The story of Atanarjuat: the Fast Runner is based on an ancient Inuit legend that deals with the dangers of setting personal desires above the needs of a whole community. The film’s narrative unfolds at the dawn of the first millennium, when Atanarjuat is still an infant. Inside a large igloo, families have gathered for a celebration. However, festivities are marred by evil spirits, and the camp leader and shaman, Kumaglak, is killed. His cruel son Sauri takes the reins of power, and as a result Atanarjuat’s family is excluded from central activities in the camp. Nonetheless, Atanarjuat and his brother Amajuat grow to be healthy young men and skilled hunters. When Atanarjuat and his rival Oki both court the beautiful Atuat, new tensions arise. Atuat chooses Atanarjuat and for several years they remain happily married – until the treacherous Puja sets murderous events in motion. She betrays the brothers to Oki and several hunters, who kill Amajuat but fail to capture Atanarjuat. In an iconic scene, Atanarjuat runs naked over the broken spring ice to escape. He stays with friends, but then returns to the camp to confront Oki and his allies. He does not kill them but instead banishes them from the community, thus breaking the cycle of violence and revenge.
Atanarjuat: the Fast Runner was produced and directed by Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn from Isuma Productions, an Inuit film company with offices in Montreal and Igloolik, Canada. The film received international acclaim and won a ‘Camera d’Or’ award for best feature at the 2001 Cannes film festival. As one of the first feature films, written, produced and directed by Inuit filmmakers, it represents a unique stage in Canadian and Aboriginal cinema. Its international success led to increased awareness of the importance of Indigenous filmmaking, especially in regards to presenting a necessary counterpoint to widespread stereotypical portrayals of Inuit and Native peoples in mainstream media. In Atanarjuat the filmmakers combined a community-based approach to storytelling with digital production technologies to create an authentic portrayal of life and customs in the Arctic.
The film’s adaptation reveals a key difference from the Inuit legend that centres on Atanarjuat’s escape and his miraculous survival. Instead of Atanarjuat killing Oki and his allies, he pardons them. This shifts the focus to the importance of the peaceful coexistence amongst members of an Inuit community, which ultimately ensures their survival in the harsh Arctic climate. According to filmmaker Cohn (as cited in Evans 2008: 94), Atanarjuat ‘is about how to communicate the right way to behave and live. You learn by being told how to behave through stories. There is restitution and moral authority by restoring the value of community as superior to the value of the individual. That’s an Inuit value.’
For Atanarjuat Kunuk and his partners used historical records and museum exhibits to explore traditional Inuit ways of life. Isuma’s approach is therefore fundamentally different from mainstream filmmaking practices, starting with community involvement in every aspect of the production process. From costume making, set construction and make-up, to actors, scriptwriters and technicians, over a hundred Igloolik residents took part in the film; thus, generating important employment opportunities for local residents. Paul Apak wrote the script in Inuktitut, which Norman Cohn translated into English. Atanarjuat received public funding from agencies such as Telefilm Canada, after a lengthy process of convincing the government that the filmmakers should be able to access the funding stream marked for Canadian productions, rather than a smaller envelope designated for Aboriginal films. Isuma’s persistence was rewarded: not only did the filmmakers augment the production budget for Atanarjuat they also increased awareness of in-built discriminatory perceptions of Aboriginal filmmaking practices and expectations of financial returns. The international success resulted in the recognition of Inuit filmmaking – including its unique aesthetic form of representation – in Canada and abroad. It imploded previously held stereotypes about Aboriginal media and consequently made it easier for Isuma to develop other feature films like The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (2006) and Before Tomorrow (2010).
The key to Isuma’s philosophy is to create films which accurately reflect Inuit history and daily life. For Zacharias Kunuk the ‘Inuit point of view’ in filmmaking is based on the authentic representation of Arctic settings, peoples and their environment. In Atanarjuat this is reflected in portraying traditional Inuit skills, from using the right tools for building an igloo, to hunting skills and attending oil lamps. The film also introduces audiences to traditional childcare, food preparations, music, dance and the art of facial adornments and sewing clothes. These depictions show audiences that an ancient culture continues to thrive. In turn, community involvement in filmmaking processes allows participants to learn about ancient customs and communicate their insights to local and international audiences.
Films like Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner are an important response to colonial depictions of Inuit communities in literature, photographs, films and documentaries. The most well known of these portrayals is exemplified by Robert Flaherty’s documentary Nanook of the North from 1922, in which he created a romanticised image of an Inuit family living in a pre-industrial setting amidst a hostile natural world. Flaherty constructed an image of the ‘happy Inuit’, a reality that was far removed from the social and political conditions of the time. On the contrary, Alakariallak, who played Nanook, and his family were from the same Inukjuamiut community that would be relocated 30 years later to the barren High Arctic by the Canadian government. Similar stereotypes of the noble and stoic Native can be found in Doug Wilkinson’s documentary Land of the Long Day from 1952. In establishing an important counter movement, Aboriginal filmmakers began to produce audiovisual works in the 1960s, often through the use of community-based radio and television outlets. Kunuk started experimenting with independent video productions in 1981, and co-founded Igloolik Isuma Productions with screenwriter Paul Apak Angilirq, cinematographer Norman Cohn and actor Paul Qulitalik in 1990. Their goal was to develop independent film and media projects in order to enhance local culture and language traditions.