Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner

Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner
Directed by Zacharias Kunuk
Produced by Paul Apak Angilirq
Norman Cohn
Zacharias Kunuk
Germaine Wong
Written by Paul Apak Angilirq
Starring Natar Ungalaaq
Sylvia Ivalu
Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq
Music by Chris Crilly
Cinematography Norman Cohn
Edited by Norman Cohn
Zacharias Kunuk
Marie-Christine Sarda
Distributed by Sony Pictures
Release dates
May 13, 2001 (Cannes premiere)
February 1, 2002 (UK)
April 12, 2002 (Canada)
June 7, 2002 (USA, limited)
August 22, 2002 (Australia)
Running time
172 minutes
Country Canada
Language Inuktitut
Budget CAD 1,960,000 (est.)
Box office $5,998,310

Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (Inuktitut syllabics: ᐊᑕᓈᕐᔪᐊᑦ (fonts required)) is a 2001 Inuktitut-language Canadian epic film directed by Inuit filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk and produced by his production company Isuma Igloolik Productions. It was the first feature film ever to be written, directed and acted entirely in Inuktitut. Set in the ancient past, the film retells an Inuit legend passed down through centuries of oral tradition.

Atanarjuat premiered at the 54th Cannes Film Festival on May 13, 2001, and was released in Canada on April 12, 2002. A major critical success, Atanarjuat received international acclaim from critics and audiences and was nominated for numerous awards. It was the Canadian submission to the 74th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film, but was not nominated. It did, however, win numerous other accolades, including the Caméra d'Or (Golden Camera) prize at Cannes, and was named the best Canadian film of 2001 by the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television at the Genie Awards. Atanarjuat was also a commercial success, becoming Canada's top-grossing release of 2002, outperforming the mainstream comedy Men with Brooms. It grossed more than US$5 million worldwide. In 2015, the Toronto International Film Festival named it greatest Canadian film of all time in a poll of filmmakers and critics; in the 2004 list, Atanarjuat placed fifth.


The film is set in Igloolik ("place of houses") in the Eastern Arctic wilderness at the dawn of the first millennium.[1]

The shaman's curse

The wind is blowing over a bleak snowy landscape while a man tries to herd away some marauding dogs. We hear the voice (over) of an old man singing a childish song. Inside a stone house a strange shaman by the name of Tungajuaq, who comes from up north, is singing playfully to the gathered community and camp leader Kumaglak. But among the spectators there are some mistrustful faces.

Flash forward to another day. Qulitalik is bidding goodbye to his sister Panikpak, wife of Kumaglak, promising to come if she calls for help in her heart. She gives him her husband's rabbit's foot for spiritual power. Qulitalik tells his sister, "Tulimaq is the one they'll go after now." It seems that Qulitalik is leaving to escape a threat, and the hope is that one day he will return to help. As Panikpak watches him leave, we hear a voice-over from a woman (which we will recognise later as the voice of Panikpak when she is older): "We never knew what he was or why it happened. Evil came to us like Death. It just happened and we had to live with it."

Flash back to the original scene in the stone house. The visitor and the camp leader Kumaglak are in a "friendly" spiritual duel involving binding in leather thongs. But Panikpak is startled when the stone lamp in front of her breaks in half, and, to the horror of those present, Kumaglak falls over dead. The visitor removes the leader's walrus-tooth necklace from Kumaglak's body, and, passing by Tulimaq, he puts the necklace around the neck of Sauri, the son of the murdered leader Kumaglak, saying, "Be careful what you wish for" (suggesting that Sauri's ambition had a part to play in events). Tulimaq leaves, shouting at Sauri "You helped him murder your own father!"

Time passes; the shaman's curse has poisoned the camp. Tulimaq, now the local laughing stock, is having trouble feeding his family because of "bad luck" hunting. But Panikpak secretly brings meat for Tulimaq's children, Amaqjuaq and Atanarjuat, hoping that one day they will grow strong and be able to make things right.

