________________ CM . . . . Volume XI Number 7 . . . . November 26, 2004


Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner.

Zacharias Kunuk (Director). Zacharias Kunuk, Norman Cohn and Paul Apak Angilirq (Producers for Igloolik Isuma Productions). Germaine Wong (NFB Producer).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2000.
161 min., VHS, $99.95.
Order Number: C0401 023.

Subject Headings:
Inuit - Canada - Drama.
Inuit - Canada - Folklore.
Legends - Nunavut.

Grades 11 and up / Ages 16 and up.

Review by Valerie Nielsen.

***½ /4

Atanarjuat is a film of extraordinary beauty and power. Produced in 2000 by Igloolik Isuma Productions (an independent Inuit film production company) in conjunction with NFB, it has the authenticity of a documentary and the emotional force of a drama. The company is made up entirely of Inuit artists, with the exception of photography director Norman Cohn. The film is dedicated to two artists, continuity director Amelia Angelirq and writer Paul Apak Angilirq, both of whom died before it was completed.

     Angilirq based the realistic Inuktitut dialogue used in his screenplay on extensive interviews with local elders. Unfortunately, although the VCR version has English sub-titles, they are sometimes obscured by appearing (as they so often do) on a white background. This technological problem adds to the difficulty of following the story line, which, like other epic tales moves through several generations, necessitating different actors to be cast as "young" and "old" versions of the same character. Indeed, viewers will need to watch the film more than once (or find the DVD to watch a compressed version of the original legend) if they are to fully understand and appreciate the theme and plot of Atanarjuat.

     According to director Zacharias Kunuk, his movie "demystifies the exotic, otherworldly aboriginal stereotype by telling a universal story." And what a story! Based on an ancient legend, Atanarjuat tells the tale of an invasion of evil which sets in motion years of misery and discord in Igloolik, a small isolated community of nomadic Inuit. The story takes place during the last millennium, long before European exploration of the Arctic brought the Inuit in contact with white people. The film begins with young Sauri who secretly covets his father's place as leader and resents his brother Tulimaq, favored of the two. Sauri's ambition to overthrow his father, Kumagiak, and take his brother's place attracts an evil shaman who calls up supernatural powers to murder the leader. After this horrific patricide, the small community of Igloolik swings desperately out of balance. Sauri is a weak ruler and his son, Oki, a vicious bully. It is not long before bitter rivalry between Oki and Atanarjuat over the beautiful Atuat flares up, moving the plot toward its inevitable violent climax. Atanarjuat's run for his life, naked and barefoot across the frozen sea as he flees from his murderous pursuers, is a piece of film wizardry which viewers will long remember. Like a Greek epic, Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner is a story in which the supernatural underscores universal themes of love, lust, retribution, revenge, nemesis, forgiveness and healing.

     Scenes of breathtaking beauty come one after the other in Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. Southerners fascinated with the Arctic and the ancient Inuit way of life will find the film historically and geographically rich. All the costumes, props and sets were handmade by local artist and elders and were based on meticulously researched traditional knowledge, drawing on oral history and the journals of Captain William Perry, leader of the British expedition to Igloolik in 1822-23.

     It is not easy to ascertain the value of this beautifully crafted film for pedagogical purposes. There is no doubt that it is a superb resource for teachers working with the a senior high Canadian Studies curriculum. However, because it contains episodes of explicit sex and a rape scene, it is essential that teachers preview Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner before showing it to a class. Media directors who provide such a caveat for educators wishing to use the resource should find it a valuable addition to their collection.

Highly Recommended.

A retired teacher-librarian, Valerie Nielsen lives in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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