Dir: Zacharias Kunuk. Canada. 2000. 167 mins.
Of all the esoterica on show in Cannes this year, The Fast Runner, a nearly three-hour epic in Inuit (it claims to be the first feature ever written in this language) based on a 1000 year old Eskimo legend, must take pride of place at the top of the list. Evidently a labour of love for all concerned, this absorbing, visually breathtaking piece takes a while to gather momentum. But it gradually achieves a magical grandeur and viewers who pass the hump of a confusing first reel will feel that it richly repays their time. Trimming might improve the film's commercial programmability, but this would be at the expense of its distinctive rhythms and flavour. Still, this delightful curiosity, which took the Camera D'Or at Cannes, can expect plentiful festival exposure leading, with luck, to some niche arthouse and small screen sales.
An evil spirit enters a small community of nomadic Inuit based in the North Baffin region of the Canadian Arctic, sowing envy and strife among its members. A jump cut moves the story forward 20 years, finding two of the babies grown into strapping young men: Armaqjuaq, the Strong One (Innushuk), and his younger brother Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner (Ungalaaq). The brothers are at loggerheads with Oki (Arnatsiaq), the belligerent son of the tribal chief whose family has been blighted by the curse of the shaman. Their bone of contention is the beautiful Atuat (Ivalu), promised since birth to Oki but in love with Atanarjuat. To win her, the physically slight Atanarjuat must challenge the chunky Oki in unarmed combat, a bizarre and dangerous ritual which involves each man in turn thumping the other in the head.
By sheer determination rather than brute force, Atanarjuat wins his bride, but Oki plots ceaselessly to undermine the marriage. At first he arranges for his flirtatious sister Puja (Tulugarjuk) to seduce Atanarjuat, who takes her as his second wife, and then, when this strategy fails, he attacks the two brothers while they're asleep in their tent. Armaqjuaq is murdered, but Atanarjuat escapes and, in a long, stirring sequence, is pursued, stark naked, across the ice floes by his enemies. Aided by a good spirit and his own fabled running skills, he gives them the slip and passes the summer with an old couple who nurse him back to health while he waits for the ice to freeze over sufficiently for the long walk home. Oki continues his bloody programme of rape and murder until Atanarjuat returns to bring him to book, exorcise the demon and restore harmony to his people.
On paper this might seem a rather artless project and mainly of obscure ethnographic interest. In fact the film offers manifold pleasures. A small army of craftsmen was recruited to research and make the costumes and artefacts drawing both on traditional knowledge and museum exhibits. One is left with the sense of having seen a detailed, vivid and authentic recreation of an ancient culture from the preparation of food, making of music, building of igloos and tribal rituals to the men's futuristic sunglasses and the exquisite facial tattoos sported by the women.
Though shot with a 90% Inuit crew which included a number of trainees, the film's technical credits (and the transfer from widescreen DV to 35 mm) are flawless. Cohn's camerawork captures the dramatic scenes with intimacy and immediacy, while the dramatic Arctic scenery is a star in its own right; the sweep of the narrative and six-month shoot offer the opportunity to marvel at it in a wide range of weather conditions, seasons and lighting conditions. Most important of all, this is a rattling good yarn, polished through the centuries by the oral story-telling tradition which has been the main means for this nomadic culture of passing down its heritage, Laced with sex, violence and bawdy humour, the tale of a cursed dynasty has the universal power of a Greek myth. But it also reflects the unique philosophy of the Inuit world, where the supernatural is ever-present and the struggle for collective survival under extreme conditions leaves no space for private vendettas.
The Fast Runner would benefit from some re-editing of the opening scenes, which are too impatient to introduce large quantities of narrative information and characters in a way which some viewers might find bewildering. However once the relationships have been firmly established, this is no longer a problem, and appealing performances from a cast which includes both seasoned actors like Ungalaaq and total novices help build the film to a satisfying emotional conclusion.
Prod co: Igloolik Isuma.
Co-prods: National Film Board of Canada.
Int'l sales: Isuma Distributing International.
Exec prod: Sally Bochner.
Prods: Paul Apak Angilirq, Norman Cohn, Kunuk.
Prod des: James Ungalaaq.
Eds: Kunuk, Cohn, Marie-Christine Sarda.
Music: Chris Crilly.
Main cast: Natar Ungalaaq, Sylvia Ivalu, Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq, Pakkak Innushuk, Lucy Tulugarjuk.