Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner: An Interview with Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn

Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn work off each other. Emotional, psychic, spiritual — they share rhythms that are difficult to pinpoint, fascinating to see.

Director/co-producer/co-writer/co-editor Kunuk and his business partner, co-producer/co-writer/co-editor/cinematographer Cohn (American born, now Canadian) met with me to talk about Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner, the first all-Inuit directed, acted, and scripted feature film, and winner of six Genie Awards, among other honors. Based on an ancient Inuit legend, the film is gorgeous and exhilarating. The script by Paul Apak Angilirq (Kunuk and Cohn’s longtime partner who died during production, in 1998) concerns a malevolent shaman who brings evil to a tight-knit community, causing a rift between two brothers, Amaqjuaq (Pakkak Innukshuk), the Strong One, and Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq), the Fast One. Atanarjuat falls in love with the beautiful Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu), who is promised to Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq): vengeance leads to tragedy, and the Fast Runner escapes on foot, sprinting naked over the snowy tundra.

Cohn does much of the talking, Kunuk being more reserved and, apparently, exhausted from their world traveling with the film to various festivals. Cohn underlines that their primary objective in making the film, shot in widescreen digital betacam, was to “follow the story” laid out in Angilirq’s screenplay, which, Cohn admits, was more like a 6-hour movie. They ended up with some 140 cassettes, over 70 hours of footage, then “distilled.”

PopMatters: How might you describe your process of distillation?

Norman Cohn: Well, we all bring a load of experience. There are hardly any videomakers on earth older than I am, because older than I am, video didn’t exist. That goes back 32 years for me. Zacharias had the first videocamera in the Arctic, and he goes back 21 years. Apak goes back even further, because he was part of this weird national training program in the 1970s. So we bring 70 years of video making experience to the digital film moment, and that’s a lot of know-how. You apply that to a fabulous story, along with hardware, how video is different from film, bringing Inuit values to the process of filmmaking. But there’s no Martin Scorsese. That’s a socially inappropriate concept: the auteur cannot exist in Inuit culture.

PM: I have read that the process was horizontal rather than vertical.

NC: That’s how the Inuit do everything. Seal-hunting, card-playing, filmmaking.

PM: Did you do a lot of work with the actors before shooting?

Zacharias Kunuk: We got them locally, and Apak worked with them a lot. Sometimes the actors worked with themselves a lot, perfecting scenes.

NC: Nobody really directed the actors very much. I hear us saying this to people and it seems so unlikely, because that’s what directors do, direct, and so many of our actors are first-time actors. So how do we do it? The answer is in the process, in the culture. The authentic script is “written” by the people it is about, and they go the extra mile to make sure everything is correct: the gestures, costumes. It’s all checked by elders. By the time we all come together, we just have to be there, and let go.

ZK: So many of us were arguing all the time: “I want that shot,” or “No, I want that shot.” Even the actors got in on it. My only job is to get it going, to organize. Norman was able to throw the camera right in their faces.

NC: If you go back to early concepts in video, the focus is on the importance of process over product. You can’t make a leftwing movie in a rightwing style. The process of your approach is imbedded in your result, if there is any result, because some things are pure process. When there’s a result, an artistic result, an object, I always believed that the object looks like the makers — Scorsese’s films look like what I think he’s like, good and bad. Our film is the result of the ways people are treated, respected, empowered to make the film with us, because we have a sense we’re making it together. This was an important activity, not just a job or some foreign filmmaker coming in who needs an Inuit in the background. It’s like anything, like the hockey playoffs. When you’re really there and focused, your performance comes off at a different level. And it reveals that the conditions for that level of commitment must have been present. Our film shows that.

PM: What kind of video work led you to this project? It sounds like there’s a politics here.

NC: Yes, there is a politics of storytelling, a politics of behavior. I’ve been in an Inuit house, where someone will come in, sit down, visit, get up and leave, without saying a word. That’s a very polite visit. Because Inuit think that if you come in and say, “Hello,” everybody, no matter what they’re doing, has to turn around and pay attention, and when I leave and say, “Goodbye,” I’m expecting an answer. Inuit consider that really impolite. So there’s a sense of good manners that goes well beyond what Europeans think of as good manners. They believe that everyone has the right to be in their moment, whatever way they want to be, and to be themselves, however they can, to bring themselves to any experience and take away what they want, without having anything hammered into their heads. And you can make video like that. You don’t see much of that on television or in the history of film, but video was a medium that either attracted people who thought like that, or gave people a tool that made it easy to do that, because you could let things run for a long time. Of course, one thread of video evolved into intellectual, narcissistic, self-referential postmodern bullshit, but it didn’t have to be that way.

