Atanarjuat, or The Fast Runner, comes to the Triangle buffeted by a gale of critical accolades from the country’s most respected film critics. For once, the hype can be believed.
Shot on digital Betacam and directed by Zacharias Kunuk, the film is a three-hour epic set in the far north, around Baffin Island, and it concerns a small, nomadic Inuit community engaged in a struggle against evil influences that are tearing them apart. The Fast Runner is reportedly the longest literary document in the Inuktitut language, and is a remarkable achievement for a small but indefatigable culture. Like other long literary documents, like The Iliad, Hamlet or 19th century mega-novels such as Anna Karenina or Vanity Fair, The Fast Runner opens up a vast, exotic landscape of human experience, emotions and conflicts. Working from a well-known Inuit legend, Kunuk and the now-deceased screenwriter Paul Apak Angilirq introduce us to an unfamiliar society in the context of a dense, multi-generational saga in which conflicts drag out for years, if not decades.
The characters are hard to sort out, at first. In this the film is reminiscent of the claustrophobic communities of Faulkner’s novels, in which we burn the first few chapters sorting out the bastard children from the incest practitioners from the foundlings. In the film’s prologue, we’re confronted with siblings from three generations of two families, all wearing sealskin coats with fox fur trim. At the outset, they’re gathered for a tribal ceremony, during which an evil shaman is working his black magic on the group. The curse is patricide (as well as regicide), and a member of the group kills his father to become the chief, an act that will have repercussions on the community for decades.
Fast forwarding a generation, we meet two young men, the eponymous Atarnarjuat and his archrival Oki, the grandson of the murder victim. We quickly see their rivalry as they battle for the affections of an Inuit sweetie named Atuat. Atarnarjuat wins the inevitable duel, and Atuat’s hand. The film then settles into a deceptively pastoral rhythm, as we see this new family go forth and multiply amid the harsh, breathtaking beauty of the northern landscape.
While Atuat is pregnant with their first child, Atarnarjuat picks up a second wife, Puja, an irresistibly flirtatious woman who is, unfortunately, the sister of his rival, Oki. (Atarnajuat and Puja hook up after being sent on a caribou hunt together, and the love scene between the two of them, all alone by a lake on the tundra, is vivid, arresting and sexy.) However, the tenuous harmony in the resulting three-parent household comes to an end over a bedroom indiscretion. This scene is clever and funny, but the consequences are disastrous.
The rest of the film is a bracingly cinematic roller-coaster in which personal, communal and spiritual scores must be settled. The pièce de résistance comes when Atarnarjuat is forced to flee for his life in a chase across melting ice floes–without a stitch of clothing on his body. This scene is so marvelously executed that it deserves to become as iconic as Cary Grant’s ducking a crop duster scene in North by Northwest, or the Odessa Steps sequence in The Battleship Potemkin.
It is the peculiar brilliance of The Fast Runner that it satisfies so many imperatives in a single film. The quotidian details of Inuit living are shown as clearly as in Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, a landmark documentary from 1922. As in Flaherty, Kunuk’s Inuit heat their igloos with seal oil, use moss for wicks, rub their noses and spend a lot of time cleaning seal hides. However, Flaherty’s film is an idealization of primitive man, in the person of Nanook, a renowned hunter and all-around family man who has what we would call an “extreme” lifestyle: See Nanook harpoon a walrus! See him snag a salmon and kill it with his teeth! Look how fast he throws up that igloo, complete with a window made from a block of ice! To viewers of Flaherty’s day, already exhausted by the industrial revolution, such heroic primitivism must have been a revelation.
The details of everyday survival are also present in The Fast Runner, but this film takes us into the interior lives of a particular group of Inuit. Set somewhere in the vast pre-modern yesterday, the film mixes realism with myth, and there’s no dissonance as the natural world easily slides into the supernatural. But in addition to doing justice to the demands of the documentary and Inuit culture, the film succeeds as a cinematic epic in the tradition of the great Westerns of Ford, the samurai films of Kurosawa and the sweeping, yet intimate historical sagas of Kenji Mizoguchi. Like these old masters, Kunuk sees his characters as part of a culture that is intimately tied to historical forces and to the land that surrounds them. Communities are built, against all natural odds, and tenaciously defended. Disorder appears, and the community must fight to restore the peace.
Although The Fast Runner takes us into a world untouched by modernity, the film itself was made by entirely modern people. A decade ago, Kunuk and several partners (including the film’s cinematographer, the non-Inuit Norman Cohn) established the first production company in the region now known as Nunavut. They started attracting attention on the festival circuit with a few short films, but The Fast Runner is far and away their most ambitious project to date.
Kunuk’s cast is a mix of experienced actors and novices. The film’s lead, Natar Ungalaaq, has played large roles in relatively mainstream films, and he’s also a prominent sculptor in the Canadian folk art scene. As the film’s hero, Ungalaaq plays a man who, blessed with strength, speed and a good nature, is the biggest prize for the young women in his community. In fact, Ungalaaq uses a sheepish grin that recalls Nanook’s frequent muggings for Flaherty’s camera, an expression that says, “I just can’t help it, I’m the man!”
However, the film’s most charismatic performances come from the two novice actors who play the bad siblings Oki and Puja. As the jealous and dangerous Oki, Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq glowers darkly, and saunters quite well in his sealskin boots. He’s a virile, commanding and occasionally sympathetic hoodlum (though when he’s in his full regalia, with primitive sunglasses and a hood adorned with dangling fox pelts, he looks something like Wesley Snipes’ Blade gone native). As the treacherous Puja, Lucy Tulugarjuk is even better. Very early on, she seduces Atanarjuat (and us), and even after she clearly spells trouble, we can’t shake her off as she returns time and again for our trust and affection. (Arnatsiaq is a professional hunter in Nunavut and Tulugarjuk is a business student in Ottawa, Ontario.)
The thrilling success of The Fast Runner strikes a blow for the promises of digital technology. A decade ago, a minimally funded group of Inuit filmmakers could not have made such a gorgeous film, but now, the cheapness and reasonable quality of digital video make it possible for remote, voiceless people to generate their own movies. In fact, those who lack resources may well make the most urgent films with this new technology. The Fast Runner is 20 times better than Steven Soderbergh’s current excursion into guerrilla filmmaking, the profligately pointless Full Frontal.
It’s much too early to tell if Kunuk and his crew have fired the first shot of a coming invasion of aboriginal films made by small collectives with a few bucks, a video camera and a vision. It may well turn out that The Fast Runner is a one-shot masterpiece, but the operative word is masterpiece.