In January of 2015, the Toronto International Film Festival held its decennial poll to determine Canada’s All Time Top Ten films. TIFF polled filmmakers, critics and academics to come up with consensus choices, and the result was a bit of a surprise to the uninitiated. Instead of Claude Jutra’s Mon Oncle Antoine topping the list, as it had done since the poll’s inception in 1984, Zacharias Kunuk’s Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner took its place as the best Canadian film. It was likely the first time an Indigenous film topped a national cinema poll — a landmark in international cinema. The reasons Atanarjuat topped the poll are both obvious to those who have seen the film, as well as indicative of a larger moment in world cinema as a whole. It’s simply a superb effort, but also one that shares a vision of indigenous culture, crafted by, and for, indigenous people, in a way never before done.
Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner is an adaptation of a traditional Inuit myth, following the hunter Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq) and his epic quest to restore peace to a community divided by evil spirits and romantic rivalries. In the decade-and-a-half since its release, it’s become something of an institution. The film was a major hit when it was first released as well; it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2001, winning the Caméra d’Or (Golden Camera), which is awarded to the best first feature film in the festival. In its theatrical release, it also won the Genie Award for Best Canadian film and grossed over $5,000,000 U.S. at the box office, becoming the top grossing Canadian film of that year.
The reasons for Atanarjuat’s success are numerous, but a large part of its appeal lies in its relationship to Canadian cinema as a whole. To help understand the film and its place in history, we spoke to Jesse Wente, Director of Film Programmes at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and pop culture critic for CBC’s Metro Mornings. “In a legacy of films that transmit something about Canadian identity; it’s part of the tradition of films like Donald Shebib’s Goin’ Down the Road, which try to capture something essential about Canadian identity and Canadians’ attempts to define themselves in this massive geography. However, this Canadian “tradition is born out of what is the outsider or colonial identity coming into a land and applying its identity here. It’s about self-definition of the over-culture of Canada,” Wente says.
At the time of its release, there was plenty of excitement about Atanarjuat being the first feature film made by an Inuit filmmaker entirely in Inuktitut. On a larger scale, it’s also the first historical epic made by an indigenous filmmaker about an indigenous way of life that’s entirely independent of non-indigenous characters or references.
On the other hand, “Atanarjuat tells a very old Inuit myth, one that predates contact with the West — with Europeans — and because of that you not only have that lineage, but it also suggests a different way to look at that lineage. In terms of Canadian cinema, there are few films that not only make you reconsider the entire art history of cinema in the country, but that also suggest a new course for cinema. That’s what Atanarjuat does.”
It’s important to note that from a global perspective that Atanarjuat represents Canadian culture in a way non-indigenous Canadians often overlook. While non-indigenous Canadians generally tend to envision essential elements of Canadian culture as fixating on the harsh climate or (if delving a little deeper) exploring the immigrant experience of arriving in a new, overwhelming geographical location, Wente posits that “what people outside of Canada view as actual Canadian culture isn’t hockey or those sorts of things.” He says that for foreigners, “it’s actually the culture of the First Nations people — the Inuit and Métis — that they would identify as distinctly Canadian.” This being the case, Atanarjuat becomes a symbol of essential Canadian culture to the rest of the world. Like the non-Indigenous films sitting beside it in the Canadian canon, it explores humanity’s relationship to the country’s geography and the notion of survival. However, unlike these other films, it investigates these notions from the perspective of an indigenous community.
The specificity of Atanarjuat’s storytelling also contributes greatly to its canonization. At the time of its release, there was plenty of excitement about Atanarjuat being the first feature film made by an Inuit filmmaker entirely in Inuktitut. On a larger scale, it’s also the first historical epic made by an indigenous filmmaker about an indigenous way of life that’s entirely independent of non-indigenous characters or references. This makes Atanarjuat a pioneering endeavour, as well as an important statement of indigenous artistry. It also undeniably lends the film a feeling of innovation.
The film is also overwhelmingly dedicated to authenticity. Zacharias Kunuk and producer Norman Cohn corrected historical inaccuracies in past cinematic portrayals of Inuit life and hewed as close to reality as possible. For example, Wente points out “the costumes were all made as they would have been at the time.” The film has countless scenes of women cleaning sealskins or men making igloos, and all of these actions are represented exactly as the Inuit community would have done them in the past. Kunuk and Cohn engaged the Inuit community in the making of the film, turning it into a “community-based project.” It’s the case of an artistic visionary “engaging with the community that’s represented in the film… [which in] the history of indigenous cinema is very, very rare.” This engagement of the Inuit community in the creation of Atanarjuat made the film “an act of cultural revival,” claims Wente. “It actually allows contemporary Indigenous people to engage with traditional craft they would have possibly forgotten or abandoned — ditto the language.”