The rivals

Flash forward a couple of decades. Tulimaq's sons Amaqjuaq and Atanarjuat are now young men, excellent hunters, and they are a thorn in the side of the camp leader Sauri and his son Oki. One day, out on the ice, Oki arrives with his pals to "borrow" the brothers' dogs and sled. But Atanarjuat, the fast runner, chases them down, and Amaqjuaq, the strong one, throws the gang off the sled. Later, during a game of "wolf tag" at camp, Atanarjuat chases the beautiful Atuat, for whom he has an obvious liking, provoking jealous anger from Oki, who was betrothed to Atuat when they were children. To complicate matters further, Oki's sister Puja also openly shows her tender feelings for Atanarjuat. The scene is set for a duel. Even Oki's grandmother Panikpak does not want Atuat to marry Oki, because, she says, Oki is a cruel man, just like his father Sauri has been since the evil shaman's visit. (Panikpak calls Atuat "little mother" because Panikpak long ago "recognised" the child and named her after Panikpak's own mother Atuat.)

In a large igloo they are singing and playing games of strength as a prelude to a feast. Atanarjuat and Oki warm up for a head-punching duel by singing mocking songs at each other. As the duel begins, Oki is startled with a vision of the evil shaman, and Atanarjuat is protected by a prayer by Panikpak to her dead husband. Atanarjuat ends up knocking Oki into helpless spasms, thus winning the right to marry Atuat.

Broken love

Some time later, Atanarjuat is a happy husband to the pregnant Atuat. Tulimaq tells Atanarjuat that he should leave to hunt caribou, and an elder suggests that Atanarjuat stop at Sauri's camp, joking about the women that he will find there. On his trip Atanarjuat does stop at Sauri's camp, where Oki and Sauri suggest that he should take Puja to help with the hunt. Atanarjuat naively allows himself to be persuaded. At a waterfront camp, Atanarjuat and Puja pass the evening singing and flirting and eventually end up in the tent having sex.

Time passes; it is summer. Atanarjuat is now in an unhappy marriage with two wives, Atuat and Puja, and has a young son by Atuat. Atuat and Amaqjuaq's wife Uluriaq complain that Puja is not helping with the daily work. Later, in the tent, under the communal fur shared by the family, Puja and her brother in law Amaqjuaq softly slide together and begin to have sex. Uluriaq wakes up and screams, and Atanarjuat cuffs Puja on the head. Puja flees to Sauri's camp and arrives there black-eyed, crying that Atanarjuat tried to kill her for no reason. Oki vows revenge, Panikpak however remains suspicious of her accusations.

A murderous attack

Atuat and Uluriaq look up to see Puja returning to their camp, crying remorsefully. They are suspicious, but accept her apology. At Puja's suggestion, Atuat and Uluriaq leave to pick eggs, while Atanarjuat and Amaqjuaq retire to the tent to sleep. Alone outside the tent, Puja places a boot against the tent to indicate who is sleeping on that side. She leaves to join the other women as Oki and his gang appear over the hilltop. From inside the tent we hear Amaqjuaq admit to his brother that he has done him wrong — the last words he will ever speak. Oki and his two henchmen sneak up and plunge their spears through the tent wall. Oki's spear comes out stained with the blood of Amaqjuaq. But Oki is startled and distracted at a vision of his grandfather Kumaglak shouting angrily "Amaqjuaq's brother is coming after you!". At that instant, Atanarjuat, naked, barefoot, and unharmed, bursts out of the tent and runs off across the ice.

Atanarjuat's run

Oki and his two sidekicks give chase on foot, but Atanarjuat, the fast runner, keeps well ahead of them, running steadily for miles barefoot on the ice. Oki knows there is an open crack in the ice which will stop Atanarjuat. But as Atanarjuat runs he sees a vision of an old man calling to him. Atanarjuat follows the vision and gains the power to make a soaring leap over the open crack. Oki is forced to turn back to get his dog sled.

An old man is picking eggs and looking around uneasily. It is the man whose spirit appeared to Atanarjuat on the ice. He returns to his wife and adopted daughter with more eggs than they could possibly eat themselves.

