June 25, 2002|For all of George Lucas's frothing exhortations for exhibitors and filmmakers to wean themselves off celluloid, the most compelling argument for digital video exists in independent cinema--smaller productions have thus far benefited the greatest from DV's affordability, flexibility, and intimacy. Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn's Atanarjuat (more commonly, The Fast Runner) (Kunuk is listed as director and Cohn as DP, but the reality is closer to their responsibilities being equal and the same), shot entirely on DV and then transferred to 35mm (much like Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones), is the kind of unique indie project that gives hope and reason to the format; without DV, The Fast Runner would have been too expensive and cumbersome to shoot. A stark and beautiful telling of an ancient Inuit banning fable, The Fast Runner is also the first major cinema product from the Inuit people, the first picture shot entirely in the Inutkikuk language, and the first picture to present Inuit people to a western audience free of Nanook of the North stereotypes. Besides being entertaining, The Fast Runner is an important film.
I met Mr. Kunuk and Mr. Cohn in the café/mezzanine of Denver's historic Mayan Theater. Unassuming and unremarkable in appearance, the pair--winners of the Camera d'or at Cannes and heroes to the Inuit people--waded through the afternoon indie crowd unnoticed. Zacharias Kunuk is a quiet guy in square glasses who smokes unfiltered cigarettes with the careful concentration of someone perhaps used to doing without. Like his film, Mr. Kunuk is fond of contemplative silences--he regards you with a calm gaze that has the unfortunate effect of causing those unused to conversational lapses to fill the gaps with blather. Mr. Cohn, long-time collaborator and friend, a native New Yorker who decided to spend the last twenty years living among the Inuit after seeing one of Kunuk's early video documentaries, is just the opposite: loquacious and expansive.
Dressed casually, the pair don't look like the cultural avatars they've become since Atanarjuat debuted in Igloolik, where the film was shot. "The scariest moment of my life," Mr. Kunuk says of his hometown premiere. But by The Fast Runner's end, with a standing ovation carrying them to the world stage, the pair left with their film already feeling as though their job had been done. I greeted them both with a couple of phrases I'd learned in Inutkikuk: "conuipit," meaning, I think, "hello," and "anchaleohomayabeet," which probably meant "I'd like to wear your fruit salad" but was intended as a request for an interview and a photo. Apparently indulgent of fools, Messrs. Kunuk and Cohn consented to talk with me.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Tell me how you heard The Fast Runner's story as a child.
ZACH KUNUK: It was a family thing mostly--my parents would tell us bedtime stories. Sometimes the community would build a big igloo. After dark when it was too cold to move around very much, we would go around in a circle and everyone would tell a story. It was our entertainment, this kind of ritualized storytelling.
Wouldn't this lead to variations? And how did you distil all of them into one story?
NORMAN COHN: Zach went and recorded eight different elders telling this story so that we would have a source body to work with. Remarkably, 85% of every version was essentially the same. Some had extra detail that the others didn't have so what he did was take the 85%, incorporate the extra details we felt were important.
ZK: We ended up keeping all of the details.
NC: Yes. The part about the guys who steal the dog train, the arrival at an island to be buried in seaweed, covering the ice of the igloo with claws on his feet--these were all a part of this ancient legend. What [screenwriter Paul] Apak had to do was... It was sort of like a riddle or a piece of poetry--what he had to do was answer how someone turns this tapestry into a 115-page screenplay. It was incredibly daunting.
ZK: Apak also added character development and filled in dialogue that would explain how these events would be strung together.
How did you get the DV to register so well?
NC: Very simply, we are extremely experienced video makers. We come to the digital filmmaking side entirely from the video side. I've been making video for thirty years, Zach has been making video for twenty years, Apak had been making video for twenty years--so we bring seventy years of video-making experience to the digital format. The secret is we know what we're doing in the medium.
ZK: When you shoot with digital, you're working in video. It only becomes a film through a technical process afterwards.
Does the non-didactic way in which you tell your tale speak to that experience as well?
NC: Absolutely. The inside-out point of view, that proscenium arch looking in to an event from the outside was built into the film industry--but video really brought the camera inside the action for the first time.
ZK: We are using the most high-end digital camera available, which is another thing you learn: that you don't use the bottom of the line unless you're totally broke. There's a lens that allows focus at about six inches. Most cameras need three feet to focus, but with this camera you can shoot literally from inside it.
NC: The beauty of the format is you can capture the vast spaces, but also the claustrophobic living conditions that form the central tension of the film.
The format also seems to be the perfect evocation of this kind of intimate storytelling art.
NC: Yes, the narrative core of tension comes from being engaged in the characters and the quality of time anchors you. Film comes from this hundred year history of cutting everything into short bites to give the illusion of reality whereas with video the whole way you live and learn is by watching--not saying. It is about observation and the expectation one day that you will be required to repeat the action in your own experience.
ZK: They are Inuit qualities and expectations and they are video qualities, too. You're right to say that video was the correct way to tell Fast Runner.
Tell me more about the experience of living in so intimate a society.
NC: It's really a film about intimacy at its heart.
ZK: You can only capture this feeling of intimacy when you know everybody--you know their habits, their personalities, and the way that they act. Having an outsider come in to make this--we would not act the same and he could not know us as well.
Winning the Camera d'or must have felt a bit like a vindication of your dedication.
