PRINT April 2007


Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) erupted onto the screen at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, just as its eponymous hero of legend, at the turning point of the film, bursts naked from his ice hut, startling his would-be assassins who had left him for dead, fleeing on bare, bleeding feet across the vast, dazzlingly white tundra and ice floes of the northeastern Canadian Arctic. Literally coming from nowhere—it was the first theatrical feature made within Inuit society by an Inuit director, Zacharias Kunuk—the film was astounding visually, kinetically, narratively, emotionally, historically, from beginning to end.

Only about two dozen critics showed up for the film’s first press showing at Cannes, but the air-conditioning in the theater was blasting at crowd level. Huddled in my seat, I felt as if the chill were emanating from the screen. By movie’s end, there were only a handful of us left; nevertheless, within days, word of mouth—appropriate, given the film’s origin in an oral tradition—had made The Fast Runner a must-see event. It won the coveted Caméra d’Or, the prize for best first feature, and went on to win many more festival prizes; it also had modest box office success in a dozen countries, including the United States, and was named to innumerable critics’ “best of the year” lists.

Kunuk’s film would have been memorable even if the circumstances under which I encountered it hadn’t been, by chance, perfectly aligned to amplify its qualities. In addition to that cold theater, there was the fact that the movie had screened a day after Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now Redux (the restored and extended version of Apocalypse Now). They were a wild pair: both epic journeys across forbidding terrains, filled with violent interactions and larger-than-life characters—the Coppola baroque, overheated, replete with the kind of set pieces that only eight-figure Hollywood budgets can buy, the Kunuk spare as its white-on-white landscape. Which was stronger? I could not then and still cannot choose between them.

Based on an ancient Inuit story set about a thousand years ago, The Fast Runner is a cautionary tale and a prescription for survival under conditions in which a single blood feud can jeopardize the future of an entire community. The film opens on a blindingly white snowscape; in the distance, a man, alone but for his sled dogs. The dogs are howling and so is the wind. It could be the opening of a horror film, the sound as uncanny as the throat singing that accompanies some of the later scenes. The sense of primal terror continues in the next sequence, which acts as a prologue to the narrative proper. Inside a hut, lit by flickering oil lamps and crowded with men, women, and children, inexplicable, frightening things are taking place. Two men are glimpsed naked and bound; someone shouts out an accusation of patricide; one man places an animal-tooth necklace faces tattooed with delicate lines like seal whiskers, look on worriedly. One of them offers a terse voice-over explanation for the nightmarish events: Evil has descended on the community, brought by a shaman from the north.

Twenty years later, evil is still afoot. Oki, the spoiled son of the camp leader, is envious of his cousins Atanarjuat, the fast runner, and Atanarjuat’s older brother Amaqjuaq, the strong one. Atanarjuat and Oki are rivals for the hand of the gravely beautiful Atuat. She had been promised to Oki but has fallen in love with Atanarjuat. Imagining an easy victory, Oki agrees to fight Atanarjuat: Winner gets the girl. The ritualized punching match involves each participant offering his temple to his opponent, who lands the hardest blow he can. After several punishing rounds, Atanarjuat is victorious. Several years pass. Atanarjuat, Atuat, and their child are camped with Amaqjuaq and his wife. Oki sends his sister, Puja, the Helen of Troy figure of this Arctic epic, to stir up trouble. Puja seduces Atanarjuat, who makes her his second wife. But when Puja rolls from under Atanarjuat’s bearskin to Amaqjuaq’s as they lie side by side, Atanarjuat throws her out. Puja tells Oki that Atanarjuat beat her, and Oki, who has been looking for an excuse for murder, goes with his followers to ambush Atanarjuat and his family. Amaqjuaq is killed, but Atanarjuat escapes to make the mythica marathon run that justifies his name. He finds refuge with an elderly couple, exiles since the occasion of that primal sin—the barely glimpsed patricide—and they nurse him back to health. In the meantime, Oki rapes Atuat and, following the family tradition, kills his own father, installing himself as camp leader. He blames the murder on Atanarjuat. Eventually, Atanarjuat returns to challenge Oki to yet another hand-to-hand combat, which he wins by combining brawn and brains. The curse of the evil shaman is lifted and order restored.

The mesh of power and desire, of jealousy, murder, and revenge, and of the laws and taboos around propagation is familiar stuff, from the House of Atreus to the house of Tony Soprano. What’s unique about The Fast Runner is that the drama of human interaction is played out within a larger drama: the struggle to survive in the most hostile environment imaginable. Thus scenes of playful courtship, violent combat, plotting and planning (enacted with gleeful spontaneity and great conviction by an almost entirely nonprofessional cast) are interspersed with close-up, detailed depictions of quotidian activities—greasing a sled, skinning a walrus, feeding a bit of raw animal heart to a drooling baby—that would not be out of place in an ethnographic film. As in cultures where survival is uncertain, the focus is on the body. Jokes are ribald, sex is bawdy, fighting brutal, laughter loud, singing and dancing exuberant. The dialectic of the film is between the heat of flesh and emotions that spill out every which way and the frozen, awe-inspiring, ascetic beauty of the landscape. The Fast Runner is nothing if not an elemental experience.

