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The Dirty Yellow Snow Where the Inuits Go
by Lucius Shepard
July 4, 2002

The definition of “epic” that best applies to genre film is this: a complex story about simple characters that plays out over a span of many years. Certainly this definition applies well enough to the most well-known genre epics—Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and 2001: A Space Odyssey—as well as to an epic in the making, The Matrix. The personalities of Kubrick’s scientists and astronauts are as bland and superficial as the corporate milieu they inhabit. Whatever behavioral subtleties Frodo and his pals might embody is obscured by the shadow of a Dark Menace, a situation that of necessity acts to simplify their responses. Ditto the Cyberchrist Neo and his rebel buds. And as for the characters born of what might be labeled George Lucas’s emeritus period, “simple” must be considered something of a euphemism. It is a convention with much of genre work in any medium that plot should be elevated above all other creative concerns, and the old dictum “plot is the resolution of character” should be discarded in favor of a lowbrow aesthetic that essentially demands character be reduced to the bare minimum so as not to interfere with the good stuff. As evidence of this, not so long ago I was shown a script treatment for a project currently in production, and one of the major selling points was the following: “This movie will contain no subplots and have no depth of characterization.” At any rate, for whatever reason, complicated creations like those portrayed in epic mainstream films, characters like T. E. Lawrence and Zhivago and Bobby Corleone, don’t appear to survive the genre cut.

Until recently, that is.

Based on a thousand-year-old Inuit folktale concerning a hunter who escapes three assassins by fleeing naked across the Arctic ice, Zacharias Kunuk’s Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner, the first full-length feature produced, written, and directed by Inuits, is a simple story involving complex characters and though at one hundred and seventy-two minutes it may be too leisurely to play big in Omaha, it seems the kind of movie for which cinema might have been invented, offering a Shakespearean tale of greed, jealousy, and power, while at the same time providing a unique documentation of a strangely harmonious First Millennium culture that has remained virtually unknown to everyone except a handful of academics. Winner of the Canera D’0r at Cannes, six Genies (the Canadian Oscars), and numerous other festival awards, Runner deserves every ounce of the praise it has received—not since Lawrence of Arabia has a film achieved such a unity of visual poetry (gritty and glorious) and sound and narrative. The screaming of the wind, the scrape of a sled’s runners, the crunching of a hunter’s tread, these crisp, bright noises perfectly complement the ice fields, snowy wastes, and tundra, all drenched in clear white Arctic light, delivering images of a dangerous and ferociously beautiful natural world that both frame and imbue with mythic potency the actions of the men and women whose passionate confusions and constant struggle to survive provide the film’s kinetic energy. From the opening image of a hunter out on the ice surrounded by his whimpering dogs, all reacting to an off-camera terror, Atanarjuat is world-class storytelling, unhurried yet never slow, drawing the viewer in, immersing him in a culture that seems incomprehensible at first, utterly disconnected from our own, and then gradually revealing its mysteries to be merely familiar human ones that have been reinvigorated by means of this astonishing perspective.

The situation is this: An isolated clan of nomadic Inuits in a place called Igloolik (a town, by the way, that has been continuously inhabited for over four thousand years) is visited by an evil sorcerer, who afflicts them with a curse that will ensure terrible bitterness and conflict. When the clan leader, Kumaglak, is murdered, the new chief, Sauri, endlessly humiliates his old rival, Tulimaq, forcing him and his family to survive on charity. But after the passage of twenty years, things take a turn. Tulimaq’s sons, Amaqjuaq, the Strong One, and Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner (Natar Ungalaaq), become the clan’s best hunters and their skill breeds jealously in the heart of Oki, Sauri’s son. When Atanarjuat defeats Oki in a head-punching duel, thus winning Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu), Oki’s intended, for his bride, the stage is set for vengeance and murder.

Urged on by his father and his perfidious, manipulative, Lady MacBeth-like sister Puja, a role marvelously realized by Lucy Tulugarjuk, Oki and two friends plot to murder the brothers and ambush them while they sleep, killing Amaqjuaq by spearing him through a collapsed tent. Atanarjuat, however, makes a miraculous escape and so begins the film’s dramatic centerpiece, perhaps the most poignantly tense and beautifully paced chase sequence ever filmed, consisting not of explosions, pyrotechnic car crashes, derailments, fusillades of bullets, or flaming bodies, but of a naked man desperately running across the ice beneath the midnight sun, pursued by three hunters with spears. His feet torn and bleeding, half-frozen, Atanarjuat is hidden by a family living out on the ice, a family—we come to realize—of spirits who counsel him, supply magical assistance, and redirect his desire for blood onto a spiritual path, allowing him to plan and eventually to return to Igloolik, where he reclaims his family, carries out his own considerably more just brand of vengeance, and with the help of the spirit family, confronts the evil sorcerer.

