Why White People Are Funny

Patty Osborne

In the documentary Qallunaat! Why White People Are Funny (NFB) by Zebedee Nungak and Mark Sandiford, white people are the subjects of study by Inuit who, for several hundred years, have themselves been the subjects of study by settlers. Qallunaat is the Inuit word for white people, but it refers less to people of a certain skin colour and more to people who exhibit odd behaviours, like obsessing over private property, always being in a hurry, jumping to conclusions, plus ignoring local knowledge and needing to be rescued when they “explore” the north. At the Qallunaat Studies Institute (QSI), lab-coated Inuit measure the heads of white people and use a Qallunizer (a vacuum-like contraption) to determine whether a person is qallunaat, all while speaking rapid Inuktitut to their uncomprehending subjects. At the Department of White Man’s Affairs, officials discuss how to keep track of the qallunaat, because there are so many of them and they have such “hideous” names. Later we see a lineup of qallunaat receiving their Q-numbers—a new identification tool—and traditional Inuit nicknames like “sagging pants” and “always cold.” Less funny are the patronizing commentaries from old newsreels about the “primitive” people in the Arctic who are good at learning “imitative skills,” but will need a settler education in order to be functional in the modern world. Near the end of the film, Zebedee Nungak, a journalist and filmmaker, and part of the first generation that received a qallunaat education, talks of being a beneficiary and a victim of that education. While looking at an old photo of himself, he reflects that what he sees is “a young boy who is just skimming through his boyhood to take his place as a man among men” in his community. That trajectory was broadsided by “civilization.” Qallunaat! Why White People Are Funny has a lot of laugh-out-loud moments, as well as cringe-worthy scenes (at least for the qallunaat audience). It is streaming for free on the NFB website.

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