FAST RUNNER, THE (ATANARJUAT) (director: Zacharias Kunuk; screenwriter: Paul Apak Angilirq; cinematographer: Norman Cohn; editors: Norman Cohn/Zacharias Kunuk/Marie-Christine Sarda; music: Chris Crilly; cast: Natar Ungalaaq (Atanarjuat), Sylvia Ivalu (Atuat), Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq (Oki), Lucy Tulugarjuk (Puja), Madeline Ivalu (Panikpak), Paul Qulitalik (Qulitalik), Eugene Ipkarnak (Sauri, the chief), Pakkak Innushuk (Amaqjuaq), Felix Alaralak (Tulimaq), Apayata Kotierk (Kumaglak), Luke Taqqaujaq (Pittiulak), Alex Uttak (Pakak), Neeve Irngaut (Uluriaq), Abraham Ulayuruluk (Tungajuaq); Runtime: 172; Lot 47 Films; 2001-Canada)
“Zacharias Kunuk and his able team of filmmakers have proven that they know how to make a grand film.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
“The Fast Runner” was the winner of the Camera D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2001 and it was the Genie Award winner as best Canadian film. It won a total of five Genies, including the best director prize for Zacharias Kunuk in the first try for the former sculptor and video/TV artist at making films. It’s also the first film shot in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit peoples who live within the Arctic Circle. The cast and crew are almost exclusively Inuit (a name that can be defined as “a man”), as it is easy to forget (until the film’s end credits roll by and we see the cast in their street clothes without their costumes) that this is not a documentary and the actors in this ensemble cast are professionals playing a role and doing it superbly. The last such powerful film about the Inuits was made by the American documentary filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty. It was a silent feature called “Nanook of the North,” and it was made in 1922. In 1994, there was the interesting but less powerful follow-up to Nanook — “Kabloonak.”
The Fast Runner is a slowly paced and deliberate film that is nearly three hours long. It is at first rather confusing, which might deter some of the more restless viewers from taking this worthwhile journey. But if you stay with it, you should find that things become clearer and you will be much rewarded for your patience with a unique and dazzling cinema experience.
“The Fast Runner” was made with financial assistance from the National Film Board of Canada and by Igloolik Isuma Productions. That was a company founded in the 1990s by Kunuk; Norman Cohn, the film’s director of photography; Paul Apak Angilirq (he died of cancer in 1998), who wrote the screenplay; and, Paul Qulitalik, an actor in the film.
It is based on an ancient Inuit legend, as told by eight elders to the screenwriter. It’s set in the Arctic at the dawn of the first millennium. For countless generations, Igloolik elders have kept the legend of The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat) alive through oral history to teach young Inuit the dangers of setting personal desire above the needs of the group. The film starts off with a voiceover explaining the legend and immediately throws the viewer into the community of Eskimos and their arcane lore.
Evil in the form of an unknown shaman divides a small community (Igloolik) of the nomadic Inuit, upsetting its balance and spirit, as a murder of a clan chief takes place and dissension and bad luck soon follows. Twenty years pass. Two brothers emerge to challenge the evil order: Amaqjuaq The Strong One (Innushuk) and Atanarjuat The Fast Runner (Natar Ungalaaq).
Atanarjuat inherits the legacy of ill will when he falls in love with Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu), who has been promised as a wife to Chief Sauri’s son, an evil man with a violent temper, Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq). Jealous of the attention Atuat pays to Atanarjuat, Oki stews and grimaces. His grandmother, Panikpak (Madeline Ivalu), tells Atuat to marry Atanarjuat despite the sacred traditional promise of betrothal made by the fathers, that she must do so because her grandson is evil and will not treat her right. Oki’s arrogance and temper get the best of him, and he challenges the weaker Atanarjuat to a fight where the winner will take Atuat as his bride. They fight Eskimo style, as each gets a free blow to the head and the one who wins is the one still standing. Atanarjuat wins Atuat, and by the next season she’s pregnant. The family separates and for the first time Atanarjuat goes hunting caribou without his brother. He’s told by his father (Felix Alaralak) to stop by Sauri’s tent before he goes out in the deep tundra. When Sauri sees that he’s alone, he insists that he takes Oki’s flirtatious and manipulative sister Puja (Lucy Tulugarjuk) along as a helpmate. During the season-long hunt they bed down and he brings her back to a disgruntled Atuat as wife number two.
Atanarjuat shares a tent with his two wives, their baby son Kumaglak, and with his brother and his wife Uluriaq. While sleeping together, Puja entices Amaqjuaq to have sex with her. This upsets the other three, and causes Puja to flee back to her family in banishment. She lies to Oki, knowing how angry he can get, and tells him that Atanarjuat beat her for no reason and then forced her to leave. Oki gets his other two gang members, Pittiulak and Pakak, to go along with him to kill the two brothers in revenge.
Warning: spoiler to follow in the next paragraph.
Puja sets things up for them by coming back to apologize and ask forgiveness, promising to behave herself and not be lazy and so bossy anymore. They all forgive her. Puja then takes the women and the baby on an egg walk on the tundra, while the brothers sleep naked in their tent. Oki and his gang wait until the women are gone and the brothers asleep, before they collapse the tent and spear the occupants trapped inside. They kill Amaqjuaq, but Atanarjuat runs away from them naked and without shoes. Atanarjuat outruns them across the spacious ice mass, and ends up far away where a kindly relative of Sauri’s, the elderly Qulitalik (Paul Qulitalik), hides him from the pursuing gang who are now on a dog sled. Atanarjuat is nursed back to health and plots his revenge, as the final showdown takes place on his return home. Watching the naked Atanarjuat run for his life as the armed men pursued, was one of the unforgettable cinema moments to relish.
It’s a brilliant epic and mythological film about love, jealousy, murder, revenge and redemption. It is deliciously photographed by Cohn using a widescreen digital video camera (then transferred to 35 millimeter), which is handheld, as he captures the startling beauty of a land and people few in the world know about. The Eskimos build an igloo, carve up their meat and scrape the animal skins for their clothing, and for amusement play a game they call “wolf” — which is a lot like our “tag.” It was carefully shot over a period of six months and it captures in detail their hunting and fishing habits, their intense rituals, their strong kinship and rivalries, their code of honor, their customs, their songs, and their ordinary nomadic way of life. It also captures the movement of the seasons in the northern part of Canada (the red clovers in the spring and in winter the crystal white snowy landscapes) and the ways the Inuit lifestyle was influenced by the shifting travel patterns of the animals. “The Fast Runner” is a universal drama set in motion by conflicts and emotions that every culture has experienced. It has both a demanding Shakespearean narrative and is filled with stunning scenic scenes of visual beauty. It’s an instant classic. The festival awards were not given out of guilt, they were earned the old-fashioned way. Zacharias Kunuk and his able team of filmmakers have proven that they know how to make a grand film.
REVIEWED ON 8/4/2002 GRADE: A+
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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