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Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner A
Year Released: 2002
Is it reasonable to judge a low-budget Inuit picture against state-of-the-art Hollywood epics, like Attack of the Clones or The Lord of the Rings? When the film outpaces the creative spirit of George Lucas and is every bit as enthralling as Peter Jackson's digital riches, I think the comparison is fair, especially since Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner relies on the same mythical conventions that encode its more expensive counterparts.
To a large extent, the success of pop raconteurs like Lucas and Jackson resides in their ability to recycle centuries of epic traditions, retelling the stories of Beowulf, Odysseus, and Paul Bunyan in new costumes. Their action figures loom large because they tap directly into our preconceived ideas of heroic adventure, bringing to life our grandest notions of the fantastic. Still, because those notions are subconsciously controlled by the same traditions that influence Lucas and Jackson, their images preexist in our brains, all of us, even before we buy tickets -- if we are satisfied by their work, it is because their imaginations embody our own. I found Atanarjuat equally satisfying (perhaps more so), but for different reasons. This Canadian import may observe a specific mythic structure we all know in our bones, but it also challenges our preconceptions by inversing the grandeur we have learned to expect. Rather than reconfigure the impossible feats of Beowulf or Luke Skywalker, Atanarjuat's story is a universal myth set in the everyday, an exhilarating tall tale of the ordinary.
Much like Skywalker or Frodo (or Simba, Maximus, Shrek, even Harry Potter, to list just a few recent models), Atanarjuat is a hero obliged by circumstances to abandon his old life. As an outcast, he meets an aging master who helps him conquer his obstacles and triumphantly return home, restoring the natural order of things. In this case, the setting is the Arctic tundra, sometime "at the dawn of the first millenium." A stranger visits a small community of Inuit, violence occurs, and an evil shaman rifts the tribe. Atanarjuat, along with his brother Amaqjuaq The Strong One, resists the disruption of order. We first comprehend this tension when the loathsome Oki, son of the tribe's new leader, approaches their remote camp. Oki commandeers their dog sled for his own use, but Atanarjuat, the fast runner, catches up with him and seizes the sled.
A deeper clash occurs when Atuat, a beautiful woman promised to Oki, confesses her unrequited love for Atanarjuat. To settle the matter, both men agree to the customary "head-punching." The warriors trade single blows, aimed at the temple, until only one stands. Shot mostly in close-up (due, partially, to its location inside a real igloo), this bout is remarkable, not least for how it depicts the rattling consequences of real violence. Exchanged only briefly, the wallops inflict such shooting pain that of course it doesn't take long for one of the woozy combatants to crumple. Despite being stronger, Oki collapses first, losing the contest and losing Atuat to his despised rival.
Oki suffers further humiliation when his own sister, Puja, seduces Atanarjuat and becomes his second wife. But Puja is a lazy firebrand, and after she has two-timing sex with Amaqjuaq, the angry and broken-hearted Atanarjuat chases her from his camp. Puja tearfully, falsely tells her brother Oki that Atanarjuat tried to murder her, and Oki, all too willingly, plots homicidal revenge. Attacked in his sleep, Atanarjuat manages to escape. Naked and barefoot, he flees across the Arctic ice, outrunning his pursuers. This 10-minute sequence, the film's centerpiece, is astonishing. Hurdling chasms and evading the freezing sea below, the fast runner heads further into perilous territory, and we experience deeply his urgent desire to simply survive. As his bloodied feet leap and sprint across the ice, we wince with him in a way that's authentically agonizing -- there's nothing in Attack of the Clones to rival it. (When Anakin performs his derring-do, we are riveted by the computer achievements, but not by a sharp sense of danger or risk, nor anything resembling the human experience.)
In fact, computer tampering is entirely absent from Atanarjuat, which was shot in the Arctic using digital video cameras. Perhaps instinctively, director Zacharias Kunuk, himself an Inuit native of Igloolik, Canada, understands that the tundra is an environment of overwhelming scale and power. While future technology will eventually render Lucas' CG images obsolete, Kunuk's natural ones will, I suspect, have a lasting resonance. Stretching into forever, the white, beautiful, and ominous Arctic landscape is one of the film's key characters (since it shares actual space with the actors, it engages with them in a very real way), and the knowledge that it actually exists somewhere other than a hard drive makes its cruel threats more menacing, more brutal. This difference between recording the "real," and recording synthetic "signs of the real," also helps explain why Kunuk's capture of the majestic Arctic skies, streaked with pink and gold, are profoundly more breathtaking than the dazzling but faked places in The Lord of the Rings.