It is a production of Igloolik Isuma Productions, a company founded in 1990 by Kunuk, Norman Cohn, Paul Apak Angilirq, and Igloolik elder Pauloosie Qulitalik. Apak, who died in 1998, wrote the screenplay for The Fast Runner, the first feature-film script written in Inuktitut, one of the principal Inuit languages, which is spoken by about thirty thousand people. He gathered the material from various Inuit storytellers, each with his or her own variation on this central myth in Inuit culture.

In 1981, Kunuk traveled from Igloolik, a remote island community in the northeast Canadian Arctic where he had lived since childhood, to Montreal. There, he sold three soapstone carvings he had made and used the money to buy a video camera, with which he returned home. As legends go in the short history of video art, this rivals the one about Nam June Paik rushing out in 1965 to buy the first Porta-Pak available in the United States, encountering, as he left the store, a car bearing Pope Paul VI along Fifth Avenue, videotaping him, and showing the video that very night to an audience of art-world luminaries at a Greenwich Village coffeehouse. Whether factual or apocryphal, these stories reflect the magical aura that surrounded the video apparatus when it first became available to individuals working outside the television industry.

After seeing some of Kunuk’s videos, Cohn, a New York–born video maker who was living in Canada in the early ’80s, moved to Igloolik to collaborate with him. “We started working together,” Cohn, the director of photography for The Fast Runner, wrote me, “because we found ourselves two men from vastly different origins who shared the same vision and artistic sensibility.” That vision was built on a belief that video was not merely a recording device or an art medium but had the potential to transform culture and individual lives. While the messianic fervor of the American video makers of the late ’60s and early ’70s was short lived and video communities such as New York’s Raindance Corporation quickly disappeared, the work of Igloolik Isuma suggests that, hyperbolic idealism aside, there are certain situations in which video empowers makers and audiences as no other medium can.

From ancient times the Inuit have transmitted their history and culture orally through storytelling. The Christian missionaries who had begun colonizing the Inuit as early as the 1700s would devise a phonetically based alphabet in the nineteenth century and begin translating the Bible into Inuktitut. The written version of the language is thus tainted by its colonialist origins. The missionaries outlawed vital elements of the indigenous culture—its storytelling, drumming, singing. The rituals and traditions of its shamans were condemned as satanic. Kunuk and Cohn’s project has been to use video as a forum for reviving and preserving the traditional stories and the oral, performative aspects of the storytelling, as well as to document in detail everyday activities as they are practiced today and were in the past. Over the last twenty years, they have developed a fluid moving-picture language that combines drama and documentary, which they have dubbed “re-lived cultural drama.” “If something is shot a certain way and very well acted,” Cohn explains, “you can make a historical drama that couldn’t possibly be ‘real’ look like it’s a documentary, or, even better, have the transparent quality of live TV—like the news, where you actually see it happen as it happens.”

Their first sustained experiment in the form that proves so dazzling in The Fast Runner was Nunavut (Our Land). Produced in 1994 and 1995, it is a thirteen-part made-for-television historical drama set in 1945, less than a decade before the Canadian government began moving the nomadic northeast Arctic Inuit to settlements. The narrative, which follows five families over the course of a year, is culled from the memories of Inuit elders and in many cases is enacted by their direct descendants. Our Land prefigures one of the most striking aspects of The Fast Runner—the retarding of narrative flow by focusing on the rituals and activities of daily life. Thus there are lengthy sequences of hunting and fishing, of food preparation and eating, of chiseling snow into building blocks for igloos, and of harnessing dogs and traveling by sled over the vast, inhospitable landscape, which in itself, as in The Fast Runner, provides half the drama. Our Land is of necessity a survival story. The other dramatic element involves the ongoing conflict between the vestiges of traditional Inuit culture and Christianity, which would not be introduced to Nunavut, the remotest region of Canada, until the twentieth century; but almost immediately upon its introduction around 1920, it became the dominant institution in Inuit society.

In addition to Our Land, Isuma (which means “to think” in Inuktitut) has produced more than a dozen one-off pieces for television. Eight of them are collected in a video anthology titled Unikaatuatiit (Storytellers). The first three pieces are set in the 1930s and sketch out the method of historical reenactment elaborated in Our Land. The other five are present-day documentaries. The pieces delve into problematic issues around education, government, gender roles, and ecology (in one piece, hunters illegally kill a bowhead whale, once an important source of food and now a protected species). Again the theme of old versus new is crucial. One of the loveliest pieces shows Kunuk’s preteen son being taught by his grandfather how to kill a polar bear. The intimate, contemporary home-video aspect of the piece gains resonance from an elder’s account of the old way of hunting. If one’s visual introduction to Inuit culture came through The Fast Runner or through the broadcast of Our Land, which put Igloolik Isuma Productions on the Canadian cultural map, it is momentarily startling to see residents of Igloolik dressed in flannel shirts and living in metal houses rather than lumbering about in layers of bearskin. Such is the power of Kunuk and Cohn’s method of giving presence to the past.

