Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner
The first all-Inuit-language feature, made by a mostly Inuit cast and crew, Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner makes no attempt to ease outsiders into the world of Inuit film. It even begins with the line, "I can only sing this song to someone who understands it." What follows, over the next three hours, contains murder, gang rape, naked running, and enough meat butchery to qualify Atanarjuat as a training video in traditional Inuit cuisine, where the occasional rabbit breaks up a steady diet of seal and caribou meat. (Animal lovers beware: The American Humane Association clearly did not monitor this action.) As a viewing experience, it occasionally becomes a minor ordeal; it's unrelentingly slow-paced and claustrophobic in spite of its wide-open Arctic spaces. But the same qualities make it an ordeal worth enduring, and a thoroughly immersive, one-of-a-kind experience. Taken from legend and set at an unspecified time far removed from the present, Atanarjuat deals with the conflict between a good and evil untempered by moral relativism. For a small community, evil arrives in the form of a stranger from the north who provokes murder and then disappears, leaving a legacy that carries down through the generations to haunt two brothers, the strong Pakkak Innushuk and the swift Natar Ungalaaq. The latter stirs up the situation by courting Sylvia Ivalu, the promised bride of Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq. Though Ungalaaq and Arnatsiaq settle their differences through traditional fighting—literally trading single blows to the head until one combatant can no longer get up—Arnatsiaq remains unsatisfied and plots his revenge. The story comes from folklore, but Atanarjuat shares many qualities with the classic American Western, in which evil, in whatever guise, can be easily identified as that which disrupts the order of the community. Amid the harshness of nature and quarters so close that they admit no secrets, any self-interest can rip apart the civility that binds community members together. Director Zacharias Kunuk captures that feeling well, but he never quite develops it into a theme epic enough to fill Atanarjuat's scope. His film is by turns mesmerizing and trying, with enough of the former to make the latter worthwhile. Seeing such an ancient story told without concessions to modern convention is fascinating, and it's paradoxically made possible by the leveling properties of digital video. In the potentially brave new world of 21st-century cinema, a community new to filmmaking can now make its Lawrence Of Arabia first.