The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat)

2001, Movie, NR, 172 mins


Movie audiences have seen little of the Canadian Arctic native people since 1922, when Robert J. Flaherty introduced NANOOK OF THE NORTH to the rest of the world. So this strange and often thrilling three-hour film is a welcome event: Not only is it a reintroduction to a fascinating culture that has survived 4,000 years in a remote and most inhospitable climate, but it's also the first film ever directed by an Inuit filmmaker and featuring an all-Inuit cast. Based on an age-old folktale and set in the distant past, the story unfolds in Igloolik, now the cultural center of Nunavut but once a small settlement of nomadic Inuit. The village has fallen under the evil influence of Tungajuaq (Abraham Ulayuruluk), the wicked shaman who murdered the community's leader, Kumaglak (Apayata Kotierk), granted power to Kumaglak's young and ambitious son, Sauri (Eugene Ipkarnak), and cursed Sauri's rival, Tulimaq (Felix Alaralak), with bad luck and worse hunting. In this world out of joint, Tulimaq's son Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq) and his older brother, Amaqjuaq (Pakak Innuksuk), come of age as outcasts. But Atanarjuat has something Sauri's son, Oki (Peter Henry Arnatsiaq), desperately desires but can never have: the love of Atuat (the superb Sylvia Ivalu). Atuat's father promised her to Oki, but Oki agrees to fight Atanarjuat for her in a head-punching contest. (The first man to lose consciousness loses the girl.) Atanarjuat wins, but earns Oki's undying hatred. Once Atuat becomes pregnant and can no longer accompany her husband on the long caribou hunt, Atanarjuat takes a second wife, Oki's temptress sister Puja (Lucy Tulugarjuk). Even Puja's grandmother, Panikpak (Madeline Ivalu), believes Puja is infected by the shaman's evil, and she may be right. Not long after returning to Atanarjuat's camp, Puja seduces her husband's brother; when Atanarjuat throws her out, she schemes to have him murdered. Inuk soapstone carver-turned-director Zacharias Kunuk's debut feature is a positively thrilling combination of ethnography and all the intrigue, betrayal, deceit and murder of a Shakespearean tragedy or a juicy soap opera, and showcases an exciting centerpiece: Atanarjuat's run for his life across the frozen tundra, stark naked, barefoot and pursued by his would be murderers. The film is also a strong endorsement of the versatility and importance of digital video. Without this inexpensive and highly mobile new technology, there's little chance Kunuk would ever have gotten this wonderful film made. (In Inuktitut with subtitles.) leave a comment --Ken Fox

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The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat)
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