Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner
Starring: Natar Ungalaaq, Sylvia Ivalu, Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq, Lucy Tulugarjuk
Filming for nine months in the isolated Canadian arctic with a cast of talented, unprofessional actors, director Kunuk and cameraman, Norman Cohn have accomplished a monumental achievement with "Atanarjuat," an epic folk tale from the Inuit community. If you have never heard of these proud people, I will dare to mention the politically incorrect term "Eskimos" to best describe these sturdy nomads who populate the land off the coast of the Baffin Islands in the icy arctic of Canada.
Winner of many Genie awards (Canada's Oscars), "Atanarjuat" also won the prestigious Caméra d'Or at Cannes.
"Atanarjuat" (The Fast Runner) is an epic tale of love, murder, rape, revenge and betrayal set against the pristine beauty of this frozen land. (In summer, the temperature warms to a chilly 20 degrees Fahrenheit.) Within its two hours and 52 minutes, "Atanarjuat" offers a visual feast for the eyes while impressively recreating an ancient culture that was long ago destroyed by outsiders and missionaries.
Filmed in digital Betacam, Cohn's camera follows the tale of "Atanarjuat" and his older brother who must survive in the brutal climate of this unforgiving region while defending against a neighbouring tribe possessed by an ancient, evil spirit. Done in semi-documentary style, director Kunuk slowly unfolds his story and carefully introduces his characters. While establishing the drama, Cohn's camera follows the strange tribal customs and day to day activities of the Inuit community. The digital Betacam is impressive in the hands of a talent such as Cohn. This ancient tale is captured with fascinating imagery and profound artistry.
One cannot help but be reminded of Robert Flaherty's classic "Nanook of the North" as we view the daily struggle for survival among these noble people. Some may find the slow pacing of the film irritating, yet it all seems quite apropos in this frozen wasteland where time has little or no meaning. With the unfamiliar sound of the Inuktitut language, the percussive sounds of the native music, and the breathtaking images, the film takes on a quiet pace that grows in strength and interest as the rhythm of the drama develops.
When Atanarjuat's brother is brutally murdered, the film kicks into high gear with one of the most memorable scenes in the film. Pursued by three bloodthirsty tribesmen with deadly harpoons, the camera races along with Atanarjuat as he runs for his life, naked and exposed, through miles of treacherous ice fields. After a long pursuit, Atanarjuat outruns the killers and escapes. It's a stunning moment and one that you will not likely forget.
"Atanarjuat," The Fast Runner is a remarkable film and its rewards for the viewer will be many. It stands as a lasting tribute to a culture and a people long forgotten by time and progress. It succeeds on every level.