Fast Runner (Atanarjuat), The

Reviewed By Thom
Posted 05/10/02 15:18:07

"Amazing opportunity to get a look inside an ancient Inuit tale"
5 stars (Awesome)

While the Inuit do not live anymore in the way depicted, it feels like at this moment, somewhere way up North, people are still sledding across the tundra on deer antler blades and hunting seal. The story of Atanarjuat (Ah-tah-nar-joo-awt) is still passed on by Elders but represents a shadow of the former culture. In pre-white-man days, the story would be told by the clan shaman and the telling of it is shamanism at work creating a change in the clan and teaching it about it’s survival. There are universal truths embedded in this ancient tale as well as information about skills basic to the Inuit such as skinning a seal or testing for thin ice. I was on the edge of my seat (or at least, comfortably reclining, yet attentively engaged) for the nearly three hour movie wondering, like the wide eyed kids around the seal oil lamps deep in the underground stone houses, what’s going to happen next!

“When missionaries came, they proclaimed shamanism the Devil’s work. But they didn’t look into what the shamans felt, or how they gave life to the dying, visited the dead, found trails over land. When the missionaries forced their religion on us, storytelling and drum dancing were almost banned.”, explains director Zacharias Kunuk. “Atanarjuat is one way of bringing back lost traditions.

The epic cycle deals with themes of leadership and power, abuse and betrayal, creation and destruction, love and responsibility and justice and revenge. Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq) finds a deadly opponent in the brutish Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq), son of the equally mean clan leader. When Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu), who was promised to Oki but loves Atanarjuat, is won by Atanarjuat in a contest where opponents take turn slugging each other on the head, Oki vows revenge. The contest is a device to settle disputes and when Oki refuses to accept the outcome, he invites an evil spirit into the clan. The evil must be purged and the “right” leader established to return the clan back to peace and harmony.

The catalysts for this change involve Panikpak (Madeline Ivalu), mother of the clan leader, and her estranged brother Qulitalik (Paul Qulitalik) as brother and sister shamans. Panikpak’s power as a woman in the clan is limited politically but she exerts a steady, patient influence over Atuat and maintains a telepathic tie to her brother who has promised to come when her heart cries out to him for help.

When Atanarjuat is nearly killed by Oki, he escapes and with the help of Qulitalik, he returns to Iglooik to confront his would be murderer and teaches Oki and the clan a lesson in strength and character.

Atanarjuat, created by and starring an almost all Inuit cast and filmed entirely on location on a small island in the north Baffin region of the Canadian arctic wove traditional Inuit crafts and clothes with language and legend. The prop-makers and costumers had to re-learn how to make and use many of the implements and clothes. The making of the film was a journey of cultural discovery for the Inuit themselves and that culture can now be made available to a wider audience for not only understanding but as sheer entertainment. While the film is wrapped in many layers of meaning and the story of Atanarjuat is a medium to transmit complex cultural information, it ends up as a really ripping tale.

The film is in Inuit with English subtitles. Inuit storytelling is one of the oldest art forms. For four thousand years, the nomadic Inuit have been perfecting the art of the story to have emerged in our time as a precious gift. If I were going a screenwriter taking a class in story structure, I’d want nothing less than an Inuit story teller teaching me.

The world is getting smaller but there are still stones left unturned. This one’s been turned over for us and I was thrilled to have a look. Forget Clan of the Cave Bear, Quest for Fire or even Star Wars, this film will bring you in deep and set you gently back in the real world wondering how we could have been so deprived of a tale as rich and engaging as the Mahaburata or the epic of Gilgamesh.

The movie was made professionally, thankfully, so it is filmic, rather than being a stationary camera filming a stage. The music used to lift the images off the screen was amusingly non-Inuit and featured, from what I could tell, Tibetan throat singing and the Bulgarian Woman’s chorus. The cultural jambalaya works to bring out the artistry of a world-class film.

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