At the conclusion of a haunting tale of love and violence between Inuit families, Grandmother ends the cycle by sending two of her own grandchildren into permanent exile. Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, a feature film from Igloolik Isuma Productions in Nunavut, won the Camera d’Or prize at Cannes in 2000. It is a beautifully crafted, well acted, moving drama that retells an Inuit story set in the pre-contact, mythological Arctic.
It begins on a somber note with the howling of dogs that are circling a lonely figure standing in the bleak, snowy landscape. With a pale moon hovering in the background, the narrator opens with mysterious words: “I can only sing this song to someone who understands it.” Non-Inuit viewers are immediately introduced to the notion that we are outsiders, aliens in this land, and perhaps in this movie.
Filmed in Nunavut, the first several scenes continue the aura of mystery. An evil shaman enters the community long ago and levels a curse on the people. “We never knew what he was or why it happened. Evil came to us like Death,” the narrator says. “It just happened and we had to live with it.”
After a few more scenes, the main story unfolds, slowly, over the course of a nearly three-hour movie. Atanarjuat and his brother are both happily married, but the former takes a second wife, who is filled with evil intentions. She actively seeks to destroy her husband. With her involvement, her brother Oki and his two accomplices murder Atanarjuat’s brother. Atanarjuat only escapes by fleeing, stark naked, across the frozen tundra.
The movie follows the continuing saga of the good first wife, abandoned temporarily to the whims of the murderer and his two friends. Atanarjuat, meanwhile, survives and gains back his strength at a distance while waiting his chance to come back.
When he does return to the band many scenes later, he is able to thrash the three, but he spares their lives, something they did not do to his brother many months before. With Oki flat on the ice, Atanarjuat could easily kill him with his cudgel in revenge, but he stops. “The killing … stops here,” he commands. With the entire band gathered to see what has happened, the three rogues are shamefaced. Atanarjuat does not have a triumphant look on his face.
Instead, they all agree that they must meet together that night to expel the evil that has plagued them. During a dark scene, the assembled people throw handfuls of dirt into the face of an evil figure, which evidently chases away the spirits. But the matter has not ended. Grandmother gives what is certainly the longest speech in the movie. She tells her grandson and granddaughter, Oki and Atanarjuat’s second wife, that they have committed many evil deeds. While she forgives them of their crimes, she tells them they must leave the band forever.
This lengthy, serious, and moving tale of evil and violence is the subject of a recent scholarly article by Monika Siebert. The intent of her work, however, is to analyze contemporary Inuit filmmaking and indigenous self-representation rather than the film itself.
The author notes, correctly, that the world of the pre-contact Inuit is lovingly, carefully recreated in the film. The camera hovers over people rubbing spit over their sled runners, building igloos, working with skins, cooking, playing, and living as contemporary Inuit understand their ancestors to have lived.
Some of the actors have intricate tattoos drawn on their faces. The film, with all the mystery about the fringes—the throat singing on the soundtrack during tense moments is an effective device—attempts to show the outside world an authentic recreation of Inuit life many generations ago. But we know that the filmmakers and actors are Inuit, so we are clearly seeing their own view of that world of long ago, not an interpretation by outsiders.
Siebert is bothered, however, by the closing minute of the film, the coda that follows Grandmother’s order to the evildoers, their departure, and the closing moments while the remaining band sings to celebrate their being together. During this closing minute we see numerous outtakes, shown at less than full-screen size, of the actors being filmed by the modern production company. Credits roll while we watch a sled driving along next to the naked runner, filming him as he flees across the tundra with his enemies in pursuit. The author feels these brief outtakes completely change the character of the movie. It is hard to understand her reasoning.
She argues that the brief depiction at the end of the movie of the production company at work undermines the filming, shatters illusions, and emphasizes that the movie is a re-creation, a “carefully staged performance.” Of course it is. How else could real people make a contemporary movie except by re-creating the conditions as they felt they probably existed in the past. Do the curtain calls at the end of a live performance of La Traviata somehow undercut the tragedy? Siebert’s reasoning seems far fetched.
She does applaud the Inuit (and other indigenous peoples) for envisioning their own past in their own films. She analyzes both the ways they have represented their own past with their own ideas and the ways the outside, southern society has often tried to control and exploit their history. Her unfortunate focus on the 60 seconds of outtakes at the end of the film, however, undercuts most of her other arguments. But the film itself is most worthwhile.
Siebert, Monika. 2006. “Atanarjuat and the Ideological Work of Contemporary Indigenous Filmmaking.” Public Culture 18(3): 531-550
Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. 2003. DVD produced by Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment, 2003. Original motion picture issued in 2001.