The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat)

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Explores the Artic landscape while examining the traditions and culture of the Inuit.

Great North DVD

The Fast Runner is a remarkable film on several counts. It is by and about Inuit people and their culture, made with an all Inuit cast and a largely Inuit crew. The film itself is a continuation of thousands of years of oral history, stories passed from generation to generation through which the Inuits pass on their experience and mores.

The story is an ancient Inuit legend, but, in telling it, director Zacharias Kunuk also records with faithful authenticity fascinating aspects of the life of these people living on the sea ice and tundra of the far north. He shows how igloos are built, how sled dogs were handled, the way that their available resources (caribou, hares, birds, fish, wolf, seal, sea weed) were used for food and clothing, the styles of dress, and the decorative tattoos the women wear on their faces. The film is an anthropological document as well as a cultural one.

Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner, is in love with Atuat and she with him, but she, in accordance with custom, was betrothed to Oki when they were children. In a ritualized fight with Oki, Atanarjuat wins Atuat away from him. They are married and live with his brother, Amaqjuaq, and his wife. Later, Atanarjuat takes a second wife which results in its own set of complications. Oki, bent on revenge, attacks their tent when the women are away. Amaqjuaq is slain, but Atanarjuat flees naked across the ice to safety. Finding shelter with another family, he later returns to confront Oki.

The screenplay (Paul Apak Angilirq) is also deals with the shamanism of the Inuit as well as their values, their customs for social interaction, and their taboos, all of which come into play in the course of telling the story. And it is all set in the starkly beautiful landscape of the Canadian Arctic where sometimes the horizon is lost between ice and sky, blurring the boundary between them. The spiritualism of the Inuits seems intimately connected to their surroundings.

This all said, as remarkable as it is, The Fast Runner is not an altogether successful film.At just under three hours, it’s dramatic pacing is slow and it demands a measure of patience from the viewer to stay with it. (A good edit could probably cut an hour from the film without sacrificing unduly from its substance.) The characterizations are, for the most part, in a mythical mode, rather than in a more contemporary psychological framework. While the former is a given, in view of the source material, the absence of the latter results in less than fully realized characters, characters largely drawn in blacks and whites rather than in shades of gray.It is often difficult to keep track of secondary roles.

The flip side of the coin is that the actors (some professional, some not) seem to inhabit these roles naturally and comfortably, lending an important air of authenticity to the film. Finally, whether it is the legend itself or the thoughtfulness of Angilirq’s screenplay, The Fast Runner avoids predictability. If somewhat slow to unfold, this is a story with more than its share of surprises and unexpected turns.

Arthur Lazere

San Francisco, CA
Mr. Lazere founded culturevulture.net in 1998 and worked tirelessly to promote its potential as a means for communicating a distinctly personal yet wide-ranging selection of arts reviews. Under his leadership, the site grew in esteem as well as in “circulation", and is well-regarded nationally and internationally as a source for up-to-date, well-written criticism. Arthur passed away on September 30, 2006.