CANNES, FRANCEÑZacharias Kunuk grew up along the coast of the Canadian Arctic, where until the age of nine he and his family lived as nomads, following the movements of caribou and seals, and carefully treading the ice as it thickened and thinned from season to season. His film Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner, winner of the Camera d’Or for best first feature at Cannes, is set in the remote past on nearby Baffin Island, where Kunuk now lives in Igloolik, a town of about 1200 people. “It’s the land I know,” said the 44-year-old Inuit director, sitting on a terrace facing the Bay of Cannes and gesturing toward the blue hills rising above the sparkling Mediterranean. “Just as those mountains have certain sorts of animals, that island is my hunting ground. There I know how to deal with whatever happens. I know where the ice is thin. I can navigate with the stars to get home.”
Atanarjuat, a nearly three-hour epic, unfolds in an arctic landscape of unearthly beauty, where vast, frozen vistas dissolve into golden horizons, as women with elaborate facial tattoos and men sporting futuristic-looking sun goggles build igloos, hunt seals, make love, tell ribald jokes, and participate in shamanistic rituals. The Shakespearean plot, about sexual conflicts and cycles of vengeance pursued over two generations in a small nomadic community, is based on an ancient Inuit legendÑpart of a 4000-year-old oral cultureÑwhich was passed down to Kunuk as a bedtime story.
“It teaches a very universal lesson,” noted Norman Cohn, the film’s cinematographer, co-editor, and co-producer. “Don’t mess around within your own family. Don’t let your personal pride or needs destroy your community. In an environment like Igloolik, so much depends upon people getting along. Mistreatment of others threatens the survival of the whole group.”
Kunuk was already well known as a sculptor in 1981 when he went south to Montreal, sold three sculptures, and brought the first video camera back to Igloolik, which was then without television. “I got my idea from my father,” the director recalled. “He would go out on the ice and come back at the end of the day and tell a terrific hunting story. I wanted to capture stories on video just the way he told them.” Besides Atanarjuat, his credits include half a dozen short films and documentaries.
For Cohn, a native New Yorker who has lived in Igloolik since the mid ’70s, the advantages of arctic filmmaking far outweigh its inconveniences. “We have the world’s most spectacular set,” he asserted. “We have light most directors would kill for. All we have to do is not obstruct it. Most fear-driven prejudices obstruct your view of whatever is in front of you. So if you make an arctic film that’s not being driven by the fear and greed that most outsiders brought to the arctic experience throughout history, including filmmaking history, then it’s like somebody took Windex and cleaned the window. And suddenly, you can see what’s there.”
The complete Village Voice series on Cannes 2001.