Fast Runner, The (Canada & Canadian Inuit, 2001) (aka Atarnajuat the Fast Runner) *** 1/2
Directed by Zacharias Kunuk. Written by Paul Apak Angilirig. Edited by Mr. Kunuk, Norman Cohn, Marie-Christine Sarda. Cinematography, Norman Cohn. Art direction, James Ungalaag, Music, Chris Crilly. Producers, Angilirig, Cohn Kunuk. Cast: Natar Ungalaag (Atarnajuat), SylvieIvalue, Peter-Henry Arnatsiag, Lucy Tulugarjuk, et al. In Inuktitut, with English subtitles. 127 minutes. Not rated.
The first classic, anthropological and narrative (as opposed to experimental) documentary feature was Robert Flaherty's famous "Nanook of the North" (1922.) It dealt witha year in the life of Nanook, an Eskimo in Canada's frozen Arctic. A few movies about or including Eskimos followed. Hardly any depicted the Eskimos from their point of view.
Times change. It is now incorrect (politically and otherwise) to say "Eskimo." The right word is "Inuit." The language is Inuktitut. "The Fast Runner" is the first ever feature in that tongue. (No word in other languages is used.) What's more is that its makers, cast and much of the crew are Inuit. A major exception is the director of photography (as well as collaborator to script and editing) Norman Cohn, a New Yorker who has lived since 1985 in the Inuit community of Igloolik (pop. 1,200.) He shot in portable, flexible, very clear digital video.
The players--some experienced, others first-timers--are all Inuit. So is the entire film. It comes from oral stories and legends that date back at least one thousand years. They were passed on from generation to generation, and collected from elders. The result? A stunning tale, a sort of saga, about a tribe.
As a result of a shaman's curse, a small, isolated community survives with its good and its bad denizens. Among the former is Atarnajuat the Fast Runner and his younger brother Amaqjuag, the Strong One. Among the bad 'uns is Oki, the senior son of the community's leader. The latter came to his position by nasty means.
Since childhood Oki has been engaged to local beauty Atua. But later, she and Atarnajuat fall in love. Oki challenges him to a match in which one man stands still, the other hits him powerfully on the head, then the roles are reversed. The winner is the last man left standing. Atarnajuat is the victor.
The lovers marry, have a child. Then the husband takes a second wife. This is perfectly kosher. So are the sex and nudity. Alas, Puja, the younger spouse, will cause troubles. Rancorous Oki and two of his henchmen attack the brothers, kill the younger one. Cut, literally, to the chase. It is a long one as the bad men, on foot, on a dogsled, and with bows and arrows, pursue Atarnajuat. Stark naked, on bloody bare feet, he runs on snow, ice, flowing as well as frozen waters, floes and other pain-causing surfaces. Eventually he is rescued in the middle of nowhere by an old couple who hide him in a pile of seaweed. Cannily, the saviors feed the hungry chasers a delicatessen, birds' eggs that stuff the eaters and make them less observant. Our hero, presumed dead by Oki and Co., eventually returns to his tribe. He bears gifts (whose source puzzles me), and cleverly brings a moral, generous and humane closure to the adventure.
The movie is long but most bearably so. It is also a feast for the eyes. Its first section, when the good brothers were children, can be somewhat puzzling, but soon matters fall into place without spelling anything out. This work is far stranger than science-fiction which generally applies to future events and to space creatures human values we are familiar with, as well as sign-posts. The Inuit tale has to be decrypted as it unfolds. It does not employ convenient but artificial explanations of matters such as animism, hierarchies, relationships or mindsets. The Inuit are as exotic as the Martians in most ways, from living conditions to ethical standards.
Past a few hurdles, this very succession of mysteries keeps us going, interested, and on our (non-bleeding) toes. We watch in fascination the women ceaselessly scraping the meat of seals, walrus, and occasionally gourmet creatures like rabbit or caribou. Clothes, foods and other necessities come from the animals. The tools are bones. There's nary a piece of metal around. But then, in this story that could be yesterday or centuries ago, the filmmakers slip in a teaser of contemporaneity. Early on, when Oki first shows up, he wears chic sunglasses. That's the single time-clue of the whole work.
Still, the tale retains its universal, eternal connections with other histories or myths. Atuat evokes Helen of Troy. The fast runner recalls the Ancient Greeks's Persian wars, with the very first runner going from Marathon to Athens with news of victory. Or the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae who ask a man "Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie dying."
Throughout, the Arctic Circle's light is so amazingly beautiful that it takes us from magic to magic. The film, at the 2001 Cannes Festival, won the Camera d'Or, the Golden Camera for best first work.