b. 1957, Kapuivik, Nunavut
With the groundbreaking Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner), the name Zacharias Kunuk was emblazoned on the world cinema map. Shot on Betacam digital video and blown up to 35mm, Atanarjuat dismantles preconceived expectations and practices of both the digital medium and Inuit film production. Atanarjuat is the first Aboriginal-language film to come out of Canada, spoken entirely in Inuktitut, it reaped a trail of prestigious prizes, including the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and six Genie Awards, including best picture, best director and best screenplay. While such well-deserved kudos celebrate mastery across categories, they cannot fully capture Atanarjuat’s geopolitical significance, its distinct aesthetic, which grew out of a milieu informed by video art and indigenous media, or its unique production contexts that inform its mesmerizing power.
Kunuk was born in Kapuivik in the eastern Arctic. His parents involuntarily left their nomadic lifestyle and settled in the Baffin Island hamlet of Igloolik when Kunuk was nine years old. Prior to his entry into video production, Kunuk was a successful soapstone carver. He purchased a video camera from the sale of his carvings while on a trip to Montreal in 1981. In 1982, he joined the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation (IBC) in Igloolik, and was a senior producer and station manager when he left in 1991. During his last few years at the IBC, Kunuk also worked as an independent producer. In 1990, he co-founded Igloolik Isuma Productions with Norman Cohn, an esteemed video artist; Paul Apak Angilirq, a pioneer IBC producer who worked on the 1978 Inukshuk Project (and who also penned Atanarjuat); and Pauloosie Qulitalik, also a former IBC producer. The lived collaboration of the team, forged on constant interchange, modifies the strict role designation central to feature film production, but Cohn and Kunuk, respectively, take DOP and director credits.
After the release of Qaggiq (The Gathering Place) (1989), word of Isuma Productions and Zach Kunuk travelled south. Defying standard, existing categorizations, Qaggiq established the emergence of a new “fictionalized history” form, resembling neither video art aesthetics nor broadcast television and neither ethnographic verité nor scripted drama. The work’s hybrid, interstitial nature suggests the syncretized, lived experience of contemporary Inuit life. Set anywhere between the late 19th century and the 1940s, Qaggiq dramatizes the recent past, but in an un-nostalgic, often humorous manner, documenting the vicissitudes of Inuit nomadic life in rich arctic hues.
In episodic “movements,” Igloolik residents gather with friends; discuss the hunt, their children and potential marriages; drink tea and smoke; build a communal igloo; and after friends from nearby camps arrive, play games and celebrate. Minute, real-time visual renderings of myriad quotidian details, such as a lingering shot of the preparation of tea or the steps to constructing an igloo or the creation of an ice sculpture, stress process and procedure and emphasize the conveyance of experience and information. The line spoken near the end of Qaggiq, "Let's help one another, the white people are coming," bespeaks the films’ irony, but also indicates a past-present temporality — one of Kunuk's key themes. Qaggiq is rooted in the community's experience and memories. Re-enacting their own history, the residents draw from and re-create stories from oral tradition.
These characteristic, detailed re-creations of traditional Inuit culture inform all of Isuma Productions’ dramas to date, including Saputi (Fish Traps) (1993), Nunaqpa (Going Inland) (1991) and Nunavut (Our Land) (1994–1995). Again, seamless temporality informs these films on hunting and the particulars of everyday life, which, remarkably, hide the fact that the productions are constructions, acted by Igloolik residents. Nunavut, a 13-part dramatic TV series set in the 1940s before forced settlement offers the minutia of nomadic people’s labours against an austere background that exceeds standard depictions of landscape.
Epic in genre, scope and heart, Atanarjuat also crosses borders, achieving a level of organic poetics that can only be termed majestic. Blending the fabulous with the quotidian, drama with oral history, cinéma-vérité with magic realism, this thriller draws upon a 1,000-year-old Inuit legend. The script, written by Paul Apak Angilirq, who passed away during its production, was gleaned from interviews with the elders of Igloolik. Beyond being only backdrop or place, the spectacular, shifting arctic landscapes compose and infuse the hardships and often misled passions of the film’s complex characters (played mostly by non-professional actors), factoring into its dynamism. Set in ancient Igloolik, roughly in the first millennium, the tale relates the trials of a nomadic clan and its hero-hunter Atanarjuat, who, in the film’s unprecedented chase sequence, is pursued by three assassins and miraculously escapes running barefoot across the frozen ice fields. An Inuit sphere of minutely observed practices and beliefs — from shamanism, spirits and specific ceremonies to bodily adornment and tattoos — conjoin with the universal constants of desire, envy, manipulation and revenge to yield a masterly narrative. Yet Atanarjuat’s object lesson — only the right path leads to the attainment of love (and magic) — is rendered exquisitely across narrative, acting, cinematography and soundscape to achieve a level of affect that is viscerally felt.
The unforeseen global success of Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) has not deterred Kunuk and Isuma Productions from their original mandate: to create independent media-based projects to preserve and represent Inuit culture and language, generating employment for the local Igloolik community and Nunavut. Undaunted by the unprecedented media attention, Isuma is actively producing projects that continue to probe the vicissitudes of Inuit life and culture. An enduring issue for Kunuk has been the impact of Christianity on Inuit ancient belief systems. One of Isuma’s documentaries currently underway addresses various missionaries’ attempt to wipe out shamanism and the lived effects of this significant encounter. Once again, a past-present temporal relation frames the form and address of the work. Such mutability characterizes all of Kunuk’s, and Isuma’s, projects to date, offering a unique aspect that might account for their incredible contribution to and advancement of the possibilities of fourth-world media production. The effect continues to register throughout local, national and global domains, informing southern and indigenous audiences (and producers) alike.