Nevertheless, in terms of theatrical feature films, The Fast Runner has proved a hard act to follow. The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (2006), codirected by Kunuk and Cohn, with digital videography again by Cohn, is as different from The Fast Runner as two films can be that are made by the same creative/production team, use largely the same group of actors, and are shot in the same overwhelming and defining landscape. Like The Fast Runner, The Journals portrays Inuit society from the inside, but its story is devastatingly bleak, which may partly account for the film’s mixed reception when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall and played at the New York Film Festival immediately after. It may also be that there is no way to reproduce the thrill of a first encounter.

Set in 1922, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen depicts the savaging of Inuit traditions and identity by Christian missionaries—in this case native Inuit proselytizers—who employed a diabolical strategy to destroy the shamanism on which the culture was based. Rasmussen was a mixed-race Arctic explorer and ethnographer (father Danish, mother Inuit) who recorded his encounter with Avva, the last of the great Inuit shamans, in his journal. Although the journal is, in actuality, the only written record of their meeting, it is by no means the film’s governing point of view; the title has a certain irony. From the first, what we might assume is Rasmussen’s story is threaded through that of Apak, the shaman’s daughter, who is looking back at this moment of cultural and personal crisis from the perspective of an old woman. Around the midpoint of the film, Rasmussen parts company with Avva and Apak and is not seen again. Thus, he is not a witness to the denouement of the tragedy, which is depicted from Avva and Apak’s points of view. Indeed, the shape of the narrative precisely reflects the struggle of the Inuit people to reclaim their history.

The first half of the film takes place almost entirely inside the hut where Avva is living with his family in self-imposed exile from the newly Christianized Igloolik community. “They never stop singing,” someone says, and it is clear from their smirks that the family believes their former friends have drunk the Kool-Aid. Rasmussen is visiting with two other Danish explorers. The family entertains their guests with songs and then asks Rasmussen to sing one of his own in exchange. The Dane performs an a cappella rendition of “M’appari tutt’amor,” an aria from Friedrich von Flotow’s Martha (1847), and although he doesn’t understand the lyrics, Avva responds to the expression of love and loss in the melody. In the morning the family and their guests assemble outside the hut, clustering around Rasmussen’s portable phonograph, on which he plays a 78 of Enrico Caruso singing the same aria. The sequence is an overt reference to Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (where Nanook takes a bite out of the record Flaherty gives him), which, along with Rasmussen’s journal, is one of the only surviving documents of Inuit life during this period and, like the journal, is the account of an outsider. (It is interesting to note that Flaherty completed Nanook in 1922, the very year in which The Journals is set.) Before Rasmussen departs to continue his explorations, Avva tells him the story of how he found his calling as a shaman. Finally, Avva and his family, accompanied by the two other Danes, go off by sled in a different direction, back home to Igloolik. En route they encounter a contingent of Christian converts, also from the island. Avva’s family has nothing left to eat; the converts offer them food, but only on condition that they participate in the Mass. Knowing that certain animal parts are forbidden to shamans lest they lose their powers, the missionaries have designated these very organs as the Host. Thus the choice for Avva and Apak, who has inherited her father’s gift, is between starving to death and losing their identity.

The final sequences of The Journals are as heartbreaking as anything in cinema, worthy of comparison with the death of the donkey in Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar. Their power has to do with the quietly grave performances of Pakkak Innukshuk as Avva and Leah Angutimarik as Apak and with the way in which Kunuk and Cohn employ, in a series of extended wide-angle shots, the vast Arctic landscape as the site of a metaphoric journey that is existential, spiritual, and cultural. First Apak makes the trek from her father’s hut to the Christian community that awaits her. Then Avva, alone in the snow, summons his spirit helpers to bid them farewell. Delicately beautiful beneath their elaborate furs, the bewildered spirits slowly retreat across the tundra, crying and looking back over their shoulders as Avva continues to wave them away. As they become specks in the distance and the image begins to fade, the whitened sky, reflecting the setting sun, turns pink and gold, the colors as ephemeral as those in the afterimage of an Agnes Martin painting. After a brief credit sequence in which we see photographs of the real Avva and Rasmussen, there is a final iconic Arctic image of a dogsled traversing the snow. Accompanying its passage we hear the Caruso recording of the haunting aria played earlier in the film—its juxtaposition with the image suggesting that the apparition of beauty referred to in the lyric is of a culture whose integrity has been fatally breached. The final sound in the film is that of the ice cracking apart.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Film Comment and Sight & Sound.