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‘Twice Colonized’ Review: An Indigenous Activist Defends Her People’s Rights While Tending to Personal Wounds

An unusual credit appears at the beginning of “Twice Colonized,” Lin Alluna’s candid documentary portrait of Greenlandic lawyer and activist Aaju Peter, and it belongs to the film’s subject-star herself. “Lived by Aaju Peter” runs the text, and while that phrasing might initially seem a cute quirk, it proves fitting enough as Alluna’s camera follows her for seven years: In that time, Peter has an awful lot of difficult living to do, as she navigates personal tragedy and domestic abuse while making a name for herself as an outspoken campaigner for the rights of her fellow Inuit and other Indigenous people. “Twice Colonized” doesn’t treat her personal life as a background to her professional one, or vice versa. Rather, the film holds both narratives in balance, each informing the other, and both equally essential to understanding this defiantly singular woman.

As a character study, then, “Twice Colonized” has a curiosity and a complexity that distinguish it from various other admiring activist portraits in the documentary sphere: Formidable as Peter’s achievements are, Alluna isn’t out merely to gild them. For her part, Peter is reluctant to be made either a symbol or a martyr on camera, as she repeatedly corrects those who patronize or romanticize her mission to secure rights and recognition for her people from the cultures that colonized them. As such, the film, which premiered in January at Sundance, has since served as a politically pointed opener at both Canada’s Hot Docs festival and CPH:DOX in Denmark; further festival berths await, while specialist doc distributors should respond to its mix of the inspiring and the idiosyncratic.

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“We want to be part of this industrialized modern world,” Peter explains at one point, “but we want it from our perspective, not the way it is imposed on us.” She addresses this to a well-meaning Danish journalist whom she nonetheless calls out for noting her “urban, western” appearance, notwithstanding the traditional Inuit tattoos on her face. She’s used to the implication that any concessions to modernity are hypocritical for someone campaigning for the protection of Indigenous culture and community, as if the goal is to preserve those in amber, rather than to let them function in the 21st century. (The film sets up a thorny conflict between animal right activists condemning seal hunting as outmoded cruelty, and Indigenous people who view it simply as a way of survival.)

Peter is ever more weary of having to meet her colonizers more than halfway: Even speaking Danish, she admits, pains her, and there’s a backstory to this resentment that also explains the film’s title. From Peter’s perspective, she was personally colonized as a child in the 1960s when, as was the custom for academically gifted Inuk youths in Greenland, she was sent to Denmark to complete her schooling while boarding with white families. It was a supposed privilege that ruptured the young Peter’s sense of connection with her family and her culture, and spurred a now decades-long mission to reclaim her Indigenous language and identity, for herself as well as others.

Progress on this front is halting, however, as reflected by dispiriting socioeconomic realities in Greenland — not least a severely high suicide rate among young men in the country. Peter makes a solemn note of this fact before her own son becomes another casualty, and the filmmakers maintain a respectful distance while also capturing their subject in a stoic state of devastation: She’s all too accustomed to emotional turmoil. Peter’s frequently unhappy home life, some of it kept off-screen, serves as a tense counterpart to her empowered professional travels: When we meet her, she’s trapped in a physically and psychologically abusive relationship with a man who ritually shames her — at one point cutting off all her hair — for perceived slights against his authority. (Unsurprisingly, he does not approve her participation in the film.)

Freeing herself from this domestic trap is yet another battle fought in the film, which nonetheless resists easy uplift and catharsis: Peter is always pushing on to the next thing, keeping her personal demons in check while focusing on such professional targets as establishing an Indigenous form in the European Union. She’s never done, which means she’s never quite happy, though “Twice Colonized” is most affecting when it unsentimentally captures stray moments of peace: jovially playing with her grandchildren at home, as a new generation’s buoyancy heals over the wounds of grief, or privately getting down to Tina Turner’s rendition of “Proud Mary” in a clinical European hotel suite. “Our lives and language became controlled by others, but we’re still here,” she says, as the film shows how simply enduring can be its own form of resistance.

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