Atanarjuat: Fast Runner (Atanarjuat, la légende de l’homme rapide ) Commentary

Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001) is the first feature film realized by Inuit in their own language, Inuktitut, and based on one of their own legends. It is the story of two heroic brothers, Arnaqjuaq (Pakak Innukshuk) and Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq), who grow up in a hunting camp that has been cursed. Twenty years before, a wandering shaman colluded with Sauri (Eugene Ipkarnak) to murder Sauri’s father, the headman. This willingness to kill has allowed Evil into the camp; it will eventually infect another generation. When Sauri’s son, Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq), grows to manhood, he covets Sauri’s position as headman and is prepared to murder his father in turn. What is more, Oki has come into conflict with Atanarjuat over a woman. Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu) has been promised to Oki since childhood; however, she loves Atanarjuat. A further complication is that Puja (Lucy Tulugarjuk), Oki’s sister, also loves Atanarjuat. Both sister and brother are prepared to do whatever it takes to get what they want. What follows is a tale that is as current today as it was a thousand years ago. Lust, love, and power battle their way across the vast Arctic landscape; only legendary hero, Atanarjuat, can rid the people of Igloolik of Evil and restore balance to their lives. 

Legends are especially difficult to portray on film. They feature large-than-life characters performing great deeds in a timeless void. Legends work well as oral narratives because visualization is left to the imagination. But film is a visual medium. Finding the right visual balance between fantasy and realism is not easy. For one thing, legends involve mortal characters – usually warriors or hunters. But these characters have superior powers which they employ in completing a task, or mission. Until that mission is achieved, legendary heroes are a bit harder to kill or overcome than ordinary mortals. Everything about the legendary hero is overblown: he is taller, stronger, faster, more handsome. The task that is given to him would be impossible for an ordinary mortal. The legendary hero often has a male friend or brother. This life-long companion acts as a foil to the hero; although appealing as a character, the companion does not quite measure up to the hero in ability. The legendary friend is therefore seldom alive at the end of the narrative. If a woman figures positively in the epic hero’s life, she is more beautiful, skilful, faithful, and resourceful than ordinary women. In oral cultures, legendary heroes represent the best of society; they are a force for moral order, reconciliation, and hope. As a consequence, it is necessary that any Evil force opposing the legendary hero be vanquished by the end of the story.

This, then, is the mythic framework that informs Atanarjuat, a contemporary re-enactment that respects ancient story-telling conventions. Screenwriter Paul Apak Angilirq, director Zacharias Kunuk, and the elders of modern-day Igloolik who advised them manage to find a balance between the mythic and the real through a realistic portrayal of life in the high Arctic. The narrative may be a thousand years old, but its re-telling feels contemporary. The audience is quickly drawn into recognizable everyday emotions – joy in playing with children, kindness to the less fortunate, love for grandchildren, fear of reprisal, the desire for power, and courage in the face of danger. Woven through this human drama are scenes of daily Inuit life – preparing skins for clothing, methods of fishing and hunting, building igloos, ways of conducting ceremonies, contests and competitions. The forbidding arctic landscape is beautifully rendered in all its seasons; aerial and long shots emphasize its vastness compared to the tiny human figures who live there.

The film takes its name from a legendary chase in which Oki and his henchmen hunt Atanarjuat mile after mile, across ice and snow. Alone and naked, Atanarjuat evades them and their dogs team by running faster and smarter than the three men who have vowed to kill him. Atanarjuat is saved by his physical strength, cunning, and knowledge of the land. He is found and cared for by a good shaman, who hides Atanarjuat from Oki while nursing him back to health.

Director Kunuk’s Arctic is as beautiful as it is harsh. He chose to shoot Atanarjuat in digital Betacam, converting to 35mm later. This approach allowed him greater flexibility while working in rough terrain, but it also contributes to the intimacy of the film. The handheld camera elicits both the emotional warmth of life by oil lamp inside an igloo and chilling scenes of dog teams streaming through the blinding snow.

Atanarjuat has won 22 awards, including the Golden Camera at Cannes and Best Canadian Feature Film at Toronto in 2001. The next year, it won the Toronto Film Critics Association Award for Best Canadian Film and for Best First Feature Film as well as a Claude Jutra Award (Zacharias Kunuk). That same year, Atanarjuat received five Genies: Best Achievement in Directing (Kunuk), Best Achievement in Editing (Norman Cohn, Zacharias Kunuk, Marie Christine Sorda), Best Achievement in Music – Original Score (Chris Crilly), Best Motion Picture (Norman Cohn, Zacharias Kunuk, Germaine Wong, Paul Apak Angilirq), and Best Screenplay (Angilirq).

Evelyn Ellerman