In the Class of … series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — seven from 1992 (the extra in a forthcoming double-feature column) and six from 2002. The self-imposed rules of the column: No films with an Oscar nomination and no films among their year’s top-10 box-office grossers.
Cognitive dissonance isn’t what any filmmaker would want springing to viewers’ minds when watching a period piece. But when the budget is low, available sunlight stretches from 3 p.m. to 3 a.m., locations run 50 miles into the heart of the Arctic country, and it’s simply too cold for cameras to work for more than a month out of the year, presentation concessions are inevitable.
So it was in the late 1990s and early 2000s for director / co-writer Zacharias Kunuk’s Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. Hindered as much by budgetary limitations as brisk elements, Kunuk and crew filmed this epic-length dramatization of an Inuit legend set at the first millennium’s dawn on digital cameras, leaving a slightly smeared live-video look that renders Atanarjuat both unique when compared to other historical tales of its ilk and, at least initially when viewed on DVD, somewhat of a distraction. (Way back when, a digital-to-film conversion softened this sensation sufficiently enough.)
There’s a bit of brain-breaking required to reconcile Atanarjuat’s rigorous re-creation of arduous arctic life with seemingly ill-suited imagery captured on cameras that are perhaps now available today only as thrift-shop specials. But over time, watching the film this way evolves its aesthetic into an emphasis and enhancement of the enduring power of myth as meaning, its soft-focus compositions invoking an incremental erosion of cultural memory for indigenous people. Indeed, that’s the reason why Kunuk sought to create the first feature-length film ever written, directed and acted entirely in the Inuktitut language — to document and preserve the apocryphal legend of its title character, and his harrowing quest for survival, on behalf of future generations.
Plus, Atanarjuat’s you-are-there digital verisimilitude is how you know there’s no trickery involved. What you see is what you get, from raw fish pounded to a pulp and birds plucked apart for meal prep to … well, the hero falling genitals-first into puddles of frozen water and scampering right back out again to keep running naked across the tundra. Kunuk and company were never going to be blessed with high-end equipment to tell this subtitled story, of which a significant slice is devoted to a full-frontal sprint over ice floes. But the consistently confident, gradually accumulating power of Atanarjuat, and its ultimately gentle plea for pushing forward, establishes the digital-image disconnect as an acceptable tradeoff for getting this excellent story in any incarnation. This intergenerational odyssey of optimism persisting amid obsolete customs remains truly unlike anything in its cinematic subset before or since.
The name “Atanarjuat” allegedly first appeared in the journals of British explorer George Lyon, who sought the Northwest Passage from 1821 to 1823 — the legend related to him by Inuit people he encountered and passed down among them for five centuries before that. Lyon’s journals (and others) provided a basis for co-writer Paul Apak Angilirq in his late-1990s development of a script, on which he collaborated with Kunuk, tribal elder Herve Paniaq, artist / actor Pauloosie Qulitalik, filmmaker Kunuk, and producer / cinematographer Norman Cohn. Kunuk and Cohn meanwhile created Isuma, Canada’s first Inuit-owned production company, to finance the film, which was shot with a 90% Inuit crew and filmed by Cohn using natural light to avoid the digital cameras’ automatic correction..
The creative team acknowledged liberties taken with the letter of the legend in their final script, which swerves from roots of revenge into something that more closely resembling repatriation and reconciliation — a position Kunuk said “probably” reflected Christianity’s influence and its nexus of forgiveness on contemporary Inuit people and society. Sadly, almost every civilization has some sort of variation on the story here — of rampant greed, power- and fear-mongering, familial betrayal, irreversible violence, and physical strife. Most end in unspeakable tragedy on both sides of the conflict. While there are certainly gut-twisting developments in Atanarjuat, the malevolent trappings of its mythology are cut with a decidedly maternal clarity of compassion and, most of all, no fetishized violence. Far be it from me to tackle any cultural complications of cleaning up the legend’s less tidy resolution, but it further distinguishes Atanarjuat from being lumped in as just another story about people speaking in, and slicing off, native tongues.
After premiering at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival (where it won Kunuk the Camera d’Or for that year’s best first feature film), Atanarjaut saw a 2002 release in Canada (where it won six Genie Awards, including Best Picture) and throughout the world. Its gradual U.S. rollout didn’t accumulate the expected arthouse momentum, as Atanarjuat (along with the same year’s Monsoon Wedding) missed out on Oscar consideration in the Best Foreign Film category. But it did make its way for one week to White Oaks Mall in Springfield, Illinois, where immersing myself alone at an unintentionally private screening — and emerging hours later into a blinding, contemporary sunlight reflected off cars gathered for commerce — remains a vivid memory.
“I can only sing this song to someone who understands it” are the first words heard in Atanarjuat, and they are a lament of Inuit tribal leadership that has seen its people fall prey to an evil that “came to us like Death … it just happened and we had to live with it.” A flashback depicts the deadly duel in which this happened, as village chief Kumaglak falls to Tungajuak, an evil shaman who then installs Kumaglak’s more morally pliable son, Sauri, as the chief.
Fearing his nephew will put him on the chopping block if he stays, Qulitalik (portrayed by co-writer Pauloosie Qulitalik) departs from the tribe. He’s hesitant to simply remove everyone who could avoid evil influence, insisting that kindness must blossom among those left behind. However, Qulitalik vows to his sister, Panikpak, that he will heed a cry for help if she makes one.