Atanarjuat, freezing cold and with feet raw and bloody, finally collapses on the ice. He wakes up wrapped in furs with the old man and his family staring down at him. Atanarjuat tells them he is being chased, and the daughter spots a sled team approaching. The family hide Atanarjuat under some dry seaweed. Oki and his brothers arrive, and in spite of Oki's threats and questions, the family profess to have seen no one. Oki urinates on the seaweed under which Atanarjuat is hiding. The family feeds their visitors eggs until they are stuffed. After the meal Oki tells the old man that he knows he is Qulitalik, Oki's great uncle, who left Igloolik many years ago (as we witnessed at the beginning of the film) and that they had all thought he had died. Oki eventually leaves in the hope of finding Atanarjuat's body on the ice.

Community in fear

Back at Igloolik, Oki is angry because Sauri refuses to let him have Atuat. One day, while Atuat is spending time alone, Oki's henchmen grab her and pin her down while Oki rapes her. Later, Panikpak comes to Atuat to offer her comfort.

Winter has arrived again, and the ice is becoming solid. Atanarjuat, having healed with help from his rescuers, is impatient to return to Igloolik. He is not scared of Oki, but the evil spirit behind Oki. "Only you know when you are ready", Qulitalik tells him — spiritual healing is as important as the physical.

The men of Igloolik are out on the ice hunting seals. Oki approaches Sauri and stabs him in the stomach with the words "Get out of my way, Atuat is mine now." Oki tells the others that Sauri tripped and stabbed himself, and they bring the body of Sauri back to Igloolik on a sled. Amidst the mourning and crying, the leader's walrus-tooth necklace is removed from Sauri's body and placed around Oki's neck: Oki is now the camp leader. He later tells Atuat that he wants nothing to do with her, and as time passes he provides her with no food or care. She becomes almost desperate enough to beg him for help. In her heart, Panikpak calls out to her brother Qulitalik (calling him anik, "brother") to summon him supernaturally, as they agreed so long ago.

A daring plan

Sensing his sister's call, Qulitalik tells his family that they will all go to Igloolik with Atanarjuat. Outside, Qulitalik performs a magic ritual using rabbit's feet, and back at Igloolik Oki sees a rabbit in the snow that he is able to catch with his bare hands. When he eats the rabbit meat he falls under a happy spell that makes him forget all his grievances.

Having made the long sled journey across the ice, Atanarjuat, Qulitalik, and the family approach Igloolik. Atuat runs out and is joyfully reunited with her husband. Puja runs out too, but Atanarjuat humiliates her by cutting open her jacket and turns her away. Oki, still under the spell, does not defend Puja, but instead suggests that they prepare food for the visitors.

Atanarjuat builds an igloo with smooth ice floor and invites Oki and his pals to an early start to the feast. They begin eating and talking as old friends. Then Atanarjuat steps out for a moment and returns with a caribou antler club in his hand and caribou antler spikes attached to his feet. He attacks while his enemies slide helplessly on the ice. Pinning Oki down, Atanarjuat smashes the club into the ice beside Oki's head and declares that the killing will stop now. Emerging from the igloo victorious, Atanarjuat finds the community gathered outside. Qulitalik takes the walrus tooth necklace off Oki's neck and gives it to Panikpak to take care of until the evening, when they will meet to finally confront the evil that has been with them for so long.

Return of the shaman

With the community gathered that evening, Qulitalik chews on a walrus-skin bag to call forth the spirits. The evil shaman Tungajuaq appears, blowing and grunting with the eerie echo of a polar bear. The others recoil in fear, but Qulitalik places a carved pair of tusks in his mouth and confronts Tungajuaq with the powerful spirit of the walrus. Panikpak joins him, shaking the walrus tooth necklace. Feeling the force of their spiritual onslaught, the shaman backs up. Qulitalik throws some magic soil into the shaman's face, and the evil shaman screams and disappears into thin air.

Panikpak speaks to the gathered group in the stone house. It is time for forgiveness, she says, and to rid the community of the evil that has plagued them for so many years. Oki and Puja and their friends are forgiven for their evil deeds, she says, However they will not be unpunished and they must leave Igloolik immediately and never return. As Puja cries in grief the troublemakers all leave, with one final furious and agonised look from Oki.

Joy sweeps the gathered community. Then the voice of the old leader of the camp, Kumaglak, is heard coming from his namesake Kumaglak, the little son of Atanarjuat and Atuat. Old Kumaglak asks his wife Panikpak to sing his old song, which she does, as everyone joins in.