There were values in videomaking that had to do with empowering people in their own voices, putting tools in the hands of people, letting them present themselves, in a non-didactic form, watching and listening rather than telling and being told. And it turns out those are Inuit values. I was making what I call portrait videos, witnessing people’s lives; I can’t describe them, you’d have to see them. But that work was well exhibited, and ten years before I met Zacharias, I was a famous video artist in an extremely small universe. And that universe was marginalized, as it should have been — otherwise, you’d be worried that you were doing what everyone else was doing. It was new. Our film is coming from a different set of cultural and aesthetic values, different from what you’re used to. It’s taking you on a tour, which is what every movie is. Only this movie is the high-priced tour. The low-priced tour is when the tour-guide takes you by the hand and leads you through every step, pointing out every monument. The expensive tour is where you get dropped into the middle of the Peruvian jungle and no one is telling you anything; though you’re given the tools, you have to figure out what to do with them. One day in that jungle, you’re a little nervous, but you come out feeling like you were really there. By the end of that way, you feel proud, that you really went somewhere.

PM: Are you at all concerned what people do with those tools? As for instance, the awards this film is getting — do you worry that the “difference” it offers serves as novelty or exotic object?

NC: Well, even though I’m a bit older than Zac, we’re both too old to take this response seriously. We know what we’ve been doing, and we were doing it when nobody was responding. When you’re 25 and everyone responds this way, maybe you think it’s you, but by the time you’re 55 years old, you know that you’ve been you all the time, and that the only thing that’s changing is the other guys. The other thing is, taking too seriously this kind of response on an individual level, like “You guys are really fabulous,” is extremely inappropriate from an Inuit cultural point of view. For Inuit, pride, vanity, taking personal credit, or if you give an Inuit a medal for bravery, they’re going to look really uncomfortable. When you pull some guy out of the water who’s fallen through the ice, that’s something anyone would do, nothing special. So we’re not taking too seriously the response to the film except to the extent that we can use it to make the film more available to more people — because the film has objectives.

It is a spectacular, entertaining action thriller, with three murders, two sex scenes, and nobody can forget the naked man running for his life across the ice. But the film also has tremendous political and cultural purpose, both to Inuit and for Inuit, and from Inuit to the outside world. It’s not Inuits’ fault, or any native people’s fault, that they are stereotyped and dehumanized to the point where nobody has paid any attention to the fact that they might have solutions to the shit we all find ourselves dealing with.

PM: [quoting from the film] “The killing ends here.”

NC: It’s fairly timely.

PM: What struck me as well is that there are many mythic plots and structures used in films and other modern narratives, and most of them have to do with righteous, violent, somehow cathartic revenge.

NC: Our — Western, Euro — version of the hero is the person who follows his heart, sticks up for his own individuality, at all costs. The John Wayne figure, in Inuit culture, is socially irresponsible.

PM: In U.S. culture too, but no one seems to notice the pathology, except maybe John Ford, who gave that figure a context.

NC: Right. Our film is the antidote to the pathological heroism of the bloodiest century in history. Count the dead bodies piled up over the past 100 years, and look at the values that are being expressed in who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy.

PM: There is still a clearly defined good and evil in your film.

NC: Yes, it’s a very moral structure we’ve set up. There’s good and evil in the natural world and the supernatural world. It’s made by people who believe in good and evil.

PM: There are also appears to be a gender dynamic at work here.

ZK: Women’s roles — they don’t talk much. But when they open their mouths, it’s the most powerful thing, and we show that in the film. In the Inuit world, women are usually listening, because they are subject to more taboos than men. But when they speak…

NC: … everybody jumps. But to me, the Inuit culture is one where everyone has different roles, without defining hierarchies of value and importance. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see how that works — men had to go out hunting for food, and if the women didn’t sew his boots right, his feet would freeze. And the women’s job was to make a society that made their lives different from animals’. Adding any layers of importance or power to these roles makes no sense. I cannot live without you and you cannot live without me, so why even talk about those things? And there were always Inuit women who hunted, and women who had two husbands, as there were men with two wives. Women shamans. And naming has nothing to do with gender: Zacharias has five names, that the last people who had them were all women.

ZK: Yes, names are handed down over generations. My father calls me “mother,” and he doesn’t tell me what to do. He would be happier if I told him what to do sometimes. I have a 12-year-old son named after my brother, and he calls me “Older Brother,” and I call him “Younger Brother.” And he sometimes tells me what to do, that’s the culture.

PM: What is the experience of moving back and forth between cultures?

ZK: Right now, Inuits have to have education up to grade 12, to help you communicate with the outside world. But once you step back inside, you have to know how to survive, how to hunt, and when a blizzard hits you, you need to know how to get back home.

NC: Zac is in a generation that hasn’t existed in many cultures in history. I remember Apak in 1987, he led an expedition, of five guys and three dog-teams, from Igloolik to Greenland, retracing a historic immigration route. He was an expedition leader, able to run a dog team 3000 miles, and while he did it, he made five half-hour television programs about it. And I remember thinking, he was probably the only person on earth who could do both things.

