Atanarjuat – The Fast Runner (2001)

A review by Jeffrey Overstreet.

Director – Zacharias Kunuk; writer – by Paul Apak Angilirq; in Inuktitut, with English subtitles; director of photography – Norman Cohn; editors – Zacharias Kunuk, Norman Cohn and Marie-Christine Sarda; music – Chris Crilly; art director – James Ungalaaq; producers – Paul Apak Angilirq, Norman Cohn and Zacharias Kunuk. Starring – Natar Ungalaaq (Atanarjuat), Sylvia Ivalu (Atuat), Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq (Oki) Lucy Tulugarjuk (Puja), Madeline Ivalu (Panikpak), Pauloosie Qulitalik (Qulitalik), Eugene Ipkarnak (Sauri) and Pakkak Innukshuk (Amaqjuaq). Lot 47 Films. 172 minutes.

Atanarjuat takes you to a place you’ve never been, but its dramatic story has the timelessness of an Old Testament tale. The cast will convince you that they are genuine Inuit natives that have spent their lives in igloos north of the Arctic Circle. The primitive sets, the landscapes, and the portrayal of a culture without electricity or contact with the rest of the world… these things will almost convince you that the crew traveled back in time to film this epic before the arrival of Europeans in the frozen north.

It’s a story full of life-and-death struggles, tragedy, and triumph. But perhaps the most affecting detail about the film is this: The screenwriter and co-producer of the film, Paul Apal Angilirq, never saw his movie finished. He died of cancer in 1999. He would become a Genie Award-winner (that’s a Canadian Oscar, basically).

Here’s the story:

A long time ago, in the Arctic territory far far away, a great adventure took place.   An evil spirit goes to work, creating dissension and jealousy for power within a small clan of the Inuit people. This leads to the death of the local chief, Kumaglak. His killer, Sauri, overcomes his only challenger,  Tulimaq, for control of the tribe. Many years later, Tulimaq’s sons are the tribe’s best hunters. Amaqjuaq is famous for his strength. Atanarjuat is famous for his speed on the ice. Sauri’s son, Oki, is jealous of the brothers’ talents. And when Atanarjuat falls in love with the woman Oki wants to marry, violence ensues.

Soon, Atanarjuat is running for his life, without a dog sled, without weapons, and yes, without any clothes. You’re not likely to see anything more memorable this year than Atanarjuat running naked across the snow, ice, and through freezing shallows, while those who seek to kill him pursue dressed in seal-skins and wielding spears.

As I said, it is rather like a Bible story. Like David running from his enemies, Atanarjuat must go into hiding and wait for the powers he believes in to tell him when it is time to return. Meanwhile, back home, Oki’s evil continues, wreaking havoc on the lives of the beautiful Atuat, Atanarjuat’s wife, and then even his own family. As happens so often in the Bible, the villain does not need a hero to rise and overthrow him. He is done in by his own evil. It is clear as Oki commits one crime after another, he is walking towards his own doom.

Without giving away too much, I must say this: Atanarjuat‘s storyteller is braver than most American cinematic storytellers. Why? Most Americans would have the events lead to the crowd-pleasing act of revenge, and that would be the end. This movie leads us to the inevitable confrontation, the final showdown between Atanarjuat and Oki. But what transpires is at once more surprising and at the same time more profound and inspiring.

I cannot offer high enough praise to the cast, who are completely convincing as ancient Inuit people suriving in the wind-blown snow. The crew traveled to Nunavut, and the whole story is told in the Inuktitut language. And while I was reminded me of the Eskimo cultures glimpsed in Map of the Human Heart, no film I can remember has so thoroughly immersed us in such an ancient culture. In doing so, director Zacharias Kunuk gives us a broader understanding of the rich diversity of cultures that have lived on the North American Continent.

He also shows us that no matter how people live, no matter where, they demonstrate the same inclination towards belief in God, the same apprehension of evil spirits at work, and the same intuition that the power of love and forgiveness are humankind’s highest calling.

I am of two minds about the film’s only off-putting quality… it’s 172-minute running time. The patience with which the filmmakers tell their story, and the attention paid to every small detail of the Unuit life, gives us an experience that is an education as well as entertainment. But at the same time, the length of the film, the drawn out exchanges between characters, and the insistence on documentary-style footage even in filming the story’s heights of tension… these things made me feel more like an interested spectator more than a breathless listener in the presence of a master storyteller. A bolder editor might have drawn our emotions more into play.

But that is a small wrinkle in an otherwise phenomenal experience. It’s no surprise that Kunuk won the Camera d’Or award (best first-time filmmaker) at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival.

There are so many scenes that I will never forget. There is a ritual fight scene in which two opponents take turns striking each other each other’s temples. This long, slow exchange was more painfully effective than most boxing scenes I’ve seen on the big screen.

There are also many questions that will lead to rewarding discussions after viewing. Can we, after seeing this,  understand better why in some cultures polygamy was accepted? Surely in a place where many children were needed in order to get the work done for the survival of the tribe, it makes sense why a man might take two wives. At the same time, surely we can see the essentiality of forgiveness, when a duel to the death might endanger a tribe by robbing it of a valuable worker. We can also consider the wastefulness of our own culture, and just how much we take for granted, when we see the Inuit using every piece of the animals they hunt down.

You may find Atanarjuat to be an overlong movie. You may have trouble keeping the characters straight in your head, because so many of them look alike. But I guarantee you that in six months, you will remember vividly some of this film’s marvelous scenes.

And please see this movie in a theatre. It is so bright with sunlight and snow, many small and important details will be invisible on a television screen. These landscapes, faces, and displays of light are awe-inspiring and intricately detailed. Would you want to skip a visit to see the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel just because later you could look at it in a textbook?

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