Fast Runner, The (Atanarjuat)

2 bone dog movie reviewUNRATED
Stars: Natar Ungalaaq, Sylvia Ivalu, Peter Henry Arnatsiaq, Lucy Tulugarjuk, Madeline Ivalu, Pakkak Innuksuk
Director: Zacharias Kunuk
Writer: Paul Apak Angilirq

Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner comes with a warning: for mature audiences only. And I don’t mean that it’s only for adults because of sex and nudity, although it has that too. By mature I mean serious viewers who will take the time to explore what is a most unusual film.

Shot in the Arctic wilds of the Canadian North, this is the first feature film by Zacharias Kunuk. It is told entirely in the Inuktitut language using Inuit actors and a mostly Inuit crew. The tale is based on a 1,000 year old Inuit legend about a curse that has been unleashed by shamanic forces on the people of Igloolik, who are nomadic hunters. Bad luck and dissension infiltrate the tribe. It finally evolves into deep betrayal and murder.

One day, a young man named Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq) makes an enemy of Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq), the hotheaded son of the camp leader, when he wins a contest for Oki’s promised bride, a lovely girl named Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu). The rivalry continues for years and moves into high gear when Oki allows Atanarjuat to take his younger sister to help him in a Caribou hunt. Puja (Lucy Tulugarjuk) is a cheery, seductive sort and soon Atanarjuat takes her as his second wife bringing her home to live with him, Atuat, their yong son and Atanarjuat’s brother Amaqjuaq (Pakak Innuksuk) and sister-in-law Uluriaq (Neeve Irngaut). It is an extended family out of necessity.

In the harsh environment of the Arctic, different camps and clans in the tribe must depend on one another for survival. With clearly defined chores, the men help each other in the dangerous hunts, while the women prepare the meat for food and the skins for clothing. Puja isn’t pulling her weight and the women in camp are having a hard time justifying Puja’s existence there. Then, in the communal sleeping quarters, Puja “bewitches” Atanarjuat’s brother, a highly forbidden act, that causes Puja’s ouster from the camp. Rather than accept responsibility, Puja runs home to her thug-like clan and complains that Atanarjuat tried to kill her. As a result, Oki vows to avenge her honor.

The film was shot entirely on the island of Igloolik, north of Quebec with a digital video camera whose images were then transferred to 355mm for theatrical release. It is unique because it not only envisions a compelling storyline, but it presents, in an interesting fashion, a manner of life that is completely foreign to most people such as the “punching of heads” battle for Atuat and even the more “common” chores of Arctic food preparation. Visually, one of the most unforgetable sequences has to be the naked, barefoot Atanarjuat fleeing across a vast expanse of ice while pursued by Oki and his relatives.

Lotta says Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner is a unique, once in lifetime experience … at least until Zacharias Kunuk is able to make his next one. Fair warning: the film is paced at a leisurely 3 hour mark. Yes, it is too long, but not unbearably so, simply because the subject matter is so strong.

Reviewed 7/7/02