Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner

"Eat some old seal meat if you're hungry!"

Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner is the first film to be produced entirely in the Inuktikut language, starring an entirely Inuit cast and filmed in the northern Canada provinces where the culture thrives. For that reason, the movie has received an inordinate amount of attention, earning critical raves coast to coast and winning an unexpectedly large audience in arthouse theaters everywhere. To be honest, I had no plans to see the movie: a three-hour digital video retelling of an ancient Eskimo myth sounded like an ordeal I was neither mentally nor physically prepared for. Turns out I was correct, and this particular emperor, methinks, is naked.

Director Zacharias Kunuk claims to have made the movie entirely for his people, with no consideration for what outside audiences will think. It shows. He tells the story of an evil spirit who curses an Inuit tribe. Years later, the curse manifests itself in the rivalry of Oki, son of the usurper chief Sauri, and Atanarjuat, who, along with his brother Amaqjuaq, is the tribe’s best hunter. Atuat, a lovely local bachelorette, has been betrothed to the angry Oki, but is in love with Atanarjuat, and the two of them vow to find a way to marry.

Meanwhile, Oki’s sister, a devious woman named Puja, decides she wants to steal Atanarjuat from his love. So, in one of the most ridiculous scenes of the year, she seduces him, causing a fight between him and his brother, which opens the door for Oki, who sure can hold a grudge, to wreak his revenge. These are the circumstances for the now-famous, admittedly effective scene in which Atanarjuat has to escape his pursuers by running naked through the icy landscapes.

Is it culturally insensitive to say that there isn’t nearly enough story here to sustain a three-hour movie, no matter how well-intentioned and “important?” I would have been content to watch the equivalent of a National Geographic nature documentary in the long stretches of the film where nothing happens; the broad, bright-white vistas in which Atanarjuat takes place could have looked gorgeous on either film or video. Alas, debut director Kunuk’s skills with a camera leave much to be desired: his work is clumsy at best, with awkward movements and bizarrely tight camera angles even when the action is outside of the cramped igloos. Not even in film’s centerpiece, the aforementioned running scene, does his camerawork open up enough to convey either majesty or importance.

Atanarjuat has been praised in many circles for giving the rest of the world a window into a culture rarely, if ever, seen on screen. But the movie’s laughably broad characterization allows for nothing of the sort. Not a single line of casual dialogue is spoken in the movie; even Oki’s seemingly offhanded boastings are intended to make sure we realize that he is bad, very bad. In fact, everyone in the movie is either Good or Evil, the concrete divide further delineated by the finale, which conveniently banishes all of the unwanted.

I realize that Atanarjuat is in many ways different from a “regular” movie. I have been told by some that it isn’t a movie at all, but literally a fable put to celluloid. But does this mean that it should automatically be lavished with hosannas in the interest of broadening our cultural horizons? I know of only one way to judge a movie: as a movie, a piece of cinema with value, or lack thereof, as such. If it teaches us something in the process, if we walk away aware of something we were clueless about coming in, then that value is increased substantially, but a movie is a movie first and foremost, and Atanarjuat doesn’t pass muster. It’s self-indulgent, simplistic and homely. And what the hell, I’ll say the words that few critics could bear to utter, for fear of being branded a philistine: it’s boring.

-- Eugene Novikov

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