Atanarjuat Movie Review

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After screening Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) before a sold-out crowd at the New York Museum of Modern Art, filmmakers Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn answered an audience member's question with obvious chagrin. While the film had collected six Genie awards (Canada's Oscars), including prizes for Best Film, Best Direction, and Best Screenplay, Cohn noted that not a single cast member had received an acting nomination.

"I guess people think they're not acting," said Cohn ruefully.

He's probably right. Filmed on frozen locations around Igloolik, off the coast of Baffin Island, Atanarjuat is the first feature to be shot in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit people. When the film is released on June 7, it will be, for most American audiences, a first-ever look at Inuit culture. I arrived at the theater with none of the helpful preconceptions that one takes to a western, or a techno-thriller; thirty seconds in, I was boggled and transfixed by what I was seeing. And when the lights came up, I, too, in my ignorance, needed to ask: were those Inuits acting?

Set at the dawn of the first millennium, Atanarjuat, which also took home the Caméra d'Or for best first feature at Cannes, is the epic, bloody tale of an Inuit camp haunted by a sin: the murder of its headman, years ago, by a wandering shaman, with the vague complicity of Sauri, the headman's son. Now aging, Sauri has raised a vicious heir, Oki, who waits to take power. But Oki feels threatened by two other young men in the camp: Amaqjuak, the strong hunter, and his virtuous younger brother Atanarjuat. The cycle of violence threatens, then begins, to renew itself, as jealousy gives way to murder, rape, patricide, and supernatural revenge. Yet what the viewer comes away with, ultimately, is an impression of community, and of the mutual dependence of people struggling to survive in the cold.

Strong acting and a superb screenplay by Paul Apak Angilirq give nuance to the relationship between the two brothers, played by Pakak Innukshuk and Natar Ungalaaq. Innukshuk conveys a confident invulnerability as Amaqjuak, the older brother, while Ungalaaq, with his charcoal eyes and angular features, brings a delicate complexity to the lead role. The community is rounded out by actors of both sexes and all ages, with especially fine performances by Lucy Tulugarjuk as Puja, Oki's seductive sister, and Madeline Ivalu as Panikpak, one of the camp elders. Mr. Ungalaaq may also add his name to the list of movie actors -- like the weight-losing Tom Hanks or the weight-gaining Robert De Niro -- who have made supreme physical sacrifices in the name of cinema: in what is likely to be the film's most talked-about scene, Atanarjuat, stark naked and barefoot, must flee from harpoon-toting enemies across miles of ice. I can think of few images from recent films that evoke, so successfully, the paradoxical frailty and hardiness of human beings.

Atanarjuat was shot in digital Betacam, a format not to be confused with the grittier, cheaper DVcam popular among independent and documentary filmmakers. Given the film's modest $1.9 million budget and its extreme shooting conditions, this decision afforded the crew greater flexibility in coverage, and the payoff is apparent. Unlike the Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, whose 1998 drama The Celebration was perhaps the most successfully realized digital video film to date, the makers of Atanarjuat weren't after a grainy home video aesthetic. The imagery is stunning, and if any of these scenes - the dogsled rides through blinding snow, the ritual head-punching competition in the festival igloo, the solemn meals by seal-oil lamp in the depths of winter - was too difficult to capture on film, then I say Long Live Digital.

Since Robert Flaherty's 1922 documentary Nanook of the North was not, at last check, flying off the shelves at Blockbuster, something has to be mentioned of the educational value of Atanarjuat, which will do an invaluable public service in spreading awareness of Inuit culture. As the filmmakers pointed out at the MOMA screening, the script is perhaps more historic than the movie itself; with the help of eight Inuit elders, Angilirq took a myth previously known only through oral tradition and created the world's first Inuktitut screenplay. The production of Atanarjuat injected over $1.5 million into the depressed economy of modern-day Igloolik. With luck, it will pave the way for an Inuit-owned film industry, in a region plagued by unemployment. But this is more than ethnography, and much more than social gesture; this is moviemaking at its eye-opening, startling best.

Running Inuit, running free.

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Atanarjuat Rating

" Essential "

Rating: NR, 2001

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