To an audience accustomed to the grossly spectacular and traditional stupidities of genre film, to filmgoers concerned with whether Gandalf’s dialogue played backwards constitutes Peter Jackson’s erotic paean to Beelzebub or Madonna, Atanarjuat may not appear to qualify as a fantasy, because it engages its genre elements so casually, so off-handedly. Characters do not sit one another down and explain everything that is going on, as happens in so many genre pictures. Watching this film, you are plunged immediately and without explanation into the midst of a world of sputtering seal-fat lamps and raw-meat feasts, of eerily lit igloos and grieving ceremonies and women with feline tattoos, a world in which sorcerers, magic, spirits, and reincarnation are taken for granted (Atuat is, for example, commonly believed to be the reincarnation of her own great-grandmother, and for this reason is called “Little Mother” by her grandmother). In a way, Atanarjuat is—in all its stunning and often grungy ethnographic detail—the antithesis of the ethnographic. Rather than offering analysis, the movie seems to rub itself against your skin, causing you to experience the Inuit culture rather than to gain an analytic comprehension of it, to have an almost physical appreciation for the hardship and peril that the nomads faced on a daily basis.

Every once in a while a movie happens along that seems to reconnect state of the art of filmmaking with the original excitement that came into the world with the birth of a truly modern art form, reminding us of the variety of purposes to which the agency of film can be harnessed. Despite its juvenile sensibility, Star Wars was such a film. Lost in the gibbering let’s-all-get-dressed-up-like-Darth Vader enthusiasm that helped transform the franchise into the cinematic equivalent of Juicyfruit was a genuine amazement over the recognition of a new filmic range that was waiting to be explored (naturally, Hollywood chose to exploit rather than to explore it). Though its story was derivative, cribbed from a Kurosawa period piece, the way the story was clothed, the new environments that were created in order to tell it, effected an expansion of film’s basic vocabulary, both in terms of the technical and the imaginative. Atanarjuat will be seen by far fewer people and its influence on popular culture will doubtless be negligible. It’s just not easy to imagine folks attending FastRunnerCons, buying Puja dolls, or rubbing their bodies with walrus grease, donning caribou skin parkas, and heading down to the multiplex for a midnight show where they parrot the Inuktitut dialogue en masse. But I think it may also be such a groundbreaking film, one that will have a greater influence on the art of filmmaking than Star Wars has had. Shot in Betacam digital video, enlarging the potentials of that medium, it succeeds in capturing a different reality with far more efficacy than Lucas achieved in creating his pixelated galactic empire, and in doing so it not only suggests an entire new realm of cinematic targets, but—by its wedding of the homemade and the epic—will very likely indicate to young filmmakers working outside the system that they need not limit themselves to unambitious comedies and coming-of-age stories, thus changing the face of contemporary cinema. It’s interesting to note that Lucas’ continuation of his Star Wars saga, The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, movies that have been little more than ghastly ads for action figures and video games, were also shot in digital video. A case, it would appear, of The King Is Dead Long Live the King.

Atanarjuat is by no means a perfect film. The 35-millimeter transfer is substandard, ten or fifteen minutes of cuts might have streamlined the movie to good effect, and the confusion of the opening scene will be off-putting to some viewers. Flawed or not, however, it must be considered a masterpiece. In terms of storytelling technique alone, the way Kunuk orchestrates his emotional scenes to arise from shots that evoke the constant labor essential to the survival of the nomads, women scraping fat from skin or pounding meat, men icing their sled runners, and so on...these frames create an utterly original narrative flavor. Except for the lead, Ungalaaq, the actors are all non-professional, yet their performances are without apparent artifice, unforced, and I do not mean this in the documentary sense—though these characters are recognizable in their ordinary humanity, we never feel that they are less than larger-than-life or that their story is other than vastly significant. There has been a spate of recent films utilizing non-professional actors, most notably Eduard Valli’s Himalaya, but none have risen to this high level of competency. The script by Paul Apak Angilirq, who died during the production, skillfully blends the dramatic with the feeling of oral history, and the cinematography, as mentioned, is superb. But it is as a genre film that Atanarjuat makes its bones as a masterwork, demonstrating that the true power of fantasy is not to provide escape from the oppressiveness of reality—a drug, a goodnight kiss, or a decent meal can do that equally as well—-but instead to amplify the real and allow us to perceive the magical-seeming underpinnings of our lives, to remind us of the miraculous nature of our existence and the infinite possibility that encloses us. In this, in its crossbreeding of cinema verite with magical realism, in its luminous depiction of human striving taken to the level of myth, Atanarjuat succeeds majestically, enduringly, and like no other movie before it.