Decades later, Qulitalik’s hope for deliverance seems to fall on Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq), the younger son of a hapless hunter on whom the rest of the tribe takes pity to provide nourishment. Atanarjuat is known among the tribe as “the fast runner” while his older brother, Amagjuaq (Pakak Innuksuk), is known as “the strong one.” Amagjuaq is confident enough to face any problems prompted by Sauri’s leadership. Atanarjuat is more hesitant, especially as his affection for Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu) antagonizes Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq), Sauri’s impetuous son to whom Atuat has been promised in marriage.
“A man who’s serious about killing would keep it to himself,” Amagjuaq assures Atanarjuat, blissfully unaware of how males’ incitement toward wanton, useless and petty violence is rarely far away. Meanwhile, Panikpak has long known Oki, who is her grandson and second in line for leadership succession, is an evil man unworthy of the kind, steadfast Atuat’s betrothal. It’s here that Atanarjuat first branches off the legend from its traditional telling into the idea that salvation, should it manifest at all, will stir earliest among the women of the tribe.
When Oki challenges Atanarjuat to a head-punching contest for Atuat’s hand, the symbolism is clear: The clash is more about what Atanarjuat can absorb than how viciously he can strike. After he wins, Atanarjuat enjoys blissful domesticity with Atuat, who has borne him a son named Kumaglaq (so named for the old leader). He’s a prolific hunter, dutiful father and powerful protector, but Inuit custom suggests Atanarjuat take a second wife — for which he considers Puja (Lucy Tulugarjuk), who has long carried a torch for Atanarjuat … and just so happens to be Oki’s sister.
After a caribou hunt on which Puja joins Atanarjuat turns amorous, he takes her as a wife, which upends his family’s dynamic. Much to Atuat’s dismay, Puja contributes nothing of value while Atanarjuat is away on a hunt. What is she doing out there, exactly? “Fucking with spirits?” (Any movie with a naked man running into the camera for several minutes will get an R-rating anyway, but Atanarjuat occasionally unleashes bawdy lines and celebrations that feel like lived-in conversation and culture rather than carelessly Anglicized translations or provocations.)
One night, Atanarjuat and his family awaken to Amagjuaq (himself married) making love to Puja — unleashing an inequitable response of shame upon Puja. Her remorse seems as authentic as the forgiveness floated by the women she’s wronged, but in a moment of weakness when she fears excommunication, Puja marks Atanarjuat and Amagjuaq’s hunting tent for a team of advancing assassins led by Oki, who feels Atanarjuat’s disrespect of his family has gone too far.
Thankfully, Kunuk and his collaborators are not so regressive as to reduce Puja to a doltish temptress manipulated by means that are not her own. She makes the ill-fated choice to target Atanarjuat and Amagjuaq on her own, one with repercussions she doesn’t expect. Indeed, the shaman’s curse seems strong enough to exploit corruptibility among several characters, as well as the contemptuous connotations of customs that long ago outwore whatever paltry welcome they once held. Chief among them? Atanarjuat, who was happy with Atuat and she with him, their son healthy and their fortunes bright. Had this compassionate and content man found the strength to reject the custom of a second wife, perhaps he’d have happily lived out his days.
Instead, Atanarjuat finds himself naked and betrayed, sprinting across the ice to avoid death at Oki’s hands. Only an unexpected encounter with the long-absent Qulitalik could be what saves both Atanarjuat and his people from the contemptible takeover Oki has planned upon his return.
That is a lot of story — all of it pitched in the yoke between the divine and the deadly, the chosen and the foretold — for what amounts to only half of Atanarjuat, and it’s a fascinating slice of anthropology never beholden to Hollywood algorithms of storytelling. The head-punching contest, the chase across the ice, and a couple of light climactic clashes are all that constitute any traditional action here, and they’re well scattered across 160 minutes.
Instead, there are more powerful and gloriously realized allures here. One is the tremble-inducing tactility of the sliding shale and the crunching snowpack under the performers’ (sometimes bare) feet. Another is the complicated, nigh-Shakespearean gloom cast over the entire endeavor. But just as the desolation of this voluminous expanse of ice is certainly not lost amid the digital crush, neither is the sense of rejecting rotten ways to reveal a path forward nor the potential for a rebirth and renewal of both body and land. The performances also enthrall, with the most well-rounded turns going to Ungalaaq, Ivalu, Arnatsiaq, Innuksuk, Tulugarjuk and Pauloosie Qulitalik — all conveying the collateral damage amid this legacy of loss in distinct and directly engaging ways.
Instead of berserker violence, Atanarjuat crescendos to the conclusion that this legacy need not persist. Horrific acts are committed in Atanarjuat’s absence, and there is certainly suspense on how, if he even survives, Atanarjuat will rectify his betrayal and retaliate against his enemies. But by shifting the story’s resolution, Kunuk prioritizes burying hatchets over humans — while still making choices about the film’s antagonists that are decisive while avoiding condemnation and that serve justice without tipping into vengeance. Atanarjuat shares a notion of long-ago warriors avoiding the “infection of fear” with Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, which arrived in mainstream theatres several years later. But it couches that concept in a quest for hope rather than a thirst for blood. The result is both a refreshing reversal of the typical direction for such stories and really the only way this tale can go as told here — calling together a communion of community to cast out enduring evil as it does. Like a more empathetic Robert Eggers or economical Ridley Scott, Atanarjuat is ultimately about the resolve to retaliate in unified love rather than a competition to see who stands tallest alone amid a pile of bodies. Family and community are not concepts bound by ethnicity, and neither are emotions of sorrow, rage and hope. By the time Atanarjuat reaches its final shot, with exhausted elders’ hope ignited in the young’s wide-eyed wonder, there is no cognitive dissonance to get in the way of comprehending its mythical power.