"The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat)"
Directed by Zacharias Kanuk
in Inuktitut with English subtitles
Produced by Zacharias Kanuk, Paul Apak Angilirq, and Norman Cohn
Written by Paul Apak Angilirq
Director of Photography Norman Cohn
Edited by Zacharias Kanuk, Norman Cohn, and Marie-Christine Sarda
Music by Chris Crilly
Art Director James Ungalaaq
#Review by Diane Burns
The story begins with the arrival of a stranger from the North. As in any culture where survival often depends upon the kindness of strangers, this stranger is welcomed into the largest igloo and entertained. This stranger, however, is an evil shaman, who kills the patriarch, and curses the village of Igloolik (three or four interrelated families) with a generation of hate, revenge, spite and envy.
Winner of the Camera d'Or for best first feature in Cannes last year, this epic movie is as comfortable as the best story your grandmother ever told you while you were sitting on her knee on a cold and stormy night. In the village of Igloolik, a thousand or more years ago, Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq) and Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu) are promised to each other. Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq) desires Atuat also. In a moment of hubris, Oki bets his right to marry Atuat, and he and Oki trade blows to each others' heads. The outcome is disputed by Oki's father, the chief, but his mother sides with Atuat, whom she believes to be her own mother reborn ("I recognized you right away, that's why I named you," she tells her "Little Mother.") The young lovers happily begin their family, living with Atanarjuat's brother Amaqjuaq ( Pakkak Innukshuk) and his wife. Oki's sister Puja (Lucy Tulugarjuk) attempts to break up the couple and becomes Atanarjuat's second wife in an escalating series of trickery that Atanarjuat is not wholly unresponsive to. The irascible son of the chief soon whips together his dog pack of peers, murders Amaqjuaq and chases Atanarjuat into the frozen North Inland of the Inuit, naked and barefooted.
The resolution of the story has the feeling of kismet--Atanarjuat is rescued and hidden from his potential murderers by the murderer's own great uncle. When he returns, he gives Puja her just deserts, and redeems his village by telling Oji, "The killing stops here." By refusing to pander to the shaman's methods, the shaman's power over the people is broken. In a moving exorcism, the northern stranger is chased from the town's igloo, and his power negated.
In this Shakespearean, convoluted story of thwarted love and honor, the palette of the cinematographer becomes the star of this movie. The colors and textures of ice and snow reflect the emotional contradictions of the film. The breadth and scope of this epic is remarkable considering that it is the first produced by the all native crew. Underwritten by the National Film Board of Canada it provides incredible native insights into themselves! The music is endearing, featuring native throat singers and a group called the Bulgarian Voices. Violins and the incredibly difficult art of throat singing underscore the film's emotional and psychological gestalt.
At the Sunshine Theatre, where I saw the movie, the Director Zacharias Kunuk has on display his own soapstone sculptures of various scenes in the movie, such as "Headpuch Scene," " Shaman Spirits" (which features walrus whiskers--if you've never seen walrus whiskers, you owe it to yourself to view them before the show moves on), "Love and Hate: Atanarjuat and Atuat Reunited, Looking at Puja." Also on display are various native implements used in the movie, such as the savik, a caribou bone knife; the quilliq, a stone lamp; the ulu, a stone knife; and cooking pots of soapstone and children's toys made of caribou vertebrae.
Like the green boogie, it reveals the strengths and the human attributes of native artists. Just like boogers can be identified to their source by DNA analysis, well, if I wanted Ice Capades, I'd have gone to Madison Square Garden.