“I first heard the story of Atanarjuat from my mother when I was a kid falling asleep side by side with my five brothers and sisters in our sod house. We were still living on the land..., travelling from place to place just like our ancestors did in this region for 4,000 years.”
“It is a universal story with emotions people all over the world can understand. It is also totally Inuit: a story we all heard as children.... We are passing [it] on to others, just like it was passed on to us.” – Zacharias Kunuk
Inuit storytelling stands as one of the world’s oldest art forms; and the traditional Inuit method of transferring knowledge, values, philosophy and culture between generations. Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) is part of this continuous stream of oral history. Paul Apak Angilirq, Atanarjuat's scriptwriter, called on this tradition to develop the piece, beginning with different accounts of the ancient folktale from several Inuit elders.
The stories, which often carry complex cultural information within elaborate layers of meaning, must be entertaining and suspenseful to keep listeners spellbound through many retellings. Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) doesn’t disappoint; it is a gripping, emotional drama. A malevolent shaman (Ulayuruluk) causes a rift in a nomadic Inuit community. Years later, two brothers — Amaqjuaq (Innuksuk), The Strong One, and Atanarjuat (Ungalaaq), The Fast Runner — grow up to face the malicious spirit and break its hold on their people. Atanarjuat finds himself in love with the lovely Atuat (Ivalu). While she loves him in return, she has been promised to Oki (Arnatsiaq), the boastful bully who is the son of the camp leader. When Atanarjuat pursues Atuat, he violates the carefully observed customs of the community. Oki sets out to gain revenge, unleashing a series of terrible events.
Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) stands out for many reasons. It is the first feature film ever made in the Inuktitut language and the first Inuit-directed, -acted and -scripted feature. At three hours long (reduced from over 70 hours of footage), it is a challenge for even the most ardent cinephiles in this culture of fast food and cell phones. But the pace is perfect, and filmed in widescreen digital betacam with occasional close-ups, it draws in viewers completely.
Winner of the prestigious Caméra d’or for best first feature at Cannes, Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) is a landmark in our film history. The film was shot on location in the North Baffin region of the Canadian Arctic; Norman Cohn’s cinematography conveys the austere, evocative beauty of the sprawling sea ice and vast expanses of tundra and rocky flatlands, and the distinctive Arctic light. The costumes, props and sets were handmade by local artists and elders, including sleds built from caribou antlers and sinew, and garments fashioned from animal pelts. Adding to its authenticity, the cast and crew and artists and elders advised throughout production, an approach to filmmaking Kunuk and Cohn refer to as a “horizontal” process.
For all its educational and historical value, Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) is not to be confused with an ethnographic docudrama. The storytelling is exhilarating, the filmmaking masterful and the fable universal.