Let There Be Light


“Astonish me,” Diaghilev ordered Cocteau, and The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat) more than fulfills that regal dictum for new art. The first feature to be made in Inuktitut, directed from a script that is the longest fictional document ever written in that language, Zacharias Kunuk’s film is a marvelously disorienting experience—disorienting and reorienting, like a few days spent under the midnight sun.

This epic account of an 11th-century Inuit blood feud, shot on digital video in northernmost Canada a hundred miles or more above the Arctic Circle, is spectacularly beautiful, not to mention mysterious, sensual, emotionally intense, and replete with virtuoso throat-singing. Some three years in the making and nearly three hours long, The Fast Runner—which was shown here earlier this spring at “New Directors/New Films”—is totally absorbing from first image to last.

Kunuk, 44, has spent almost two decades making documentary videos for and about the Inuit. Some are minimalist portraits; others are more elaborate, “re-lived” cultural dramas in which contemporary Inuit reenact the abandoned patterns of their traditional life. Early cine-explorers like Robert Flaherty and Edward Curtis did somewhat the same thing in their staged documentaries on indigenous peoples, and The Fast Runner has some recent precursors too, such as Sol Worth’s Navajo films or Tian Zhuangzhuang’s near-abstract celebration of Tibetan nomads, Horse Thief. But none of these have the same degree of fierce authenticity. The Fast Runner is all the more exotic for having being made from inside the igloo.

On the one hand, the movie is universal in recounting the standard stuff of Greek tragedy and daytime TV: love, desire, sexual betrayal, rape, jealousy, intrigue, murder, patricide, revenge, exorcism, mental telepathy, and fate. On the other, it’s fantastically specific for playing out within the confines of a single, peripatetic Inuit clan. The movie’s terse, elliptical prologue, a primal scene in which a curse falls upon the group, is confusing in part because every detail is fascinating: the women’s feline face tattoos, the guttering seal-oil lamps, the texture of the snow, the role of the sled dogs, the extravagant couture, the bawdy put-downs, the local cuisine. (Warning to vegetarians: The Fast Runner features more raw meat consumption than you’re ever likely to see, barring a North Pole version of Survivor.)

Most simply put, The Fast Runner‘s narrative is a cautionary, casually supernatural tale on the dangers of individualism. The plot pivots on the sexual rivalry between two cousins, Atanarjuat and Oki, who at one point trade ritual head punches for the favors of the beautiful Atuat. Atanarjuat unexpectedly prevails, but family relations become even more complicated once he takes Oki’s saucy sister, Puja, as his second wife. The film’s performances are at once naturalistic and larger than life. Every character is vividly drawn. The noble-looking Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq, the only experienced actor among the principal cast members) gets more flattering angles than the sneering Oki (perhaps possessed by the spirit of evil). The flirtatious Puja is played off against the demure Atuat.

According to an explanation given at one point, Inuit children are named for, and thus reincarnate, specific forebears. This belief suggests a key to the film’s acting style, which could be described as the reanimation of ancestral personas. Often smiling at the camera—or are they wincing in the cold?—the cast radiates both enjoyment and commitment. Indeed, the whole project has a loose, timeless, ritual quality—the camera can be running alongside the dogs or bumping up against the scuffling actors. In the movie’s unforgettable centerpiece, Atanarjuat bursts through a collapsed teepee to flee naked and barefoot across an endless ice field with three killers—and the camera—at his heels.

It’s not insignificant that Kunuk, scriptwriter Paul Apak Angilirq, and New York-born director of photography Norman Cohn were all involved with video art long before they went into feature production. Endlessly observational, The Fast Runner has a hypervisual style and a relative indifference to clarifying elapsed time—its greatest concern is to show what is there. The movie has the feel of an eternal Now. From the countless exterior shades of white to the orange-lit igloo interiors, the location is the special effect. (Even while pondering the ways in which the human organism has adapted to such extreme conditions, you’re wondering how they filmed it.)

As The Fast Runner‘s arctic light beggars descriptions, as its performances go beyond acting, so the production itself seems little short of miraculous. How many of the ensemble scenes were based on a single take? (In the tradition of a Jackie Chan film, the end credits feature tantalizing bits of behind-the-scenes footage.) The Fast Runner could probably not have been made without digital video and, along with recent DV productions as disparate as Eric Rohmer’s The Lady and the Duke and Ernie Gehr’s Cotton Candy (if not Attack of the Clones), it confirms the medium as the vehicle of a cinematic vanguard.

The rhetoric of movie reviews is a debased currency. Is Spider-Man really an essential expression of American culture? Did Attack of the Clones signal the resurgence of our own pop “Ring Cycle”? Atanarjuat is so elemental in its means yet so cosmic in its drama, it could herald a rebirth of cinema.