atanarjuat – the fast runner

Atanarjuat – The Fast Runner
Igloolik Isuma Productions ©2000
Running time: 2 h. 52 min.
Language: Inuktitut with optional English or French subtitles
Available in DVD.

I’ve been meaning to watch Atanarjuat – The Fast Runner for quite some time. It’s a movie that received great critical acclaim at international movie festivals following its release in 2001. Quoting from the Atanarjuat website: “Atanarjuat is Canada’s first feature-length fiction film written, produced, directed, and acted by Inuit.”

Filmed on location in the Canadian Arctic, the movie was produced under extreme conditions using digital beta cameras and a good deal of technical ingenuity (during the final credits, watch for the sledge-mounted camera float used to shoot the “running” sequence). Clearly, this would not have been an easy film to make, but working with a very modest budget ($1.9 million), and with both experienced and novice actors, the film is a true artistic accomplishment.

Based on an Inuit legend, the development of the film and script itself is of interest. From the production diary:

we wrote our script by a unique process of cultural authenticity. First we recorded eight elders telling versions of the legend as it had been passed down to them orally by their ancestors. Isuma’s team of five writers then combined these into a single detailed treatment in Inuktitut and English, consulting with elders for cultural accuracy and with our Toronto-based story consultant, Anne Frank. This same bi-cultural, bilingual process continued through the first and final draft scripts.

(note: I’d encourage anyone who is interested in this movie to further explore the Atanarjuat website as it contains some fascinating notes about the movie’s production).

I watched the movie without knowing the legend or having read the plot. Although it isn’t necessary to know the story, in retrospect, I think I might have found it easier to follow the action if I’d had at least some knowledge of the legend. Fortunately, this is easy enough to do as the movie’s website contains a brief outline of the legend. For a much more detailed reading of the plot, check out the entry on Atanarjuat on Wikipedia. I think it would definitely be useful to read the entry on the shaman’s curse which takes place in the opening scenes. From there on, I think the movie is pretty self-explanatory. That’s all I have to say about the plot. As a story, it reminds me somewhat of MacBeth, or a Greek tragedy. You’ll have to watch it for yourself to see what I mean.

For me, one of the really super parts of this movie was in seeing the traditional costumes constructed for the film. There are some brief notes about this on the movie’s website. Having studied Inuit art for a couple of years while at university, it was quite enjoyable to see authentic costumes “in use” rather than displayed on a mannequin in a museum.

I found the acting to be excellent. It’s not of the type that we’re used to, but the difference is a refreshing change. It seemed much more authentic than the baloney that is served up by hollywood (I suppose it should come as no great surprise that I’m not a fan of mainstream media). I thought a movie running almost three hours in length might seem a little tedious, but at no time did I lose interest. I can’t speak for others, but I found this to be a well-crafted movie. If I have one criticism, it’s a small one — and that there are aspects of the movie that may seem brutal to some, which is why the movie has a 14A Canadian home video rating. In depicting the evil and brutishness of Oki and his sidekicks, there’s a rape scene, a murder by stabbing, and we see dogs getting whipped at and kicked on the butt, and so on. Of course, this is all pretty minor stuff next to what we typically find in a mainstream action film, but within the spare framework of this movie, these segments might offend sensitive viewers (which is why I mention this at all).

All in all, it’s an excellent move and I have no reservations in recommending it.

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8 Responses to “atanarjuat – the fast runner”

  1. Jimmy Says:

    I’ll have to look for this movie…sounds cool!

  2. Peter Says:

    Thanks for the review Bev. I recieved my local library card in the mail last week (with a handy online form to fill out!) and this sound pretty interesting. I assume it will not pull up as Jessica when I go to use it :-)

    I am pretty addicted to documentary and cultural films, I pay for TV just so I can watch PBS, History Channel, National Geographic and Discovery Civilization.

    I find them a good start for ideas at which point I can begin researching more online and at the library for the things that really stand out, flagged in my head as “I want to know more.”

  3. Cathy Says:

    Thanks for the recommendation, and particularly for the ‘heads up’ regarding the tough stuff. I rarely go to movies anymmore for the reasons you mention. I have to admit, it would be the dog abuse that would probably bother me the most. I’ll just fast forward during the disturbing scenes. This is probably the feature I most appreciate about watching things on tape and DVD.

  4. Pamela Says:

    This film has been on my queue for ages–glad to hear from another (and trusted) source that it is worth the wait. (Being Caribou is on its way to me right now!)

  5. robin andrea Says:

    Great film review, Bev. I wonder if this film has ever been on our local public broadcasting stations? As I read your review I was thinking that I’ve seen something like this a while back. I avoid violence in film so it may be that I was watching this and clicked away when things got nasty. I may have to try it again on dvd, so I can fast forward past the parts that depict the more brutal aspects of our humanity.

  6. burning silo Says:

    Jimmy – I’m not sure how easy it would be to find this movie in the U.S., but it may not be that difficult as it did well at the movie festivals, etc… I hope you can find it.

    Peter – Don subscribes to some channel packages that include PBS, documentary channels, the aborinal network, etc… so we can get some good programming too. I’m not much for television, but I do watch the odd documentary, nature show, or whatever. I leave it up to Don to let me know when there’s something good coming on tv!

    Cathy – I’m not a fan of violence, which is probably one of the reasons that I don’t want much television or go to movies. In many cases, the violence seems gratuitous and must be included just to appeal to that part of the population that likes that kind of stuff. This movie (Atanarjuat) isn’t like that – while it does contain some disturbing scenes, they are pretty tame by hollywood standards.

    Pamela – I hope you get to see Atanarjuat sometime soon — and that you like it! Also hope you’ll like Being Caribou too (that one I’m just about certain you’ll love). Btw, as you’ve probably noticed, I tend to review mainly Canadian made movies, in part because I figure there are enough people reviewing the rest of what’s out there, so it’s nice to write something about some of the really good stuff being produced up here. If you know of any Canadian made movies that might be good to watch and review, let me know!

    robin – It’s possible that this movie has been on PBS or some movie network. However, I don’t watch much television, so I’m not really sure of that. There have been a couple of other shorter Inuit movies floating around for awhile, so it could have been one of those. However, you might well have clicked this one off as there’s a bit of violence close to the beginning. There are a couple of parts that are unpleasant – I found it hard to watch the scene where Atanarjuat and Oki have a weird kind of “duel” where they take a punch at the side of each other’s head – there are a couple of other scenes like that – but for the most part, the action is pretty tame. If anything, it’s a quiet and rather subtle movie — a lot of quiet dialogue spoken by people who are doing things like scraping hides, cutting up meat, etc… Some people might find it too slow-moving, but I found it interesting — perhaps because I’m fascinated by many aspects of cultural history. With your interest in anthropology, I suspect you’ll feel the same way.

  7. duncan Says:

    some radio critics are saying that Mel Gibsons film “apocalypto” is a copy of this film.

  8. burning silo Says:

    Duncan – I don’t listen to the radio or tv too much, so I hadn’t heard that. I’ll have to search around and see what I can find. I wouldn’t be at all surprised about that as the film did get quite a bit of exposure at film festivals when it was released, so it is “known” but is certainly not mainstream film. It would be easy enough to use the main story and just relocate it to a different part of the globe. Thanks for the heads up!