ZK: It was very shocking, so surprising. I had never been overseas and everything that I was seeing was new: little houses, narrow roads, little coffee cups, little cars. Everything was new to me--weather, even. Palm trees. Back home it's winter and in Cannes it's totally different: people are dressing up and going to the movies, the paparazzi is taking pictures--everything was new and then I won and it was so shocking. I gave my speech in Inutkikuk and then translated myself, and they thought it was really exciting or something. (laughs)
NC: (laughing) They have a simultaneous translation at the podium into French and the guy was following along and Zach starts speaking Inutkikuk and the translator goes silent and everyone goes silent. Suddenly Zach switches back to English and there was this relief--they thought maybe he would never stop speaking Inutkikuk.
Your shoot was stricken by some tragedy: screenwriter Paul Apak Angilirq and make-up artist Therese Ipkarnak died during production. How did that change your film?
ZK: A lot of tragedy, a lot of tragedy. We had to finish the film, we had to do it for them just like we had to do it for our ancestors. There was no turning back.
NC: I think what it did was strengthen the commitment of everyone involved. All films are difficult to make, but it's no accident that Fast Runner is the first film of its kind that has ever been made from a culture like this. We really had to overcome a whole extra set of obstacles to even feel as though we had the right to attempt this film.
ZK: There were points at which others who had tried quit and I think we would have quit, too. We were obstructed, led on, betrayed, but we couldn't quit. Apak was sick or had just died and we looked at each other and--how could we quit? There was also the fact that the system wouldn't let us make it so, of course...
NC: We had to.
ZK: We had to.
Did that sense of dedication aid your predominantly inexperienced cast in their performances?
NC: Yes, we all knew that we were making Apak's film--it was his idea. Everyone respected him a great deal.
ZK: He was an amazing man.
NC: So I do think it coloured the film a lot in terms of how it was made.
How much of The Fast Runner was scripted and how much of it was captured in a documentary fashion; the opening scene, for instance, with the dogs running in and out of frame around a man?
NC: Many of the best scenes were not scripted at all. That scene you describe, for instance, the beauty of the DV format is that we could see a scene develop and just point the camera at it.
ZK: The scene inside the igloo with the incest, there was only room for me and the camera or Norman and the camera, and we would cut a hole in the top and hang a microphone inside.
NC: Yes, it was a hell of a thing for us to even have a script--we're so used to being video makers and documentary makers, so we didn't have anything like storyboards and shooting scripts--so much improvisation was involved. We had a very clear idea of the dialogue and we figured if we could get the people to say the things we needed them to say and do the things that are natural for them to do then we, Zach and Me, were good enough videomakers to capture what we needed to capture to communicate the importance of those particular moments.
ZK: The wind changes, the light changes, the weather changes--you can plan to do something in the morning, but couldn't do it until the evening. Planning: we couldn't do it--too many variables in our conditions to ever block scenes out. What we would do is talk to with the people who are there, figure out for this moment under these conditions, how do we do it?
NC: The script is so important but there were times like a moment where we were all sitting around drinking tea, and there was this guy stumbling around trying to gather his dogs and I'll look at Zach or Zach will tap me on the shoulder and we'll get our cameras. So many of those happy accidents made it into the final cut where moments where we tried to impose a lot of elaborate choreography ended up being cut.
How much footage was shot?
NC: About 140 half-hour cassettes--about 70 hours.
Were you ever afraid that your intimacy with the project would hinder your ability in the editing process to tell a story that was coherent and true to the simplicity of the myth?
ZK: This is a very challenging question. My first feeling is that "somebody had to do it."
NC: There is a feeling that we were following Apak's vision and the road he paved for us to try such a thing.
ZK: There is only one other organization, the Inuit Broadcasting Organization, that is capable of doing this, but they weren't doing it.
ZK: (disdainfully) They are headquartered in Ottawa, but I don't know if that's a good reason. But the fact of it was that we were the only ones who could do it and we were driven by that as well--the reality that even though it was personal, even though we might be clouded by our tragedy and our hardship, we had to find it in ourselves the ability to focus on our story and try to leave the contemplation of our great responsibility until after.
I feel a little foolish in that I wonder if I'm not imposing a more "western" conversational interplay into our discussion: more rushed, more nervous.
NC: (laughs) Sometimes I'll be sitting there and Zach out of nowhere will look at me and say, "Norman, 12:15, time for lunch." And I'll look at him dumbstruck for a few seconds and then he'll burst out laughing. There's no time in Igloolik--there's just a sense of timeliness. They just know--they know where they are, they know when the weather's changing and how to get home, no matter where they are. And they know it because you need to have this absolute confidence and fearlessness to survive in such an environment.
ZK: When I was a child I would go out with the men on walrus hunts and we would stay out on the ice for days. It's very flat and we would very quickly lose sight of the land, but the men never worried and I learned by watching them not only how to butcher the meat and pack it, but how to find my way, how to pace myself so I wouldn't get too tired, and when to sleep so that I could make it home.
NC: The Inuit are very conversational in their silences...
ZK: Especially the women.
NC: In the Inuit language, the silence is meant as a "letter"--the way that silence is used and the way that silence is ended is very important. We tried to capture as much of that sprung rhythm and the importance of nothingness that is so much a part of their lives by establishing that pace in the editing and in the storytelling.
Tell me about that responsibility of not just fulfilling your close friend's dream, but single-handedly changing the perception of the Inuit people from the caricatures found in The Savage Innocents or Nanook of the North.
ZK: The burden was tremendous for us. For the first time the Inuit are not part of the background, and the words coming out of their mouths are not just nonsense noises that are meant to sound like how White men thought that Inuit should sound. In Fast Runner they were really doing it--an all-Inuit cast in the real locations and so if we messed it up, they would know. They were the audience for Fast Runner and it was them that we had to please. Fast Runner was a record that would set the record straight. We did it for Apak and we did it for my people. We knew that if the Inuit were pleased then everything else would follow because then we would know that we had been honest and true.