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'Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner)'

'Atanarjuat' tells Inuit tale that resonates as story for all people

Friday, July 26, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

"Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner)" tells an ancient tale of Inuit folklore. The movie, now at the Regent Square theater, was produced, written, directed and acted by Inuit, who also made up 90 percent of the crew, and was shot in and around the town of Igloolik in the Canadian Arctic.

(The Fast Runner)'

RATING: Not rated but contains violence, nudity and sexual situations

STARRING: Natar Ungalaaq, Sylvia Ivalu, Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq

DIRECTOR: Zacharias Kunuk

WEB SITE: atanarjuat.com


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To quote the producers, " 'Atanarjuat' demystifies the exotic, otherworldly aboriginal stereotype by telling a powerful, universal story -- a drama set in motion by conflicts and emotions that have surfaced in virtually every culture known to man."

Indeed, the details are all too familiar. Among a group of nomadic Inuit, an evil shaman appears to divide the community. The son of the group's leader kills his father and assumes his title. He taunts another man, a hapless hunter with a wife and two sons, one of them an infant.

Twenty years later, the boys have grown up to be Amaqjuaq, the Strong One (portrayed by Pakkak Innukshuk), and Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner (Natar Ungalaaq). Mostly, Atanarjuat enjoys running after Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu), who has been pledged to marry the leader's son, Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq), who protests in vain -- his bark is worse than his bite.

But Oki eventually does strike back, sending Atanarjuat on an epic run for his life and setting up an eventual confrontation with the evil that haunts his community.

A universal story indeed -- its echo reverberates through Greek tragedy, Shakespeare and such recent pieces of popular culture as "The Lion King."

My initial reaction was that of a cultural romantic or, at least, someone sick to death of bloodshed in the Middle East, threats of unspeakable destruction by terrorists, children being abducted and killed, one group of people vowing to destroy another in the name of religion, people doing to others before others can do unto you.

I wanted to believe there was one place left on Earth where people get along and help each other survive. What better place than the Arctic tundra, where life seems reduced to its basics and there is so little material wealth to fight over?

But you can look at it another way, of course. The fewer resources that are available, the more people fight over them. The producers of "Atanarjuat" talk about the importance of cooperation to Inuit families in their nomadic lifestyle. But the Inuit are subject to the same foibles as the rest of us -- jealousy, envy, violence -- or at least to whatever evil power sows such demon seeds among us.

Despite the overheated claims of some critics such as the fellow from the Village Voice who says this movie "could suggest the rebirth of cinema," what "Atanarjuat" accomplishes is to tell an old story in a new setting, a place so far off any path we would recognize that we could scarcely imagine it.

In fact, there is such a timeless quality to "Atanarjuat" that I could not say for sure in what era it is supposed to take place. There are no modern conveniences here -- the people hunt for their food, make their own tools, live in igloos or in tents depending on the season.

But the movie does break stereotypes in other ways. Director Zacharias Kunuk offers a seduction culminating in a discreet but sensual lovemaking scene that wouldn't be out of place in a contemporary love story set in the concrete canyons of civilization. Everybody doesn't spend the entire movie wrapped up in furs -- in fact, a substantial section of this three-hour movie takes place in the Arctic summer, alongside flowing rivers with stony banks and flowers poking through the ground.

The image that stays with you is of Atanarjuat trying to escape an attack on his life, leaping from his tent and running naked across the ice like a newborn gazelle bursting from its mother's womb.

"The Fast Runner" takes its sweet old time, the better to absorb you into its folklore, its culture and its story.

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