s found community and a future in Inuit film and opportunity as far as the eye can see.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
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