Atanarjuat's family

Oki's family




The names of Atanarjuat and his brother first appeared in writing in the journals of the explorer Captain George Lyon, who took part in a British expedition to search for the Northwest Passage in 1821–23.[2] The Inuit believe the story of Atanarjuat to be more than five centuries old. This agrees with geomorphological estimates that Qikiqtaarjuk (Herschel Island), Inuktitut for little island and now a peninsula of Igloolik Island,[3] on which much of the action occurs, became a peninsula about 500 years ago due to isostatic rebound.[2][4][5] The main elements of the original story are that two brothers are betrayed by their wives and help set up a sneak attack. Rivals plunge their spears through the walls of the brothers' tent, but the fast runner makes an escape across the ice, naked and barefoot. After being rescued and healing, the fast runner sets up his own ambush and succeeds in killing his rivals.[2] (See the book for a two-page treatment.)

The writers had to flesh out the bare bones of the legend with more detailed characterization and a social and religious setting. Stories in Inuit society are told for entertainment and teaching. One of the lessons of the legend of Atanarjuat is the evil that can occur when personal ambition (Sauri's and Oki's, in the film) is put before the needs of the community. Another lesson is that someone who defies the camp leader may end up fleeing alone across the ice.

Writer Paul Apak Angilirq, director Zacharias Kunuk, and many others on the production team had heard the Atanarjuat legend when they were young. Over the course of five years, Angilirq interviewed eight elders for their versions of the story and combined them into one treatment (story). The final script was developed by the team of Angilirq, Norman Cohn (producer and cinematographer), Zacharias Kunuk (director), Herve Paniaq (tribal elder), and Pauloosie Qulitalik (tribal elder, who also plays the shaman Qulitalik). Angilirq died of cancer during film production in 1998. The last version of his Inuktitut screenplay is in the book Atanarjuat, side by side with a version by Cohn that appears to be a precursor to the final English script. Cohn explained, "In the final edited version of the film, sometimes the actors are speaking the lines from Apak's script and we are subtitling them with the lines from mine."[6]

Despite the emphasis on accuracy, the film takes liberties with the original Inuit myth: "At the film's core is a crucial lie," wrote Justin Shubow in The American Prospect,[7] which is that the original legend ended in a revenge killing, whereas in the film Atanarjuat stops short of shedding blood. "A message more fitting for our times," explained director Zacharias Kunuk.[8]

Achieving historical accuracy was paramount to the production. According to anthropologist Bernard Saladin d'Anglure the biggest challenge was resurrecting the beliefs and practice of shamanism, "the major frame of reference for Inuit life."[2] Research into historical sources — often the journals of European explorers[2] — provided the basis for the reconstruction of clothes and customs. Elders were consulted every step of the way; in an interview, Paul Apak Angilirq said

"We go to the elders and ask information about the old ways, about religion, about things that a lot of people have no remembrance of now... They are helping us write down what people would have said and acted in the past, and what the dialogue would have been like... We speak 'baby talk' compared to the elders. But for Atanarjuat, we want people speaking real Inuktitut... When we are writing the script, they might jump in and say, 'Oh, we wouldn't say such a word to our in-law! We wouldn't say anything to our brother's wives! It was against the law!'"[9]


Critical Reception

Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner was praised by critics upon its release. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a very positive 90% "Certified Fresh" based on 94 reviews, with an average rating of 8/10. The site's consensus reads, "Compelling human drama and stunning cinematography make The Fast Runner an absorbing experience."[10] On Metacritic the film has a score of 91 out of 100 based on 29 critics indicating critical acclaim.[11]

Roger Ebert from Chicago Sun-Times awarded it 4 out of 4 stars, praising the film's acting, fleshed out characters, and direction, calling it "passion, filtered through ritual and memory".[12] Peter Bradshaw from The Guardian praised the film's performances and, cinematography, calling the film "A remarkable world first".[13] Tom Dawson from BBC called the film " an impressively vivid and detailed depiction of a particular way of life", praising the film's cinematography as "extraordinary".[14] A.O. Scott from New York Times praised the film, stating "Mr. Kunuk has accomplished the remarkable feat of endowing characters from an old folk tale with complicated psychological motives and responses. The combination of dramatic realism and archaic grandeur is irresistibly powerful."[15] Marjorie Baumgarten from Austin Chronicle awarded the film 4 out of 5 stars, praising the film's script, cinematography, and visual style as being unique and refreshing.[16] Leonard Maltin awarded the film 4 out of 4 stars, calling it "A privileged peek into Inuit culture and a stirring, deeply personal drama".[17]

