The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat) (2002)

Elbert Ventura

Exotic and universal, The Fast Runner is as engrossing as any thriller, as majestic as any epic.

The Fast Runner (atanarjuat)

Director: Zacharias Kunuk
Cast: Natar Ungalaaq, Sylvia Ivalu, Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq, Lucy Tulugarjuk
MPAA rating: not rated
Studio: Lot 47 Films
First date: 2002
US Release Date: 2002-06-07 (Limited release)

Can a culture that subsists on irony and cynicism possibly make room for a movie like The Fast Runner? Three hours long, viscerally disorienting, and with nary a pandering bone in its body, the first Inuit feature ever made is an unlikely presence in the summer movie season. Then again, maybe it's not.

Derived from the oral traditions of the Inuit, the movie is literally the stuff of myth. And myth, with its timeless themes and resonant lessons, is the stuff of blockbusters -- at least in the hands of mountebanks like George Lucas. Paired up against The Fast Runner, Lucas's Star Wars cash cow reveals itself to be the bankrupt exercise that it is. If the former sees myth as a window into human experience, the latter uses it as a vehicle for mindless distraction -- and little else. It goes without saying that The Fast Runner stands no chance of grossing more than Attack of the Clones's catering budget. Nonetheless, the comparison reminds us how far movie culture has fallen.

And yet things might not be so bad. If the applause that greeted The Fast Runner at the end of a packed Sunday screening is anything to go by, movie-goers might yet make that adventurous leap and embrace a movie un-embellished with bells and whistles and unfashionable in its straight-faced sobriety. Certainly the advance hype can only help the movie's cause. Hosannas have piled up in the movie's wake on the festival circuit. The Fast Runner took home the Camera D'Or award at last year's Cannes Film Festival, and won the best picture award at this year's Genies, the Canadian equivalent of the Oscars. Critics have been scarcely less enthusiastic, with the Village Voice's Jim Hoberman going so far as to call it "a rebirth of cinema."

The Fast Runner may not be the rebirth of cinema -- it may not even be the best movie I've seen this year (though it's close) -- but it's genuinely sui generis. Filmed in the icy expanses of Canada's harsh Nunavut region, the movie raises countless questions, not least because of the seemingly impossible logistics involved in its creation. Cultural milestone and technical marvel that it is, the story behind its making shouldn't obscure the movie's virtues. At once exotic and universal, The Fast Runner is as engrossing as any thriller, as majestic as any epic.

The first half-hour sets the scene in fractured, oblique passages introducing us to a small, nomadic Inuit community. Difficult to decipher, the movie's disorienting opening -- at first off-putting -- becomes clearer in retrospect. It all begins on a troubling note, as the tribe's head, Kumaglak (Apayata Kotierk), is murdered, and Sauri (Eugene Ipkarnak) assumes leadership. In a flashback, the movie recounts the entrance into the community of a mysterious shaman (Abraham Ulayuruluk), who seems to have cursed the tribe. Presumably in the thrall of the evil shaman's seductive powers, Sauri grinds down his rival, Tulimaq (Felix Aralarak), and in the process destroying the tribe's hopes of restoring its placid spirit of communitarian harmony.

Years pass. Now grown, Tulimaq's sons, Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq) and Amaqjuaq (Pakkak Innushuk), have become recognized as the tribe's best hunters. Looking on in heated envy is Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq), Sauri's eldest son and the tribal bully. Soon, the bad blood erupts into a full-fledged rivalry between Atanarjuat and Oki for the affections of Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu). The rivalry eventually boils into violence, and which climaxes with a savage murder and a daring escape -- an exhilarating foot chase across the frozen wasteland that should be remembered as one of the new millennium's great movie moments.

Poised between ethnography and derring-do, the movie has the unadorned power of legend, and recalls the superhuman exploits and fantastic narrative turns of the Homeric tales. Patricide, adultery, magic spells, an odyssey: all the trappings of folktale and fable are present. The movie's greatest achievement is its representation of the hoary tropes of narrative epics -- oft used and frequently debased by pop culture -- in a way that breathes life back into them. The Fast Runner gets at the humanity in myths, imbuing the ancient with the jolt of universality and timelessness. In these parochial times and this insular culture, it feels like the shock of the new.

