Atanarjuat (Fast Runner)

Dir: Zacharias Kunuk. 2001. Starring: Natar Ungalaaq, Sylvia Ivalu, Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq. Inuktitut. Foreign/Fantasy.
Atanarjuat (Fast Runner)

Atanarjuat is set roughly 1,000 years ago in the Inuit village of Igloolik. The plot is based on an ancient legend about a community under the curse of an evil shaman and torn apart by human failings. One man, the heroic Atanarjuat, goes on a Homeric quest and offers change.

The screenplay came from writer Paul Apak Angilirq’s interviews with eight Inuit elders whose stories he combined and fleshed out and added personal touches. Sadly, he died of cancer during production. The film, shot on digital cameras, takes a Dogma-like approach that places the viewer in the middle of the action. The affect is akin to watching a pre-millennial episode of COPS set in the tundra.

The story takes 172 minutes to unfold. Following a technique established in Third Cinema, the filmmakers assume that (for example) scenes of stark, bleak, windswept snowscapes followed by shots of sun-splashed greenery will be enough to convey the passage of time for the moderately attentive. Some may find this demanding. It’s an approach that can confuse viewers used to super-imposed calendars with pages blowing away, or establishing shots with the setting spelled out in subtitles.

Critical reception of the film was almost universally positive although many critics paternalistically expressed not surprisingly racist amazement that simple Inuits would make a film, aimed at their own people (and not art houses) that’s both dramatically and visually astounding as opposed to some rough, “folk-art curio” to be appreciated with lowered standards. These are the same critics and audiences that wrongly assume that the movie depicts modern Nunavut and remark morosely on its depiction of a disappearing way of life.

In reality, this way of life disappeared hundreds of years ago. There is an incredible emphasis on historical accuracy which required research into historical sources as well as contributions from elders. Atanarjuat takes a unique cinematic approach to filmmaking which allows the story to shape the film, rather than let convention shape the story. It’s important to understand this before watching the film lest you join those who thought its absence of cinematic clichés are the unintended consequences of inexperience, and not a deliberate artistic decision.

Some critics complained about the score which uses jew's harp, viola, digeridoo and African percussion. These cultural watchdogs would’ve, no doubt, preferred Inuit throat singing probably having watched the film to fulfill their tastes for the exotic and authentic. Of course, no one complains when European Romantic music is used in films depicting every culture of every era, (including extra-terrestrials) and the score is evocative and fits the film well.

Enjoyment of Atanarjuat requires the viewer to abandon notions of conventional cinema and to watch with faith in a new voice. Its no nonsense, plainspoken approach may leave pretentious fans expecting either formulaic art film or conventional Hollywood exoticism scratching their heads. For the open-minded, however; it’s an immensely satisfying masterpiece. And get the Canadian import. It’s longer than the American cut and has extras about making the film instead of unrelated trailers.

Posted by:
Eric Brightwell
Aug 9, 2008 3:34pm
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