The film aligns the viewer with Atanarjuat and his fellow community members, bringing us into their tents and igloos — into their beds — allowing us to see the world through their eyes. It supplies intimacy almost unheard of in epic filmmaking.
The film’s accuracy is also evident in its structure, foregoing many conventions of Western epic cinema in favour of Indigenous oral storytelling traditions. Wente explains that while Atanarjuat is “an indigenous story that very much acknowledges, or understands, the notions of traditional epic storytelling techniques, especially in terms of mise en scène, framing and the positioning of the character against the landscape, it uses and adapts those to tell an indigenous story the way an indigenous story would be told.” Wente goes on to explain that the film “does many things that are not traditionally the three-act story structure of the Western narrative.” The opening of the film does little to introduce the characters or the structures of the world. As well, the film matter-of-factly incorporates magic and spirits into the fabric of the narrative. For instance, one of the final scenes finds a character chewing on a walrus-skin bag to call forth spirits that have been plaguing the community. However, Wente explains that Kunuk “doesn’t clue the audience into when the characters are speaking to spirits or people who aren’t physically there and things like that, which is a part of the way Inuit and a lot of First Peoples pass along stories.” This lends the film an intimate perspective.
Unlike most historical epics, Atanarjuat is not framed in such a way as to allow the viewer the comfort of looking back from a modern context, nor does it position the film as an outsider’s perspective of a very insular culture. Instead, it displays the ancient way of life of a tight-knit indigenous community in such a way that assumes the viewer is familiar with the rules and reasons of the actions presented on screen. Instead of offering a perspective of a fascinating culture from the outside looking in, Atanarjuat places the viewer inside peering out. The film aligns the viewer with Atanarjuat and his fellow community members, bringing us into their tents and igloos — into their beds — allowing us to see the world through their eyes. It supplies intimacy almost unheard of in epic filmmaking.
In light of its historical importance as a landmark indigenous film and its natural appeal to non-indigenous viewers eager to catch a glimpse of an ancient community, it’s easy to understate Atanarjuat’s powerful filmmaking. The film captures the overwhelming expanse of Canadian geography and the intimacy of tight-knit hunting communities. It contrasts stunning vistas of endless ice fields with cramped igloos and tents, lit by oil lamps and fires. It’s a personal tale of Atanarjuat, as he fights to win the woman he loves and avenge the brother he lost, but his quest takes on a significance of mythic proportions. The film is an epic, after all.
Atanarjuat becomes a symbol of essential Canadian culture to the rest of the world. Like the non-Indigenous films sitting beside it in the Canadian canon, it explores humanity’s relationship to the country’s geography and the notion of survival. However, unlike these other films, it investigates these notions from the perspective of an indigenous community.
It also has some spectacular action sequences. The centrepiece of Atanarjuat is a chase scene across the ice fields of northern Canada. It starts with Atanarjuat’s rival, Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq), and his two cronies ambushing Atanarjuat and his brother, Arnaqjuaq (Pakak Innuksuk), as they sleep in their tent. They spear Arnaqjuaq with walrus tusks, killing him, but Atanarjuat escapes, fleeing across the ice stark naked. Oki and his men give chase, and Atanarjuat has to run across the fields in the bitter cold and wet until Oki relents. The scene is startling for its rawness — there is nothing more visceral than the sight of a nude man fleeing for his life, running across a frozen landscape — justifying the film’s subtitle: The Fast Runner.
The scene is also an example of director Zacharias Kunuk blending traditional filmmaking wizardry with visceral authenticity. Wente points out that “they did the movie trickery — they made prosthetic feet and they did all that stuff you do when making a movie to tell a story — but, ultimately, it still came down to the fact that you know the actor had to run across the ice in his bare feet.” Actor Natar Ungalaaq’s feet were protected from frostbite as they filmed the scene, but he still had to run across an ice field stark naked. This rawness is part of the film’s undeniable power.
The appeal of Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner is evident to any viewer who sees it. Wente notes: “The artistry of the movie is extraordinary.” However, it’s easy to overlook its emotional strength when it casts such a large shadow as a historical document and pioneering film for indigenous cinema.
Ultimately, Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner‘s status as a global sensation is obvious; it is film that is both profoundly indigenous and utterly universal.