Drama Index



The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat), 2001. Directed by Zacharias Kunuk. Natar Ungulaaq, Sylvia Ivalu, Peter-Henry Arniatsiaq, Lucy Tulugarjuk, Pakkak Innushuk, Paul Quilitalik.

Synopsis: An evil shaman walks into the community of Igloolik and curses two families there. Over the course of a generation, the evil of the shaman twists the children of Sauri, who are jealous of Atanarjuat and Amaqjuaq. Oki, the evil son, covets Atuat, a girl who prefers Atanarjuat. Puja, the evil daughter, covets Atanarjuat himself. Puja's path is easier: the Inuit allow a man to have more than one wife, and she seduces Atanarjuat on a caribou hunt. Once installed, the other women in Atanarjuat's family resent her. Puja is lazy and bossy and goes for long walks while there is work to be done. "What does she do on these walks?" asks Amaqjuaq's wife, "Fuck spirits?" Puja covets Amaqjuaq, too, and one day seduces a half sleeping Amaqjuaq into having sex with her. This is hard to keep secret, since the whole family is sleeping in the bed at the same time. In retaliation, Atanarjuat banishes Puja, who returns to her own family and spins a tale of how Atanarjuat attempted to kill her. This is the opening Oki needs to take what he covets from Atanarjuat. With two of his friends, he sneaks to Atanarjuat's camp and kills Amaqjuaq. Atanarjuat escapes, but he is naked and is pursued by Oki and his friends across the ice. Atanarjuat shelters with Qulitalik, who left Igloolik as a result of the shaman's curse. There he heals from his ordeal on the ice, until the day he can return and drive the evil from Igloolik.

Pedigree: Every review of The Fast Runner that I've seen opens with a litany of facts about the film: It is the first feature film in Inuit made by Inuits. The story it tells is at least a thousand years old and still exists today in the oral tradition of the Inuits. What all of this means is that the film provides a close examination of a primary anthropological source material in an aesthetic object that is largely unimpressed by the conventions of cinema. The film is too sophisticated to be described as naive--a hundred years of cinema have metriculated even to the arctic circle--but the filmmakers pick and choose among their techniques to find the ones that most closely match their worldview. The results are striking. While The Fast Runner certainly has problems, it is a true rarity in a jaded medium: it is something totally new under the sun.

Lux Aeterna: The most striking thing about The Fast Runner is not, as might be expected, the portrait of an alien culture, but is rather the light it captures. This is unlike any other light in film, capturing the eternal daytime reflected by vast fields of ice and snow. It is the light itself that makes the setting for The Fast Runner seem so utterly alien: this film is set on the very extremes of human habitation. That quality of light influences how the film is perceived by an audience, too. Since there is no real rhythm of night and day in this film, time becomes disconnected, an effect amplified by editing that favors long lingering shots on faces and landscapes. The film is a generational epic, but time in this film seems recursive, as if the whole thing takes place in the eternal present of a story.

Eskimo Noir: The basic storyline in The Fast Runner is fairly simple. What we have in this movie is a potboiler, fueled by sex and jealousy. The basic construction of its story is familiar to anyone with a passing accquaintance with film noir. I started this section with the phrase, "Eskimo Noir," but that's not really sufficient, since it implies both blackness of heart and a darkness of setting. A better term might be "film blanc," given the fact that the dominant color in the film is white. Like film noir, The Fast Runner has reduced its narrative to the barest bones of motivations. Zacharias Kunuk and his co-writer,
Paul Apak Angilirq, have kept things simple, which is a canny choice in a film that immerses the viewer in a world so far beyond the bounds of their own experiences. For most films, such a bare bones plot would sustain maybe ninety minutes of close attention; The Fast Runner transforms it into a three-hour epic.

The Anthropological Discourse: There is a bitter irony involved in the filming of a legend that might be thousands of years old. Anthropologists tell us that languages that have no written component mutate rapidly. A language spoken today might not have existed even a hundred and fifty years ago. Since language shapes culture, the culture depicted in The Fast Runner might never have existed in real life. What we see on screen is an amalgamation of a legend passed down for many generations with a way of life that can be identified because it is still in living memory. This film is a fantasy, although I have no doubt that the way of life depicted in the film doesn't vary much from what might have existed a millennia ago, even if the culture is different. Even so, the attention to details is what enables the film to hold the audience's interest. I mentioned that this film takes place on the extremest limit of human habitation--and I'm sure that most audiences could not imagine what it takes to survive in the arctic--but for a people who have lived in this region for 4000 years, I'm sure that everything in the film is pretty much business as usual. For the rest of us, the documentary detail of this way of life is fascinating (and probably repelling for the vegetarians in the audience, since virtually all raw materials and food come from animals). The mundane details ground the film in reality as the potboiler plot filters its way through. When the film breaks away from these details in its most astonishing sequence, the jolt is startling. This sequence involves a naked man running across an ice field as three other men pursue him with murder in their hearts. In the future, this sequence will be remembered as one of the all time great scenes in movies. It's a stunner.

Sui Generis: I don't know about you, but I go to the movies for new experiences. I'll settle for old experiences if they are well mounted or approached from a new perspective, but new experiences are golden. The Fast Runner provides the shock of the new, and wraps it in a light that seems to glow from the end of the world.