French cinema. Iranian cinema. Italian cinema. Inuit cinema. One of these things is not like the others; one of these things doesn’t belong.
If you guessed that the latter of those four is the one that won’t be turning up on a film school course schedule any time soon, score one for you. The syllabus for such a class would at this point consist of exactly one film: Zacharias Kunuk’s The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat), the first ever in the Inuit language. The culture of the People Formerly Known as Eskimo remains largely unexplored on film outside a couple of silent-era Nanook of the North-style docudramas, so there’s still a lot the rest of the world can learn from movies about them. And over the course of nearly three hours, The Fast Runner attempts to cover pretty much all of it.
Make no mistake—The Fast Runner is a good film, and occasionally even makes the leap to greatness. But by scrutinizing every moment of his characters’ lives with documentary intensity, Kunuk often flattens out his potentially compelling narrative into an epic-length National Geographic special. That narrative, based on an ancient oral tradition legend, primarily concerns two brothers in the Canadian Arctic Inuit community of Igloolik: Amaqjuat (Pakak Innuksuk) and Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq). The younger Atanarjuat, handsome and fleet of foot, inspires the envy of a rival named Oki (Peter Henry Arnatsiaq), who fears that Atanarjuat will steal his promised bride Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu). When Atanarjuat defeats Oki in a competition for Atuat’s hand, Oki nurtures a simmering hatred for Atanarjuat, one that eventually erupts into violence.
The key word here would be “eventually.” The Fast Runner’s pivotal plot point occurs at approximately the 90-minute mark, which leaves a whole lot of time prior to that point for cultural anthropology. We watch families face hunger if the household’s designated hunter has a bad day. We learn the finer points of igloo-making and sled dog-whipping. We witness contests of strength that involve, respectively, attempting to rip your opponent’s cheek off and clubbing him in the side of the head with a closed fist until he hallucinates. We follow the seasons changing from winter to spring to winter again, accumulating so much raw data about Inuit life that anyone who watches The Fast Runner might be able to make the second-ever film in the language.
Kunuk may feel he has an obligation to establish a context for his story, but the film really gets rolling when the story itself takes center stage. The rivalry between the thuggish Oki and the charismatic Atanarjuat provides a solid core, complemented by a peripheral conflict between Atanarjuat’s two wives, Atuat and Oki’s calculating sister Puja (Lucy Tulugarjuk). When The Fast Runner’s tale of sibling clashes, murder and vengeance emerges from the household chores—matters you suspect were never part of the oral versions of this story—it proves fascinating enough to make its extended prologue forgivable.
Whether the subject at hand is boiling eggs or life-and-death struggle, the images are often startling. Kunuk’s landscape compositions capture spectacular stark beauty using only digital video; give this guy 35mm, and he could be dangerous. The Fast Runner maintains an almost hypnotic pacing throughout its long running time, remaining intriguing even through its depictions of mundane activities. And Kunuk really shows his stuff when he reaches the film’s most potent image: Atanarjuat fleeing for his life, completely naked, across the alternately frozen and thawed ground from Oki and his friends. Nowhere does Kunuk portray more vividly the pure survival drive of frail humanity in such a forbidding world.
In one of The Fast Runner’s early scenes, an elder addresses the assembled community around a fire before telling a story: “I can only sing this song to someone who understands it.” That sensibility seems to be central to the way Kunuk approaches The Fast Runner—he believes he can only sing this particular song to a worldwide audience by making us understand the world from which it originates. The song itself carries enough lyrical beauty to keep an audience engaged. Zacharias Kunuk shows off enough filmmaking talent in The Fast Runner that you have to believe he’ll get another shot to tell Inuit stories. Just because his culture was overlooked by filmmakers for 100 years doesn’t mean he had to make up for it in three hours.