And Zac: he wakes up in the morning, goes into the office, checks his email, puts on his parka, starts his skidoo, drives out onto the ice and catches a seal. What world is he in? I can’t even fathom it. For me, the equivalent is flying back and forth, which is always very weird, like “Beam me up, Scotty,” like Star Trek travel. But he was born into this world, 9 years old before he got off of that land. And now here we are, in DC, in Paris. And he’s completely fluent, in both worlds. To think about “bilinguality” in essential cultural terms, it creates a kind of intelligence that most people never have a chance to e experience. What I wonder sometimes, are you ever out there on the ice, thinking about your email? Or does your mind really go through one door and into another door?

ZK: No, I’m not thinking about email. Out there, you’re running away from the office.

NC: It’s like each life is so absorbent. I can’t do what he can do, I travel along, and I’m lucky if I don’t fall through the ice. I’m famous for driving right in his track, because I figure if he went there and I go there, I won’t do something fatally stupid. That’s part of the attraction for me, I like being able to time-travel, occupy another person’s body, for a while, through my art. But this life we’re in right now, is pretty extreme. It’s hardest when there are distractions — we have a company, and we have contracts, people send us scripts. There’s a lot of noise.

But when the noise level is reduced, lateral travel like that is amazing. I imagine it’s what time travel might be like. When you’re making the videos we’ve made, before this one, you’re on the ground, and it’s like you’re feeling the people who were right here, 5000 years ago; you can almost hear them. This filmmaking, from a personal point of view, is about projecting yourself into another world, as far as we’re able to do, because we’re not sorcerers or shamans yet.

ZK: We’re shooting a scene, and you start to see the way the actors look, as if they’re 85 years ago.

NC: They look the same, they talk the same, and it’s like whoa!

PM: It must make you aware of how your context — on so many levels — defines you. We like to think we’re coherent individuals who remain consistent over time and space, but this experience shakes that notion up.

ZK: Just like I’m listening to the radio in Inuit, and watching the tv in English. I can live with that. But if they’re both in English, I get distracted.

NC: Now that‘s very interesting.

ZK: Yes, like working on two channels.

NC: Not only context becomes part of the meaning of experience, but the thing that fascinated me from the very beginning about video is the way time is a quality of existence. There really is a fourth dimension, where the way we’re brought up and trained, to formulate the illusion of reality out of the molecular soup that we’re in, we’re trained not to see time. But we’re all floating in it; the essential soup you’re made of is this fourth dimension. When you start to create work that experiments with making time what I’ll call “visible,” because I don’t have a word for the fourth dimension, maybe “risible,” the awareness of time, when you can see it or sense it, adds a level of awareness to both individuality and the total absence of individuality.

When you can see time as a quality of things, I can see you floating in your own time, and you can see me floating in my own time — that highlights the extraordinary difference between you and me, and at the same time, it makes you and me be exactly the same thing. The Inuit have these enlightening ways of thinking about some things. So, the past is ahead of you: In English you would say, “The past comes before us,” which you can understand as the past is behind, but it can also mean the past is in front. In Inuit, the past is ahead of you; you are following your ancestors. Time is what? Is it a line, where you fall off the end?

ZK: We talk like that: children are behind us, fathers are ahead of us.

NC: What does that really mean? Our film doesn’t talk about anything like that. It’s not an educational film, it’s not health food, but at the same time, these things are there.

PM: I’m assuming that you guys have these kinds of conversations. How do you talk about putting these ideas in a film?

ZK: We go to the old sites where people used to live, and imagine what it’s like.

NC: And we’re like an old couple; we’ve been together 17 years, we don’t have to talk about any of this anymore. But really, we talk about this stuff all the time. We go out somewhere and get stuck, and spend hours, sometimes we call it brainstorming. Your brain just starts traveling around. A lot of it has to do with imagining and believing that other times really exist and existed. The time we live in is so focused on “me.” To have a sense of yourself in the flow of history isn’t something you usually do, but Zac and I, we do. I mean, we made this film, very deliberately. And because we have so much shared experience, much of what happens can happen with a minimum of conversation at the time. But we get what each of us knows what we really want.

The other thing about Zac and me is that we’re what’s known in the industry as “shooters.” We’re used to working through the camera, not directing other people. But you know, sometimes you’ve really got it, and sometimes you know you really don’t got it. And sometimes when you got it, everyone’s got it. The light is coming down on the guy you want, the actors are on a roll, and god is on your side. Suddenly, it is just unbelievable, you know when that’s happening, and you know when the opposite is happening, and this scene is going to be shit, no matter what you do [both men laugh]. For a mysterious reason you cannot explain, sometimes the camera is right on, or sometimes the camera is three frames behind the action. It’s intuitive, but it’s also extremely structured, because of your experience.

PM: So were you ever surprised by what you had, when you had, in the editing room?

ZK: No. We knew what we had, otherwise we’d have to go back outside in the cold and do it again!


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