Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner
The Fast Runner
starring Natar Ungalaaq, Sylvia Ivalu, Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq, Lucy Tulugarjuk
screenplay by Paul Apak Angilirq
directed by Zacharias Kunuk
by Walter Chaw Zacharias Kunuk's Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner), the first motion picture presented entirely in the Inuit language Inutkikuk, is what it means to be transported by the cinema: taken to another place and another time on the flickering wings of film's lunar art. It is the realization of the full possibility of the movies to present the alien as familiar while providing a vital anthropological connection through the naturalism and glorious universality of its characters and story. An Inuit legend passed through centuries of oral tradition that demonstrates a very particular peculiarity of world mythology, Atanarjuat, seen one way, is a classic banning fable--thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife and possessions, thou shalt not murder. Jung spoke of a common well of images and signifiers from which we draw our stories and Atanarjuat, unfolding on a cold-blasted primeval arctic plain, has the quality of totem.
Kumaglak (Apayata Kotierk) is an unlucky hunter forced to suffer the jibes and leftovers of his clansmen in remote Igloolik. "One day my sons will take care of us," he assures his wife, and twenty years later Amaqjuaq (Pakkak Innushuk) and his younger brother Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq) grow into a formidable pair: the one strong of body, the other swift of foot, both accomplished seal and caribou hunters. Atanarjuat presents a villain in Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq), whose betrothed Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu) prefers Atanarjuat, causing him to challenge Atanarjuat to a test of strength in the form of mouth wrestling and sharp blows to the temple.
The Cannes Camera d'or-winning Atanarjuat was shot on DV before being transferred to 35mm, and it is easily the best-looking digitally-captured film that I have ever seen. Perhaps the preternatural crispness of the format lends itself particularly well to the harsh angles and colours of the picture's arctic winterscape. Whatever the case, from the first shot of a man standing on a limitless plain as his sled dogs run in and out of frame, to one of the most immediate and vital chase sequences ever framed, to its last few moments in a smoky, fur-lined community habitat as the fates of several young people are decided, the film is never anything but entirely convincing and ravenously involving.
Atanarjuat is a passion too short at 172 minutes, educating us equally in the Inuit culture of a century ago and in the sociology of man for time immemorial, finding its heart in the heart of human experience. The picture is breathless and carefully-modulated, allowing its characters to be at once distinct from and inseparable from the land that provides for the community as it ravages the individual. The lessons gleaned from the picture are more than proximate ones: Atanarjuat is myth captured and formulated to film. It is bliss. Originally published: June 28, 2002.