By Laura Bennett
Many of us would have seen an inspirational sports movie or two in our time but, where some choose to focus on the nail-biting achievements of the athletes, The Grizzlies elevates the healing power of sport and its ability to build bridges between cultures.
Based on the true experience of Canadian teacher Russ Sheppard and his students, The Grizzlies follows Russ’s move to the Inuit town of Kugluktuk, where a high suicide rate and intergenerational trauma are ripping apart the Northern Canadian community.
Kugluktuk is an Inuit community located north of the Arctic Circle in Nunavut. It sits at the mouth of the Coppermine River where it feeds into the Coronation Gulf, which is part of the Northwest Passage. – thegrizzliesmovie.com
Out of his depth and wondering how to relate to a people wary of a white man teaching their children, Russ introduces the school to lacrosse – using it both an outlet for the student’s energy and a way to create common ground.
Despite the narrative, The Grizzlies is far from being about the “hero teacher”, instead putting attention on the families of the students and offering an insight in the after-effects of colonialisation on the Kugluktuk community. Its themes set it apart from a lot of sports films, adding a layer of humanity to the story that makes it far more emotive and interesting to watch, especially for an older teen and adult audience.
In this conversation, the real-life Russ Sheppard talks about his seven years in Kugluktuk, why he thought lacrosse would bring healing and the relationship he’s kept with the kids.
Speaking with me about how he built trust with the students, Russ said, “Trust is earned. And it’s earned through actions and time”.
“We’re talking about an area in a Canada where the white people of the south brought nothing but harm and pain. So there’s an added roadblock there to earning trust,” he said.
“In my second year, I came back after two weeks’ [vacation] to really try to commit to doing some contribution to the community and to my school. And I think those are the type of things that start to earn trust, and of course being there over time.
“There’s a mantra that I follow and it’s: ‘You can’t fake caring’.
“Part of developing a trust relationship with anybody is you being able to look at them and feel in their heart that they actually care.”
The Grizzlies is in select cinemas now. Rated M – this film deals with suicide themes. If you or someone you know is struggling or needs a compassionate listening person to talk to, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, or Australia’s Suicide Callback Service, on 1300 659 467.