Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner)
directed by Zacharias Kunuk
(Odeon, 2001)

In scope, it's an epic by Homer, a legend of murder, revenge, redemption and passion. Set against Canada's arctic, it's by turns supernatural and bloodily mortal, an ancient tale told at a pace and in a voice strange to most western filmmaking.

Atanarjuat, or The Fast Runner, is like little else seen in movies to date -- giving some of the first light of film to Inuit storytelling.

Director Zacharias Kunuk grew up in an indigenous Inuit tribe, one of six children raised in a sod house, hunting by dog sled. As a child, he was forced by the Canadian government to learn English in a school, much as the American government of the 19th century "educated" Native Americans.

He bought his first camera gear in the early 1980s with the profits from handcarved Inuit art and eventually began a film production company with Paul Apak Angilirq, who would later produce Atanarjuat. A decade later, with $1.9 million in financing, Atanarjuat was born.

"Evil came to us like death," says a character during the opening minutes, and the remaining three-odd hours examine the rise, the rule and the fall of an evil spirit that causes division in an Inuit community.

The story itself is familiar, resounding with many of the same themes found in myths worldwide. Against this evil spirit, a lone warrior must battle for his life and the life of his community. People are not always who they seem to be, and sometimes family can be the most dangerous of all.

What is astounding is the grace with which Kunuk and Angilirq make this ancient legend personal, the immediacy of their storytelling and the camerawork which gives the Inuits' home of ice and snow a character all its own.

Two brothers, Atanarjuat ("the fast runner") and Amaqjuaq ("the strong one") are embroiled in a feud with Oki, son of the clan's ruler. After Atanarjuat wins Oki's promised bride in a community-endorsed head-punching fight, Oki plots revenge.

Using his sister Puja's help, Oki murders Amaqjuaq -- but Atanarjuat escapes, fleeing naked across the melting spring ice pursued by Oki.

In a sequence that melds ice and sky, panting sled dogs with Atanarjuat's ragged, exhausted breath, feet shredded by the ice and Atanarjuat's visceral shock when he falls into brutally cold water, Kunuk has forged a gripping, physical portrayal of agony and determination.

Rescued by an old couple and nursed back to health physically and spiritually, Atanarjuat must determine when and how to return to his clan and heal -- or destroy -- his rival.

Filming on video, Kunuk has created a timeless movie that far transcends mere anthropological study, a film that makes a universal theme personal, and a personal story universal. With a spare soundtrack of music punctuated by the ever-present crunch of snow and the yips of sled dogs, the blinding glint of arctic sun plunging into the deep golds of fire-lit tents, Atanarjuat is a stunning entrance into filmmaking for the Inuit culture.

- Rambles
written by Jen Kopf
published 20 September 2003

Buy it from