Bright Lights Film Journal

Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner: Native Canadians and a Glimpse in the Mirror

This breakthrough film fascinates on many levels

Having won the Golden Camera at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival and the 2002 Genie Award for Best Motion Picture, Zacharias Kunuk’s Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001) is a noteworthy motion picture. That many critics sang its praises is public record, although much of this positive press centers on the contrast between Kunuk’s film and the typical Hollywood blockbuster. While valid as far as it goes, Atanarjuat should also be considered a bold stroke of independent filmmaking and a limited entertainment.

Shot in 1999 for $1.96 million (Canadian) and released in the United States on June 7, 2002, Kunuk’s picture grossed nearly $4 million (US) by the end of 2002 with a theater count that was never above 56 screens. Since then it’s enjoyed a successful run on home video and DVD as a 172-minute-long vision of the world in extreme isolation.

Set on the small island of Igloolik, the film extends from this 1,200-person community in Arctic Canada. With archaeological evidence suggesting some 4,000 years of continuous habitation, the Inuits of Igloolik have a native culture expressed almost wholly through an oral tradition.

Over the last 20 years, Igloolik has also become the site for an experimental marriage between ancient customs and modern technology. Beginning in 1983, screenwriter Paul Apak Angilirq formed a government-sponsored TV, video, and motion picture production facility. Kunuk joined him a year later and the pair began collaborating, eventually creating Canada’s first entirely Inuit production company, Igloolik Isuma Productions.

Apak, Kunuk, Pauloosie Qulitalik, and Norman Cohn managed this fledgling operation and produced various projects. First were short films and then TV shows, which were produced to preserve and enhance Inuit culture and language while providing gainful employment to the community of Igloolik.

Organized around the values of cooperation and shared responsibility rather than a hierarchical, Hollywood-inspired production model, Isuma’s filmmakers embraced their cultural practice and turned to Inuit oral tradition for source material. With startup financing provided by Telefilm Canada and the National Film Board of Canada’s Aboriginal Filmmaking Program, eight tribal elders were asked to recount their version of the legend of “the fast runner,” a cautionary story about putting individual ambition above the group. A team of writers combined these tales into one “master” treatment, and to verify the result, along with maintaining historical authenticity, the writers and elders continued their exchange through every draft of the script. In the end, Apaq, the credited screenwriter, determined the story needed a more hopeful ending than was provided in the oral record and so softened the concluding bloodbath in favor of a more life-sustaining denouement.

With a small group of outside professionals training the Inuit crew in the craft of filmmaking, Atanarjuat was finally put to lens in some of the most inhospitable country imaginable. Considering the inherent difficulties of shooting on celluloid, especially in light of the need for intimate close-ups and long shots of the horizontally infinite Arctic tundra, a widescreen (16:9) digital Betacam standard was adopted, which demanded a new aesthetic approach from Kunuk’s crew. Lengthy setups were avoided. Multiple takes, on-camera experimentation, and multiple camera coverage became the rule. Cumbersome lighting kits, dolly tracks, and the sundry other requirements of expensive film stock were avoided.

The result is wholly foreign to more mainstream product. Rough-hewn moments translate on-screen with immediacy while reveling in the anthropological details of the Inuit people, including a dependence on year-round hunting and a nearly all-meat diet. Certainly not for the squeamish, Atanarjuat frequently features carved animal carcasses.

Kunuk’s film thus acts from an idealistic political ambition while responding to the practical demands of a production schedule. Atanarjuat preserves a minority culture’s idea of itself as an exploration of its fantasy life, even as that minority culture struggles with twenty-first-century assimilation.

The film’s success in gaining global attention is connected with its success at Cannes. Yet the greater point here, from the film’s tableaux of cold country through its visualization of previously unseen Inuit customs, is the sheer spectacle of narrative cinema shaped by the normally dispossessed.

Pre-, or rather ahistorically set in a snowy vastness, the story is driven by the appearance of an evil spirit. Powered by this spirit, the tribal chieftain, Kumaglak (Apayata Kotierk), is killed by his usurper, Sauri (Eugene Ipkarnak), who takes over the tribe and curses it with general malevolence.

A generation later, the two sons of Sauri’s former rival, Tulimaq (Felix Aralarak), have established themselves as the village’s best hunters. Named Amaqjuag, “The Strong One” (Pakkak Innushuk), and Atanarjuat, “The Fast Runner” (Natar Ungalaaq), the brothers rival Sauri’s son Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq).

