legend of Atanajurat, The Fast Runner

(pictures courtesy Wikipedia Commons)

The Anthropological Film Society in our city screened an especially interesting movie a few nights ago, about the Inuits living on Baffin Island in Northeastern Canada, just above the Arctic Circle. In the pre-movie discussion, we learned that even though “Inuit” is the Canadian preferred, shall-we-say more “politically correct” term, the Inuits themselves prefer to be called Eskimo. If I could ask you–what do you remember about the Eskimo you learned about in grammar school?–chances are pretty good (for sure, if you’re American) that the first answer to pop into your head might be an image of two genderless people pressing their noses together in an icy arctic setting. That was the way Eskimos kissed. For a few days we kids would pretend to be Eskimos, blatantly rubbing our noses together in play because it was weird. We enjoyed annoying our teachers in whatever underhanded way possible for the times, which were admittedly tame compared to the mischief kids can cause these days. Other than that, we also knew that they lived in igloos “way up north,” even further north than “Yankee country” and knew furthermore that we probably would never meet one. That’s all changed now, thanks to a movie Hubby and I attended a few nights ago, Atanajurat (The Fast Runner) .

The goal of this first-ever Inuit written, produced, directed, and acted feature-film was to give international audiences a more authentic view of the Inuit (Eskimo) culture and oral tradition than the silly one I’ve related above. It shows how Inuit communities survived and thrived in the Arctic a thousand years ago. Talk about hard times! You’d think if a culture could survive conditions in the Arctic region then, today would be a piece of cake. But, according to Director Zacharias Kunik, “After four-thousand years of oral history silenced by fifty years of priests, schools, and cable TV,”  a movie like this will give Inuit audiences more positive and correct images of themselves. At the same time, it opens the possibility that this new storytelling medium of film is a way to help today’s Inuit communities, still limited by harsh conditions and limited opportunities, might continue to thrive long into the future.

The running time is 170 minutes, but I was so engrossed with this very different scenario about a people I hardly knew anything about, I hardly felt those nearly three hours! And the seats in the art museum’s auditorium weren’t all that comfortable. Made in the late 90s, debuting in 2001, The Fast Runner went on to become Canada’s top-grossing release of 2002, and in 2004. It was included in the list of Canadian Top Ten Films of All Time, and went on to win many more awards, including one at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival. What fascinated me most, however, was that the movie managed all this with a cast made up entirely with members of the community of Igloolik. In earlier Isuma dramas as well as the 13-part Nunavut (Our Land) Series shown on Igloolik community TV (1995-2007), the actors were given a general storyline and then improvised action and dialog. In this movie, the Director (Kunik) required the actors to learn and work from a script. With mixed success, according to Professor Loab, the anthropology professor who held a copy of the script in the air during the post-movie discussion period. The complicated plot is  based on an Eskimo legend of Atanajurat, and difficult as it was for me to distinguish characters and names, it all came together at the end.

In 1000 A.D., evil in the form of an unknown Shaman divides a small community of nomadics, upsetting its balance and spirit. Circumstances require Atanajurat to restore balance by enduring and conquering this evil menace. Basic plot:

Centuries ago, in what would become the Canadian Arctic, Atuat is promised to the malevolent Oki, son of the leader of their tribe. But Atuat loves the good-natured Atanarjuat, who ultimately finds a way to marry her. Oki’s sister, Puja also fancies Atanarjuat, and when she causes strife between him and his brother Amaqjuaq, Oki seizes the opportunity to wreak a terrible revenge on Atanarjuat. The legend this film is based on ends with the hero killing the brothers who have been tormenting him.

Paul Apaq, the writer, rewrote the ending for the film because he felt that a message of hope was needed. If you want to know the ending you’ll not hear it from me, but I’m happy to note the movie is available on Netflix, though only to DVD subscribers. Hopefully, it will be available for instant streaming very soon. I hate to end on a sad note, but writer Paul Apaq–who also played the part of Oki, incidentally–died in 1998, before the film was brought to the screen. Isn’t it too bad he didn’t live to see the impact his new ending gave to this oral Eskimo legend!

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11 thoughts on “legend of Atanajurat, The Fast Runner

  1. I’m sure I won’t see it showing anywhere here in our boonies but, like you said, hopefully it’ll show up elsewhere. It sounds fascinating and I know we’d both enjoy seeing it.
    You find the most interesting stuff to write about!

    • Not likely, I agree, but if you ever get the chance and are interested in foreign movies. . . I’m happy if you find my stuff interesting; much of the time I feel people around me don’t understand how excited I can get by something totally different like this. I just wish everyone could enjoy the things I do.

    • I believe anyone interested in other cultures–as you’ve shown with your travel already—certainly would. It’s not the easiest film to understand initially, but as I say–at the end things are tied together nicely, and I found I kept thinking about it–and still haven’t. It sent me to explore online even more to see how people in that region live today. It’s still sparsely populated, something between 11-12,000 if I remember right, and with the weather (summer just means a lighter coat–the diet seems mostly meat-based since there’s no “growing” season as such) you can’t help wondering how they manage to stay there.

    • Oh good! I hope you’ll share your feelings after you’ve watched it, Kay, although your queue–if anything like mine–is probably very long. Some parts are a little confusing, but we had the advantage of being able to ask the anthropologist-in-house questions afterwards that cleared most things up. I hope you enjoy the cinematography too…you’ll never have to go there, and probably wouldn’t want to because it’s damn cold there almost all year long! ❗

      • Me, too!!!! There are over 100 in my queue but I tend to move things around if I deem it necessary so I’ll prolly look at it soon because it sounds like a ‘gotta see’! Part of the reason it’s so long is there are a couple old series (this week it’s “Alfred Hitchcock presents — what a hoot!) that I’m working my way through — I watch a season and then I watch a few films. This sounds interesting enough that that I’ll get to it pretty soon.

        • I hope you’ll let me know what you think of it, even if it’s not good. One thing I know for certain, it will probably be unlike any other movie you’ve ever seen!

    • I’m feeling very well; in fact, I keep thinking I should do an update on the state of my health someday. Perhaps it will encourage others facing the same aging problems I’m facing not to give up. I believe you can feel good despite the years stacking on. Thanks for asking. 🙂

  2. I am sure I will love this film! I had the opportunity to travel up to the Yukon Territory last summer to spend several days with the Tlingits as their clans gathered for an annual week long celebration. I learned so much. There were only a very few of us from the lower 48 states (4 to be exact — the friend I was traveling with and me, and a couple from the western part of the U.S.). The stories and dancing and intergenerational warmth and arts were terrific. Thanks for sharing about this film.

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