An Inuit film

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Apr 1 07:15:15 MST 2002

(Yesterday I saw "The Fast Runner" at MOMA. Since the NY Times review and
profile on the Inuit director below are more than adequate in describing
what a breakthrough this film is, I will add only a couple of notes. First,
for a brief time we had a Marxmail subscriber, originally from Great
Britain, who was involved in distance learning technologies up in Nunavut,
the Inuit territory in Canada. You can find information on Nunavut Arctic
College at: Also, when the
director says he would go back to the "law of the Inuit" while checking his
e-mail in the morning, he is exemplifying an attitude that I defend
strongly against those Greens who would keep indigenous people "pristine"
and backwards. For my reply to that viewpoint, see:

NY Times, March 30, 2002

A Far-Off Inuit World, in a Dozen Shades of White

In standard histories of world cinema, the Inuit people of northern Canada
figure mostly in connection with Robert J. Flaherty's "Nanook of the
North," an epochal silent documentary made in 1922. Eighty years later, the
voices of the Inuit can at last be heard on screen. "The Fast Runner
(Atanarjuat)" directed by Zacharias Kunuk and based on an ancient folk
epic, is the first feature film made in the Inuktitut language by an almost
entirely Inuit cast and crew. It was made, with financial assistance from
the National Film Board of Canada, by Igloolik Isuma Productions. Mr. Kunuk
founded this company in 1990 with Norman Cohn, the film's director of
photography; Paul Apak Angilirq, who wrote the screenplay; and Pauloosie
Qulitalik, a cast member, with the intention of expanding film and video
productions in the aboriginal areas that now form the Canadian province of

All of this would be enough to make "The Fast Runner," which will be shown
tonight and tomorrow in the New Directors/New Films series at the Museum of
Modern Art, a noteworthy film. It's always interesting when a hitherto
unrepresented corner of the world shows up on the screen. Part of the
wonder of the movies, even at this late date in their history, lies in
their ability to acquaint us with cultures and places far removed from what
we already know. The arrival of a movie that expands the scope of our
experience, that immerses us in a radically different point of view, is
always a welcome event, and such a movie does not necessarily have to be
great to be interesting.

"The Fast Runner," however, is not merely an interesting document from a
far-off place; it is a masterpiece. Mr. Kunuk's film, which won the Caméra
d'Or for best first feature at last year's Cannes International Film
Festival, is much more than an ethnographic curiosity. It is, by any
standard, an extraordinary film, a work of narrative sweep and visual
beauty that honors the history of the art form even as it extends its



NY Times, March 30, 2002

Returning Tundra's Rhythm to the Inuit, in Film

GLOOLIK, Nunavut

ZACHARIAS KUNUK'S film, "Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner)," based on an age-old
Arctic folk tale, has made him a celebrity of sorts. But frankly, he would
rather pass on the parties.

He was invited to peddle the movie at the Arctic Winter Games this month in
Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut Territory, but he chose to stay home. He
packed his snowmobile with an axe, a rifle and a video camera and went seal
hunting instead.

Mr. Kunuk, 44, is the first Inuk to direct a feature-length motion picture,
one that was performed entirely by Inuit actors in their centuries-old
Inuktitut language. The picture won him a prize for best first feature film
at Cannes last year and in February won six Genies — Canada's equivalent of
the Oscar — including one for best director.

That prominence and the appearance of the first genuinely Inuit film are
landmarks for the Inuit, an indigenous Asian people who crossed into North
America thousands of years ago and who have made an uneven advance toward
mainstream Canadian life. The Inuit, formerly referred to as Eskimos,
persuaded the government to carve Nunavut from the Northwest Territories in
1999. Their language, strictly oral for centuries, has spawned an alphabet
in the last few decades.

For all his status now, life for Mr. Kunuk here in Igloolik, 125 miles
north of the Arctic circle, is pretty much the same. He works in a spare
office editing videotape and finds solace in a little shack that serves as
a study. The shack is decorated with a plastic tropical plant, a wolf skull
and the jaw of a polar bear hunted by one of his five children. Any day he
likes, he can drop everything and poke around the ice cracks looking for a
seal to shoot.

"Everything I need is right here," said Mr. Kunuk, peering across the
boundless tundra as he sipped tea, then lighted a cigarette and put on an
extra layer of dog skins to keep warm in the 30-below-zero weather. "There
is no distraction and there is lots of light. Imagine doing a scene here.
It could be a dog team scene, a hunting scene."


"I believe in shamans," he said. "If it were up to me, I would go back to
the law of the Inuit, the law of nature. I would live like that while
checking e-mail in the morning, calling halfway around the world to do
business, watching wars in my living room on television. It is possible to
do both in this day."

The idea of picking and choosing from distinct cultures as if they were
platters on a buffet, Mr. Kunuk acknowledges, is not entirely practical.
Yet the choices he has made are full of paradoxical twists.

He rebelled against Canada's socialization plans by dropping out of school
after the eighth grade. But he was attracted to the cowboy films shown in

Mr. Kunuk began his artistic endeavors as a carver of soapstone. In 1981,
he traveled to Montreal to sell some sculptures and came home to Igloolik
with a video camera.

It took him two months to figure out how to get the color balance right but
Mr. Kunuk went out anyway to document the adventures of hunters in black
and white. A year later, the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation, an independent
production company, opened an office here and hired Mr. Kunuk as a cameraman.

In 1990, he co-founded Igloolik Isuma Productions, the first Inuit
production company, to make a series of television and museum videos and
short documentaries.

Making "Atanarjuat" wasn't easy. There were interruptions in funding, flash
snow storms and the death from cancer of Paul Apak Angilirq, the
scriptwriter, in the middle of the shoot. But in the end, Mr. Kunuk said,
"shooting it was the most fun we could have."

"My generation," Mr. Kunuk said, sighing, "we used to drive on the land in
dog sleds. Now we look out the window and say, `It's a nice day. Shouldn't
we be out there?' That's where I want to take the audience."


Louis Proyect
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