The modern mind, at least in the West, has trouble absorbing the mythic realm. Gods and monsters, creation and destruction, the trickster’s gift and the hero’s journey—all this, if it’s even glimpsed, is seen as gigantic, monumental, astonishing. Yet this is contradicted by a curious quality of aboriginal storytelling: the tone is casual, everyday, as if such things happened as a matter of course, and are in fact still happening now.
Released in 2001, The Fast Runner, the first feature made in the Inuit language, tells an ancient tale of how an evil spirit descended on a tribe, causing a blood feud that involved treachery, adultery, and parricide. The central story involves two brothers, Atanarjuat and Amaqjuaq, who earn the enmity of their cousin Oki when the former wins Oki’s intended bride through combat. Later, Atanarjuat takes Oki’s sister Puja as a second wife, a decision that leads to discord between the brothers and a murderous plot against them by Oki. Miraculously escaping death by running naked across the ice with enemies in pursuit (one of the movie’s most amazing sequences), Atanarjuat must endure exile, preparing, with the help of an ally, to return and battle his nemesis.
Shot completely in the Arctic locations associated with the myth, The Fast Runner employs intense visual immediacy, dynamic camera movement, and lots of close-ups, to immerse the viewer in the everyday aspects of Inuit culture—hunting, sleeping arrangements, food preparation, dogsleds, clothing, relationships—while avoiding the distancing effect of folklore through its matter-of-fact narrative style.
The director, Zacharias Kunuk, was inspired by recordings of different versions of the Atanarjuat myth collected by Inuit author Paul Apak Angilirq. Three years in the making, the film has all native actors—only Natar Ungalaaq, in the title role, had any professional experience. The widescreen digital photography is incredibly beautiful–from the vast expanses of ice to the inside of igloos lit only by seal-oil lamps, the film conveys the texture of traditional Inuit life. The actors perform with impressive honesty and naturalness.
This is that rare work that seems completely new, in both meaning and form. You can lose yourself in this movie—it builds and builds, until the sense of power absorbs you into its world. Unexpectedly, the story, which seems to be heading towards a resolution familiar from countless tales of revenge, suddenly enlarges to become the story of a ceremony, the establishment of community as a way of seeing, a higher purpose than the way of individuals. The hero’s journey, taking place in the ordinary life of Eternity, is repeated now, today, in the extraordinary rituals of Time.
The Fast Runner is available on DVD.