The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat) (2002)

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.