Atanarjuat eventually wins the hand of Oki’s betrothed, Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu), thereby deepening the evil spirit brought on by Sauri’s original sin. In contrast to Oki, who is everywhere characterized as the tribal bully and stooge, Atanarjuat appears gentle and kind, an ideal match for Atuat.

Complications ensue as Amaqjuag and Atanarjuat balance their respective family lives. All is well until Oki’s conniving sister Puja (Lucy Tulugarjuk) insinuates herself into the brothers’ lives as Atanarjuat’s second wife. She quickly disregards the domestic idyll, becomes her brother-in-law’s lover, and lies about her treatment at the hands of the two brothers. To set matters right, Oki and his friends kill Amaqjuag and frighten Atanarjuat until he’s lost from sight during a chase and left for dead.

Owing to supernatural forces, Atanarjuat is aided by a tribal elder who is aware of the evil hovering over them since Sauri’s crime a generation before. Together the two men work to reconcile their community beset by distrust between its members, but also to right matters between themselves and the spirit world.

At the tribe’s wintering post, Atanarjuat sets an igloo for a meal. Over its slippery floor he ambushes Oki’s band, rendering them helpless. Then he exorcises the evil spirit haunting them and becomes chief. But instead of inflicting violence on his former foe, he exiles Oki, Puja, and their henchmen as punishment for killing Amaqjuag.

To this plot summary should be appended, herein nothing new. Grafting a fable about spirits invading a small community and then watching things run amok is a pan-cultural myth, perhaps most clearly brought to light in any Hollywood western. By avoiding cathartic vengeance in the conclusion, though, Kunuk’s picture purposefully avoids letting its righteous hero regale audiences with a fit of destruction.

Even so, the magical realist elements of Atanarjuat are what truly set it apart from more mainstream product, and it’s this aspect of the picture that is the least successful. Lacking big-budget special effects to represent supernatural forces also means the picture’s fairy tale components are inconsistent with Isuma’s anthropological purpose. Plus there is an additional risk of minimizing the film’s importance as “just” another Native fantasy while overstating its elegance on the basis of championing non-Hollywood work.

Still, the picture is a lesson in finding a way to succeed despite every apparent obstacle. Employing DV, the filmmakers sacrificed a measure of technical brilliance. In the same way, they informed the production with the immediacy of crunching snow, sun blasting over icy skylines, and extreme proximity to characters without relying on steadicams or artificial light.

The changing quality of the film’s images, especially in the difference between interior shots and the expansive outdoors, likewise suffers alongside the spirit world-oriented elements of the plot. Limited by simplistic notions of good and evil when the film’s characters are already richly drawn and emotionally convincing, co-producer and cinematographer Cohn nonetheless makes an indelible contribution with his camera’s frequent glimpses of Inuit life. Such is the case when dwelling on these hunters and their brutal homeland where the seemingly inhospitable weather is made comfortable through habit, trial, and error.

The most outstanding accomplishment of Atanarjuat, then, aside from employing an unknown cast who give complex, moving performances, is the production design of James Ungalaaq. He turned the movie’s sets into an illustration of Inuit thrift and ingenuity, played against ice massifs, snowy rivers, a wide ocean, and lowland rocks covered in moss.

Though Atanarjuat is flawed, its purpose isn’t a redefinition of cinematic technique. Neither is its purpose to overturn screen storytelling conventions by intermingling magical realist impulses and documentarian practice. Instead, Atanarjuat develops a predictable story while invoking the details of an obscure Canadian subculture for posterity.

Variously identifiable as ethnography, anthropology, or even a family album, Atanarjuat re-creates customs all but forgotten in a postindustrial world. Wresting a few coals from the fires of modernization, it suggests a way modern audio-visual technologies can link the past with the homogenizing present.

Keeping in mind the collection of production companies associated with the film, including Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, the CTF License Fee Program, the Canadian Film and Video Production Tax Credit, Channel 24 Iglooik, Igoolik Isuma Productions, Inc., the National Film Board of Canada, Telefilms Equity Investment Program and Vision Television, along with the international distributors, Lot 47 Films, Odeon Films and Rézo Films, it’s remarkable Atanarjuat was produced at all. In the end, this might be the highest compliment available for Kunuk’s debut feature. It shouldn’t be, but it is.