[box cover]

The Fast Runner

So you bought yourself a digital video camera, know a few actors, and maybe can get your hands on some funding. You're thinking of shooting an indie and perhaps launching a production company. No small task — but then again, you aren't Zacharias Kunuk. One of the founders of Igloolik Isuma Productions Inc., Kunuk and his colleagues established their company in order to preserve Inuit culture and language, educate people on Inuit history, and stimulate the economy of the Igloolik/Nunavut regions of Arctic Canada, which have been long-burdened by both high unemployment and suicide rates. Igloolik Isuma has been successful since its inception, founding a television centre, a dramatic workshop, and producing local television programming, short films, and the 1994 Canadian miniseries Nunavut. A full-length theatrical film must have seemed inevitable, and became realized with Atanarjuat, which was released in most venues as The Fast Runner. The first film ever scripted and shot entirely in the Aboriginal Inuktitut language, it was one of the most discussed art-house releases of 2002, and for good reason — a mythic story from another era, it also conveys a timeless drama that reinforces the universality of our shared human condition. Adapted from an intricate Inuit folk-tale that stretches back as far as 1,000 years, The Fast Runner concerns three clans in a primitive Igloolik camp. At the story's outset, a shaman visits the village and places a curse upon the people — tribal leader Kumaglak is murdered, while another elder is banished. The ceremonial leader's necklace is then awarded to Kumaglak's son Sauri, who uses his newfound power to humiliate rival Tulimaq. Jumping ahead a few decades, Tulimaq's two sons have become grown men: Amaqjuaq (Pakkak Innushuk) is known as the "The Strong One," while the younger Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq) is "The Fast Runner," and both men harbor a rivalry with Sauri's son Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq). And the rivalry is palpable — beautiful young Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu) has been promised to Oki, but she is in love with Atanarjuat, forcing both men to face each other in a traditional tribal battle to win the woman's hand. Atanarjuat prevails, and later he takes a second wife, Puja (Lucy Tulugarjuk), who is Oki's sister. Stung by Atanarjuat's two marriages, Oki plans a murderous revenge, which drives Atanarjuat away from Igloolik for several months. He is assumed dead, but the loyal Atuat waits for her husband, hoping someday he will return and restore order to the cursed community.

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The Fast Runner is an enormously challenging film to absorb, but at the same time a richly rewarding experience. It should be noted that it asks an investment from the viewer that is unlike most American films — at first it's not easy to understand the nature of the curse that the shaman has placed upon the camp, and for most viewers it will take time to understand the characters' familial relationships with each other. The movie also proceeds at a methodical pace, content to tell its story, but also taking the time to examine the daily life of the Inuit — they hunt, fish, follow caribou herds, build igloos, light fires, and occasionally share themselves through songs. We see how they skin their prey and prepare food, and witness the brutal way they can treat unruly dogs (animal lovers have been warned). It all lends to a richness of the overall experience, if not always the efficiency of a film that clocks in just under three hours. But The Fast Runner will be worth the effort for those who are willing to enjoy a change of pace: For a production that's clearly meant to educate viewers on Intuit culture, it's wonderfully free of Hollywood's taste for political correctness — taking place well before Inuit contact with white people (anywhere from 200 to 2,000 years ago, depending on whom you ask), this is not a story of Aboriginal oppression, but instead an inclusive, universal drama. The realism is unflinching, from gutted animals to bloody corpses to illicit late-night sex in a seal-skin tent. The plot has all of the tension and energy of a great cultural myth, and enough homicide and patricide to make Shakespeare blush. And perhaps above all, The Fast Runner transports us to another time and place, lulling us into believing that we are watching real people who somehow survive and procreate and sustain families and communities and a culture in the most inhospitable region on earth. The Fast Runner simply is unlike any other film ever made. Columbia TriStar's DVD release features a clean anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) of the movie's digital Betacam source. Shooting on DV wasn't just an economic choice for director Zacharias Kunuk — traditional film cameras are notoriously difficult to operate in sub-freezing temperatures, and this digital source was transferred to 35mm for theatrical viewing. However, on this DVD, The Fast Runner clearly has a videotape quality with a high sheen and no hint of film grain whatsoever. At first one might wish to see some classic 35mm images, particularly with the many stunning, barren landscapes captured in the movie. But the video source does have a verité appeal, which lends to the building drama. Unfortunately the DVD has nothing in the way of extras — a few shots of the actors and crew during the closing credits gives one the idea of just how difficult this production must have been, and, for whatever reason, it's grossly unfortunate that Columbia could not get some value-add on this disc. However, for those wanting to know more about the film, Igloolik Isuma has an informative website at www.atanarjuat.com. Keep-case.
—JJB



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