The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat)
2001, NR, 172 min. Directed by Zacharias Kunuk. Starring Paul Qulitalik, Madeline Ivalu, Lucy Tulugarjuk, Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq, Sylvia Ivalu, Natar Ungalaaq.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., July 26, 2002
The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat) is the perfect antidote to the summer heat in Austin, more refreshing even than a dip in our chilly holy waters of Barton Springs. For this is a movie that refreshes the mind and spirit along with the body, so original is its content, look, and style. The story is based on an ancient legend passed down through millennia of Inuit oral tradition. The movie is totally Inuit: The screenplay is written and spoken in Inuktitut, and the nearly three-hour-long epic was filmed in the community of Igloolik in the northern Canadian arctic and brought to life by a completely indigenous group of both professional and novice crew members and performers. The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat) looks like no movie you've ever seen before. Even Inuit audiences reportedly find the movie's depiction of centuries-old beliefs and practices a novel sight. The ice-bound nomadic lifestyle portrayed here is hard to date: Physically, it is so distant from any industrial or technological touchstones that it feels like it could be taking place in any recent millennium. For the non-Inuit audience, everything about the film's appearance is fascinatingly alien and the shamanistic nature of the legend also provides the movie with the slightest touch of something akin to magic realism. Despite this movie's staggering abundance of cultural specificity, The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat) should not be mistaken for a documentary. Neither is this some Nanook of the North staged by white men for the entertainment and edification of the white folks down under. The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat) is a wonderfully universal narrative about the introduction of evil into a peaceful community. It tells a story about what happens when a community's taboos are transgressed, and a woman marries the man whom she loves rather than the one to whom she has been promised. It's a story about inter-familial conflicts and multigenerational dramas, shameless hussies and extramarital tension, love, hubris, and revenge -- and even has an extended chase sequence across the ice that rivals anything our shoot-'em-up culture has ever produced. The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat) is compelling for both its universality and its curiosity factor. The movie's epic running time is appropriate to its subject matter and passes in a flash. The first 45 minutes will probably be a little murky to the non-Inuit viewer as it lays out a lot of ancient lore -- perhaps the Inuit version of all the Bible's “begats.” But don't worry about becoming overwhelmed by these backstory details: The movie soon enough settles into its primary characters and forward progression. As far as cool summer treats go, The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat) fits the bill. But like any great epic, it is also a story for all seasons.