During that time, video and lightweight camera equipment sparked a revolution in independent video productions. As a result, Inuit storytelling values, which are based on collective and community-based activities, could be combined with alternative video to create films that allow for insights into an ‘authentic world’. The third vector in this equation is digital media and their development into user-friendly applications, which provide access to portable recording and editing equipment. Isuma’s feature films are shot on high definition (HD), a format, which allows for digital post-production on site. Digital technologies greatly enhance independent filmmaking, especially in regions where post-production facilities are hundreds of kilometres away. Rushes from a daily shoot in Igloolik can be screened on location and do not have to be sent to Montreal, which would result in lengthy delays and increased production costs. Digital technologies therefore allow Isuma producers to complete most of their film production in Igloolik.
Atanarjuat exemplifies the confluence of traditional storytelling, community-based independent filmmaking practices and new media technologies, which resulted in a film that is fundamentally different from mainstream productions. It represents an approach, which transforms ‘media that dissolve and homogenise cultures into tools of cultural preservation’ (Scott 2002). The success of films like Atanarjuat led Isuma to pioneer several other media projects such as Isuma TV, which uses the internet as a digital distribution platform for a wide variety of indigenous programming. Isuma also launched the SILA project (ww.sila. nu), an interactive website that functions as a narrative map for entry points into traditional Inuit songs, stories and historical events. In addition, Kunuk and Cohn use their public platform to raise issues of concern for Inuit communities and the world in general. For one, they have increased awareness of the high suicide rates amongst Inuit youth and the desperate living conditions many Inuit communities face due to unemployment and health risks, especially diabetes. On an international scale, Isuma is working with environmental groups to relate observations and insights from Inuit elders to researchers investigating climate change connected to global warming. The results of these collaborations were presented at the UN Climate Change Conference in 2009 and culminated in Isuma’s documentary Inuit Knowledge & Climate Change (2010).
Isuma’s feature film narratives are rooted in Inuit spirituality and symbolism, which are not explained or ‘translated’ for non-Inuit viewers so they can attain easier access to their meaning. Atanarjuat is in Inuktitut and is, in every aspect, a representation of Inuit life and customs in the Igloolik region. As a result, Atanarjuat and other Isuma films are as much a celebration of cultural continuity as they are mnemonic devices to reconnect to memories of the past. Their purpose goes beyond educational aims as they allow Inuit participants and audiences to engage and reflect upon issues that are important to the community. Within the context of colonial legacies and unresolved land claims, Isuma’s films also represent a political voice for Indigenous rights that extend beyond national borders.
In Atanarjuat, Kunuk and Cohn combined traditional storytelling with digital technology to create a unique film. Digital media production promotes participatory forms of communication because it allows smaller communities to access film production technologies. It enables Aboriginal and Inuit communities to explore issues of concern and to tell their stories in dramatic ways. Independent film practices and alternative media therefore provide the basis for Indigenous peoples to pursue social change through politics of identity and representation. Within this paradigm, cultural production is transformed into political mobilisation. According to Ginsburg (2003) this ‘cultural activism’ defines indigenous media as promoting differences rather than assimilation.
Furthermore, the decentralisation of media practices is an exercise in empowerment, which at various points intersects with mainstream media to redirect nationwide foci and international debates. Interest in Northern communities, its lands and peoples, is intensifying in scientific research, especially in regards to the environment and global warming; in international politics (i.e. sovereignty claims on the North), as well as in the popular imagination of the public, which ranges from animal preservation to tourism and using the image of the polar bear in advertising campaigns. Films like Atanarjuat therefore play a key role in contributing to a vital international cross-cultural dialogue about climate change, cultural identity and globalisation.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Canada. Production Company: Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, Canada Television and Cable Production Fund License Program, Canadian Television, Channel 24 Igloolik, Igloolik Isuma Productions, National Film Board of Canada. Director: Zacharias Kunuk. Producers: Paul Apak Angilirq, Norman Cohn and Zacharias Kunuk. Co-producer: National Film Board of Canada. Screenwriters: Apak Angilirq, Norman Cohn, Zacharias Kunuk, Herve Paniaq, Pauloosie Qulitalik. Cinematographer: Cohn. Cast: Natar Ungalaaq (Atanarjuat), Pakak Innuksuk (Amajuat), Sylvia Ivalu (Atuat), Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq (Oki), Lucy Tulugarjuk (Puja).]
Paul Apak Angilirq, Zacharias Kunuk, Herve Paniaq, Norman Cohn, Pauloosie Quilitalik, and B. Saladin d’Anglure, Atanarjuat: the fast runner: inspired by a traditional Inuit legend of Igloolik, Toronto, Coach House Books & Isuma Publishing, 2002.
Doris Baltruschat, ‘Television and Canada’s Aboriginal Communities: Seeking Opportunities through Digital Technologies’, Canadian Journal of Communication, 29 (1), 2004, pp. 47–59.
Kimberly Chun, ‘Storytelling in the Arctic Circle: An Interview with Zacharias Kunuk’, CINEASTE, 28 (1), 2002, pp. 21–3.
Michael Robert Evans, Isuma: Inuit video art, Montréal, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008. Faye Ginsburg, ‘Atanarjuat Off-Screen: From “Media Reservations” to the World Stage’, American Anthropologist, 105 (4), 2003, pp. 827–31.
Sigurjon Baldur Hafsteinsson and Marian Bredin, Indigenous screen cultures in Canada. Winnipeg, University of Manitoba Press, 2010.
Sophie McCall, ‘“I Can Only Sing This Song to Someone Who Understands It”: Community Filmmaking and the Politics of Partial Translation in Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner’, Essays on Canadian Writing, 83, 2004, pp. 19–46.
Michelle Raheja, ‘Reading Nanook’s Smile: Visual Sovereignty, Indigenous Revisions of Ethnography, and Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner)’, American Quarterly, 59 (4), 2007, pp. 1159–85.
A.O. Scott, ‘Reel Change’, New York Times, July 14, 2002, pp. 11–12. Monika Siebert, ‘Atanarjuat and the Ideological Work of Contemporary Indigenous Filmmaking’, Public Culture, 18 (3), 2006, pp. 531–50.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.