Ray Harper’s 1992 documentary Coppermine analyses the integration of outsiders into the community of the Copper Inuit of Coronation Gulf and the Coppermine River. The documentary illustrates the spread of disease among the Inuit and the government’s failure to respond.
The documentary does well to illustrate the central theme of a doctor attempting to treat an epidemic among the Inuit. However, the documentary would have been significantly more effective if the editor and director focused on just one subject. Instead, the documentary splits the film’s focus on two different subjects. The film excels when focusing on Dr. R.D. Martin. However, the film spends too much time focusing on one Inuit women who contracts tuberculosis. Instead of integrating her story into Martin’s, the director has made this woman her own focus. At times her focus overshadows Martin’s struggles, and makes the epidemic appear smaller than it actually was. The split focus within the film reduces its effectiveness and at times makes it difficult to follow because viewers never really learn who this woman is.
The film did an excellent job gathering effective sources that were able to illustrate what happened in Coppermine from 1929 until the early 1930s. The film talks to Dr. Martin, and some of his associates serving in Northern Canadian outposts. The film also does a good job talking to multiple Inuit people. However, the subtitles used could have been improved. The film benefits greatly from the clips of b-roll that was filmed during the timeframe that Dr. Martin was in Coppermine.
The film begins with the double marriage between two Inuit couples. This scene really sticks out as it is completely unrelated to the next 45 minutes of the film. It is not until the end of the film, when we see one of the people from the wedding again. At the end of the film we learn that the groom’s mother was the woman the film split its focus on. One of the better scenes shows the man, attempting to locate his mother’s grave. However, with all the crosses and poor documentation, he is unable to find it.
The documentary does an unbelievable job of pinpointing the person who contracted tuberculosis. Through this person, were are able to get a better understanding of how the disease was first contracted in an Edmonton prison and then spread among the Inuit once the man returned. By being able to trackback to the initial case, the viewer is able to get a better understanding of how serious the epidemic was.
The Dr. Martin storyline is aided by effective b-roll footage, Martin’s own personal accounts and the readings of telegrams and letters that Martin sent to his superiors. Martin articulates how when he was assigned to Coppermine, he was told to expect to deal with eye issues. However, when Martin arrived, he learned that the community was dealing with a tuberculosis outbreak. Prior to arriving, no one had mentioned anything about tuberculosis to Martin.
Through Martin’s own account we are able to see how poorly the government handled the tuberculosis epidemic. The historical value of the film is added through Martin’s account and the footage of planes arriving with supplies. However, the viewer learns that the supplies arriving were used during the previous decade in World War One and were not the supplies Martin required.
Martin’s letters and interview to an excellent job of illustrating how hard he tried to help the Inuit people, and what little help the government was. One of the more powerful scenes is when Dr. Martin gets on a plane and flies to Ottawa after not receiving the supplies he requires. Upon arriving in Ottawa, he is put on leave. Dr. Martin goes to Scotland to learn more techniques to better combat tuberculosis. However, Martin never returns to Coppermine and the government never replaces him.
The film really makes the Canadian government look terrible. In addition to not replacing Dr. Martin in the mid-1930s, the government assigned just four doctors to cover thousands of kilometers across the North West Territory. The footage showing supply boats and planes arriving with supplies is excellent footage to have. But the viewer learns through interviews that the supplies the people receive were all dated and not what was required. The government appeared to turn a blind eye and deaf ear to Dr. Martin when he contacted them about the outbreak and what he required to treat the people of the region. By not providing the necessary medicine, and isolation equipment, the government is responsible for the deaths of many Inuit people.