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Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner)


(The Fast Runner)

Year: 2001
Language: Inuktitut
Format: 35mm Colour
Runtime: 172 min
Director: Zacharias Kunuk
Producer: Germaine Gee Wong Ying
Writer: Paul Angilirq
Cinematographer: Norman Cohn
Editor: Marie-Christine Sarda, Norman Cohn, Zacharias Kunuk
Sound: Richard Lavoie, Serge Boivin
Music: Chris Crilly
Cast: Peter Arnatsiaq, Sylvia Ivalu, Natar Ungalaaq
Production Company: Igloolik Isuma Productions, National Film Board of Canada

“I first heard the story of Atanarjuat from my mother when I was a kid falling asleep side by side with my five brothers and sisters in our sod house. We were still living on the land... travelling from place to place just like our ancestors did in this region for four thousand years.” – Zacharias Kunuk

“It is a universal story with emotions people all over the world can understand. It is also totally Inuit: a story we all heard as children.... We are passing [it] on to others, just like it was passed on to us.” – Zacharias Kunuk

In a timeless and frozen land several millennia ago, a malevolent shaman (Abraham Ulayuruluk) causes a rift in a nomadic Inuit community. Years later, two brothers – Amaqjuaq, The Strong One (Pakkak Innuksuk), and Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner (Natar Ungalaaq) – grow up to face the malicious spirit and break its hold on their people. Atanarjuat finds himself in love with the beautiful Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu), and though she loves him in return, she has been promised to Oki (Peter Henry Arnatsiaq), a boastful bully who is the son of the camp leader. When Atanarjuat pursues Atuat, he violates the carefully observed customs of the community. Oki sets out to gain revenge, unleashing a series of terrible events and forcing Atanarjuat to face his destiny and reunite his community.

Paul Apak Angilirq, Atanarjuat's scriptwriter, called on this tradition to develop the piece, beginning with different accounts of the ancient folktale from several Inuit elders.

The stories, which often carry complex cultural information within elaborate layers of meaning, must be entertaining and suspenseful to keep listeners spellbound through many retellings. Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) doesn’t disappoint; it is a gripping, emotional drama.

The debut feature by Zacharius Kunuk, Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) stands out for many reasons. It is the first feature film ever made in the Inuktitut language and the first feature directed, acted and scripted by Inuit. At three hours long (edited from more than seventy hours of footage), the pace is perfect.

Winner of the prestigious Caméra d’Or for best first feature at the Cannes Film Festival and designated one of Canada's Top Ten films of 2001 by the Toronto International Film Festival Group's annual poll, Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) is a landmark in our film history. The film was shot on location in the North Baffin region of the Canadian Arctic; Norman Cohn’s widescreen, Digital Betacam cinematography conveys the austere, evocative beauty of the sprawling sea ice, the vast expanses of tundra and rocky flatlands, and the distinctive Arctic light. The costumes, props and sets were handmade by local artists and elders, including sleds built from caribou antlers and sinew, and garments fashioned from animal pelts. Adding to the film’s authenticity, the cast and crew and artists and elders advised throughout production, an approach to filmmaking Kunuk and Cohn refer to as a “horizontal” process.

For all its educational and historical value, Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) is not to be confused with an ethnographic docudrama. The storytelling is exhilarating, the filmmaking masterful and the fable universal.

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