The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat)
We in the United States, under the spell of a jingoist conviction that the world must bow to us, acknowledge our mastery, accept our culture as 'the best,' 'the toughest;' we who for the moment, like sixth-grade playground bullies, think of ourselves as masters of the universe and seem determined to make sure everyone knows it, are ripe for a lesson in humility. More than that, a lesson in acceptance: that we are only one of hundreds of distinct, vibrant cultures, surviving in the world and teaching us, if we'll listen, that every one of them is as rich, complete and complex as ours.
And now we have a brilliant example of that lesson: it is "The Fast Runner," a film in the Inuktitut language by a group of Inuit filmmakers in the new Canadian province of Nunavut, who have made a feature that owes nothing to 'Western' culture other than the digital-video cameras that shot it and the Avid editorial software that edited it. It is a film that deservedly won the Camera d'Or at Cannes last year as best first feature, and a few prints have been making their way from city to city across the United States since March of this year; if it hasn't yet come to your town you might phone Lot 47, the distributor, and lean on them.
The director, Zacharias Kunuk, and the screenwriter, Paul Apak Angilirq, sat with Inuit elders to hear the tale of a time before now, a time when only families and clans existed, when no thought of an outside world intruded, when igloos and skin tents were the only shelter. The fast runner is a young man named Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq), who, like a Greek hero at the mercy of the gods, lives through the passions and perils of life under the shadow of forces greater than any human can change. The story begins as the clan is fragmented by the work of a malign shaman, who has infected it with dissension and death. "It just happened," someone says, "and we had to live with it."
Atanarjuat comes of age in this time of trouble, and finds himself bound by the rigid rules of the clan. He loves Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu), but she has been promised by the clan's leader to his son Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq), and willful, selfish Oki is the current embodiment of the curse that pins them all down. And then Atuat's sister Puja wants Atanarjuat for herself. The gods find ways to torment us all, and we watch as people in this tiny clan, sharing a communal igloo, confront conflicts as large as any in Sophocles. This is no 'primitive' or unsophisticated culture. It is complex, and has many lessons for all of us.
The centerpiece visually of the film is the amazing ten-minute sequence in which Atanarjuat is chased, naked, across the ice by Oki and his friends; we find, as it ends, that we have been holding our breath for what seems an eternity. It is one of the great signature scenes in all of film history. But it is only the most kinetic of this beautifully photographed film (by cinematographer Norman Cohn). We see the strange miracle of light inside an igloo, the sense of both warmth and cold, the life of the clan as its members hunt, fish, clean, cook, scrape, sew, make love, eat, fight - a ritual battle between Atanarjuat and Oki is simply astounding to watch - all are like gifts to us from one culture to another. We're forced to put aside our own set of mores and give ourselves to this one, as the film draws us into a world so alien we have almost no benchmarks to guide us. But if we will come to the film and let its 172 minutes wash over us, we will emerge transformed by a work so amazing, so wonderful, so powerful that it will stay as a precious moment within all of our breasts. We cannot ask more of art than that.