For a first time feature film director, Zacharias Kunuk shows remarkable assurance. Oscillating between the unending Arctic horizon and the contours of the human face, Kunuk creates a visual dialectic that perfectly conveys the movie's fusion of anthropological specificity and cosmic abstraction. (It's the stuff of all great epics: the heroism of human achievement played out against a grand, unknowable design.) Shooting on digital video with cinematographer Norman Cohn, Kunuk gives his movie a naturalistic look that makes the most of the handy lightness of DV. It's a nimble movie, packed with handheld vérité, tight shots in cramped interiors, and images of life seemingly caught on the fly.

That life is rendered lovingly. If the movie resists lapsing into landscape porn -- a genuine temptation given its spectacular setting -- it can't quite help but feel like an affectionate encomium to its subject. The camera lingers on tribal rituals and mundane activities, immersing the audience completely in The Fast Runner's world. In a touching gesture, Kunuk fills his frame with children -- defiant reminders that the culture endures.

Not least of the movie's accomplishments is its validation of digital video. The Fast Runner solves the nascent technology's most niggling problem -- its cruddy look compared to celluloid -- by nature of its setting (or its setting in nature). The Arctic expanse, beautiful, stark and stretching out as far as the eye can see, supplies its own beauty, compensating for the medium's visual shortcomings. Even more significant, the movie gives new credence to DV's democratic promise. Simply put, this is a movie that would not have been possible without DV. There might be a hundred idiot DV projects for every The Fast Runner, but if that's the price of democracy, so be it.

Naysayers have sought to invalidate audiences' enthusiasm for the movie by chalking it up to politically correct generosity. Borderline racist, such sentiment belies dulled sensibilities. Is it possible that some people fail to apprehend the movie's stirring power? Predictably, much of the criticism against The Fast Runner comes from the DV-is-the-death-of-film crowd. The usually astute Jeremiah Kipp of Matinee Magazine has even suggested that Kunuk might have been better off waiting for financing, and risk not getting it, rather than shoot his film on a second-rate medium -- a cruel, untenable suggestion.

Exploring rather than exploiting myth, The Fast Runner shows us that, across eons and oceans, human experiences remain constant. In the closing credits, Kunuk seeks to demystify his enchanting movie by showing out-takes of the snowbound production, reminding audiences that what they have just seen was a product of committed artists, rather than a mystical text sprung from the ground. It's a tribute to the movie's peculiar power that the onerous production has to be brought to our attention. Such is the magic that The Fast Runner weaves.





PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.


David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors

David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.


David Lord Salutes Collaborators With "Cloud Ear" (premiere)

David Lord teams with Jeff Parker (Tortoise) and Chad Taylor (Chicago Underground) for a new collection of sweeping, frequently meditative compositions. The results are jazz for a still-distant future that's still rooted in tradition.


Laraaji Takes a "Quiet Journey" (premiere +interview)

Afro Transcendentalist Laraaji prepares his second album of 2020, the meditative Moon Piano, recorded inside a Brooklyn church. The record is an example of what the artist refers to as "pulling music from the sky".


Blues' Johnny Ray Daniels Sings About "Somewhere to Lay My Head" (premiere)

Johnny Ray Daniels' "Somewhere to Lay My Head" is from new compilation that's a companion to a book detailing the work of artist/musician/folklorist Freeman Vines. Vines chronicles racism and injustice via his work.


The Band of Heathens Find That Life Keeps Getting 'Stranger'

The tracks on the Band of Heathens' Stranger are mostly fun, even when on serious topics, because what other choice is there? We all may have different ideas on how to deal with problems, but we are all in this together.


Landowner's 'Consultant' Is OCD-Post-Punk With Obsessive Precision

Landowner's Consultant has all the energy of a punk-rock record but none of the distorted power chords.


NYFF: 'American Utopia' Sets a Glorious Tone for Our Difficult Times

Spike Lee's crisp concert film of David Byrne's Broadway show, American Utopia, embraces the hopes and anxieties of the present moment.


South Africa's Phelimuncasi Thrill with Their Gqom Beats on '2013-2019'

A new Phelimuncasi anthology from Nyege Nyege Tapes introduces listeners to gqom and the dancefloors of Durban, South Africa.


Wolf Parade's 'Apologies to the Queen Mary' Turns 15

Wolf Parade's debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary, is an indie rock classic. It's a testament to how creative, vital, and exciting the indie rock scene felt in the 2000s.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.


Fransancisco's "This Woman's Work" Cover Is Inspired By Heartache (premiere)

Indie-folk brothers Fransancisco dedicate their take on Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" to all mothers who have lost a child.


Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.


Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.


Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.


Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.