Subtitled "The Fast Runner". This is a 3-hour Canadian film performed entirely in Inuit. It has won a number of awards, which is remarkable when you consider that the two main female characters were played by women who have never acted professionally before. The whole 1999 production is the work of a small Inuit company called Igloolik Isuma Productions, the brainchild of director Zacharias Kunuk.

Atanarjuat (four syllables) is the name of one of the main characters. The film involves a man's response to betrayal by neighbors who have been bewitched into evil-doing. The story is part of Inuit traditional lore and would probably be condemned as unsophisticated if it appeared in a more mainstream production. But I thought it was a fine picture, even if I was sore after sitting for three hours. The moral lessons of the story involve the need to place community over personal gain. I recommend this film especially for the extended exposure it gives to spoken Inuit as well as the details of daily life in Igloolik, a traditional Canadian Arctic settlement.

There is enough sex, nudity, demonic shamanism, and gore (including closeups of raw seal and caribou flesh) that you may want to spare your underage children. On balance, though, I give this film a high rating. My only real complaint is that the beginning of the story is somewhat unclear. There are important issues there (relating to the shamanistic setting and family relationships) that are hard to understand on one seeing. The three-hour version I saw (in New York, shortly after the local opening) seems to be missing many of the scenes described on the web-site involving spirit forces and contemplation.

I'm not sure if my backside can handle a second viewing any time soon. If this picture comes out on DVD, I can make my own intermissions.


A footnote about the names Inuit and Inuktitut has been moved to its own place under Inuktitut.

Atanarjuat,The Fast Runner, an ambitious production by Lot 47 Films, brings you back a long time ago, to what might as well be a galaxy far, far away...A sparse people living in the frozen vastness of the eastern Arctic live and die by the rigors of ice, hunger, and the darkness that lurks in men's hearts.

"Evil in the form of a mysterious unknown shaman enters a small community of nomadic Inuit and upsets its balance and spirit of cooperation. The stranger leaves behind a lingering curse of bitterness and discord: after the camp leader Kumagluk is murdered, the new leader, Sauri, drives his old rival, Tulimaq, down through mistreatment and ridicule."

The film begins with this thousand year old legend, collected from the oral traditions of Inuit elders, and pieced together by the filmmakers into a quick cut series of disorienting scenes. If you have the stamina to stay with the film just long enough to figure out who the characters are and how they are related, you will find yourself fully immersed in a fascinating primitive world, alien and full of intrigue.

The story fast forwards from the triumph of Sauri and picks up in the adult lives of Tulimaq's sons, Atanarjuat, the fast runner, and his brother, Amaqjuat, the strong one. In Atanarjuat, we are shown a true epic hero as surely as a tragic Greek warrior or an Arthurian knight. The film follows Atanarjuat through the demanding, frozen world of Igloolik, where he grows up with close brotherly bonds, an arch nemesis in Sauri's son, Oki, and a love for the beautiful maiden, Atuat. Through a series of violent, treacherous events, Atanarjuat ends up exiled far from his home while life with those he loves goes horribly awry.

The sensations in each frame are so palpable that it's easy to forget you are looking at actors. The filmmakers assembled an all Inuit cast and crew and spent years researching the language and traditions of the ancient people and their efforts lend well to the film's authenticity. "The goal of Atanarjuat is to make the viewer feel inside the action, looking out, rather than outside looking in. This lets people forget how far away they really are, and to identify with the story and characters as if they were just like us." You are pulled into the landscape so completely, you feel like you could know these people. Everything about them is so different, yet their problems are the same. Greed, jealousy, vanity, deceit, rape and murder all manage to find fertile ground and take root in the arctic waste.

The chase scene across the glacier is especially important in magnifying the struggle of these people. When everything is stripped away--family, friends, support, weapons, hope--you are left with just the strength in your body and your will to survive. It is a wonder that these people survive the harsh conditions at all. But they live and compete and love, create, tease, entertain, fight, joke, suffer and renew.

Atanarjuat gives you a hero to cheer for while highlighting a stark, honest look at human nature. Wherever, whenever, it is ugly, it's beautiful and it's fantastic.

Awards for Atanarjuat:
Winner of Camera d'or, Cannes Film Festival
Winner of 6 Genie Awards: best picture, best director, best screenplay, best original score, best editing, claude jutra
Best Canadian Feature Film (2001 Toronto International Film Festival)
Co-Winner, Guardian Award for Best New Director (2001 Edinburgh International Film Festival)
Grand Prix of the Flemish Community for Best Film (2001 Flanders International Film Festival - Ghent)
Special Jury Prize and the Prix du Public (Festival International du nouveau Cinema et des nouveaux Medias de Montreal 2001)
CTV Best of Fest Award (Next Fest 2001 - Digital Motion Picture Festival)
Best Film (ImagineNATIVE Media Arts Festival)
Best Feature Film (2001 Sante Fe International Festival)
Best Feature Film (2002 San Diego International Film Festival)
Audience Award (2002 Newport International Film Festival)
Audience Award (2002 Lake Placid Film Forum)
The Cast
Atanarjuat...........Natar Ungalaaq
Atuat....................Sylvia IVALU
Oki................. Peter-Henry ARNATSIAQ
Puja.............................. Lucy TULUGARJUK
Panikpak............................ Madeline IVALU
Qulitalik.......... Pauloosie QULITALIK
Sauri................... Eugene IPKARNAK
Amaqjuaq........ Pakkak INNUKSHUK
The Filmmakers
director ............... Zacharias KUNUK
screenplay...................... Paul APAK ANGILIRQ
photography..................... Norman COHN
editing.............. Zacharias KUNUK, Norman COHN, Marie-Christine SARDA
music.................... Chris CRILLY
art direction................ James UNGALAAQ
costumes................ Micheline AMMAQ, Atuat AKKITIRQ
producers................. Paul APAK ANGILIRQ, Norman COHN, Zacharias KUNUK
exec producer NFB....Sally BOCHNER
producer NFB............. Germaine YING GEE WONG

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