One might call Kunuk's striking story and visuals "exotic," but that would imply that Atanarjuat operates from the stance of a patronizing outsider, much like Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North. I very much admire Flaherty's 1922 silent documentary about a year in the life of one Inuit hunter, but read one of his intertitles to grasp what I mean: "Yet here, utterly dependent upon animal life, which is their sole source of food, live the most cheerful people in all the world -- the fearless, lovable, happy-go-lucky Eskimo." There are no "happy-go-lucky" people in Atanarjuat, because Kunuk isn't interested in romanticizing the Inuit as an exotic "other." Straight away he plunges into Inuit culture, placing us in close proximity to the characters, their practices, their philosophies, their central values. Long minutes are spent observing how to skin caribou, calm sled dogs, or reinforce igloos, but also, more significantly, how the Inuit view matters of sex, killing, justice, and social preservation. Unlike most Hollywood myths, Atanarjuat fully integrates useful cultural knowledge into its mythic structure, adding incalculable vigor to its saga of a quiet, thoughtful man trying to defend his tribe's way of life.
Betrayed by its function as an instructive entertainment, Atanarjuat clearly has a basis in the oral tradition. Director Kunuk first heard of the brave hunter as a child, in the form of a bedtime story told by his mother. Acting like Homer, Kunuk and his writer, Paul Apak Angilirq (who died in 1998) set about getting the adventure on paper. Angilirq listened to multiple oral versions of the ancient story, and his composite script represents the first long fictional document ever composed in Inuktitut, the Inuit language. Kunuk's film represents the first Inuit-made movie, and the problems he faced shooting in the harsh Arctic climate have become nearly as legendary as Atanarjuat's struggle against tribal infighting. (Reportedly the crew had to hunt seal and caribou for food, basically living as their characters do.) All efforts paid off, since Atanarjuat is one of Canada's most commercially successful films ever, and won six Genie Awards, that country's Oscars. At Cannes, it received the Camera d'Or, the festival's prize for best first feature.
Several national critics have suggested that these behind-the-scenes facts are more fun than the film itself, accusing Kunuk of pacing his 172-minute opus too leisurely. Yet "smoother" and "tighter" entertainments normally leave out the fascinating incongruities of human behavior, the absurd and subtle irregularities, that are embraced by Kunuk's elastic style. Extracting naturalistic performances from a largely amateur cast, Kunuk develops surprisingly complex dimensions within these mythic archetypes. This is a primary reason why Atanarjuat's transition from passive leader into man of action is so satisfying. Most Hollywood adventures hinge on a wisecracking icon, armed with as many one-liners as machine guns. Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq), though, is more Nanook than mook. Very few words pass through his lips, but entire speeches are whispered in his eyes -- he is an observer and a thinker, and it's from his everyday labor, his everyday love, his everyday trials that we glean just how much he believes in his home and embodies its ideals.
One such ideal is also articulated through an impressive visual contrast. Several exterior shots have the sprawling scope of David Lean, but inside the claustrophobic igloos and tents, Kunuk expresses how people are often goosed by tightly packed quarters. Despite their vast surroundings, the Inuit must coexist in tiny shared dwellings, and we grasp that what enables them to do so is their ancient, ritualized system of collaboration. We also see the crushing consequences when that system is violated. That's an insight into the Inuit that Flaherty missed, but it's also an insight into why Atanarjuat is willing to risk his life to restore his community's natural order. Since the system has been breached -- by selfishness, sloth, adultery, violence -- it must be repaired or the tribe, his home, will die.
As arranged by Kunuk and Angilirq, there's simply more at stake in this old legend about ordinary Inuit life than in the fantasies hatched by George Lucas. Its tempo might be challenging, but only in the best way -- since it produces a textured, full-bodied classic myth, the deceptive "slowness" of Atanarjuat is, for me, its greatest thrill. Like the characters that are sporadically touched by shamanic magic, you might not be aware until later how deeply Kunuk, a natural storyteller, immersed you in his spell.
Review published 08.15.2002.
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