Inuit Reaction

The goals of the film were first to show how for thousands of years Inuit communities had survived and thrived in the Arctic, and second to introduce the new storytelling medium of film to help Inuit communities survive long into the future.[2] Atanarjuat "is an important step for an indigenous people who have, until recently, seen their culture recorded by outsiders" wrote Doug Alexander in the Canadian historical magazine The Beaver.[18] Jennifer L. Gauthier of CineAction wrote "Atanarjuat was made primarily for Inuit audiences so that they could see positive and accurate images of themselves on the screen." Director Kunuk put it a little more bluntly: "Four thousand years of oral history silenced by fifty years of priests, schools, and cable TV."[19] "Kids all over Nunavut are playing Atanarjuat in the streets," said producer Norman Cohn in a 2002 interview.[20] At one point the production company was considering making Atanarjuat action figures.[20] The film production pumped more than $1.5 million into the local economy of Igloolik and employed about 60 people.[21]


Awards won

Nominations received

Atanarjuat was nominated for the following awards, but did not win them.

Further reading

See also


  1. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2007-05-19. Retrieved 2007-05-20.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 d'Anglure, Bernard Saladin: An Ethnographic Commentary: The Legend of Atanarjuat, Inuit and Shamanism, in Paul Apak Angilirq, Norman Cohn, and Bernard Saladin d'Anglure. Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner. Coach House Books and Isuma Publishing, 2002.ISBN 1-55245-113-5.
  3. New Ways of Mapping: Using GPS Mapping Software to Plot Place Names and Trails in Igloolik (Nunavut) by Claudio Aporta
  4. Encounters on the Passage: Inuit Meet the Explorers by Dorothy Harley Eber
  5. Interviewing Inuit Elders - Stories by Alexina Kublu
  6. "Interview With Norman Cohn by Claire Litton". Pitt in Hollywood. Retrieved 2006-12-15.
  7. Shubow, Jason (February 28, 2003). "Cold Comfort: The misrepresentation at the center of The Fast Runner". The American Prospect. Retrieved 2013-01-20.
  8. Quoted in Shubow, 2003.
  9. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2008-05-09. Retrieved 2008-01-27.
  10. "Atanarjuat (2002) - Rotten Tomatoes". Rotten Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 22 February 2016.
  11. "Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner Reviews - Metacritic". Metacritic. Retrieved 22 February 2016.
  12. Ebert, Roger. "The Fast Runner Movie Review & Film Summary (2002)". Roger Ebert. Retrieved 22 February 2016.
  13. Bradshaw, Peter. "Atanarjuat". The Peter Bradshaw. Retrieved 22 February 2016.
  14. Dawson, Tom. "BBC - Films - review - Atanarjuat - the Fast Runner". Tom Dawson. Retrieved 22 February 2016.
  15. Scott, A. "An Inuit Epic in Shades of White -". A. O. Scott. Retrieved 22 February 2016.
  16. Baumgarten, Marjorie. "The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat) - Film Calendar - The Austin Chronicle". Austin Marjorie Baumgarten. Retrieved 22 February 2016.
  17. Maltin, Leonard. Leonard Maltin's 2014 Movie Guide. Penguin Press. pp. 448–449. ISBN 9780451418104.
  18. "An Arctic Allegory" in The Beaver 82.2 (April–May 2002): p48(2).
  19. Kunuk, Zacharias. "I first heard the story of Atanarjuat from my mother," in Paul Apak Angilirq, Norman Cohn, and Bernard Saladin d'Anglure. Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner. Coach House Books and Isuma Publishing, 2002.ISBN 1-55245-113-5.
  20. 1 2 "Action figures next step for Atanarjuat". Nunatsiaq News. Archived from the original on 14 November 2006. Retrieved 2006-12-07.
  21. "Filmmaking Inuit-Style". Isuma Distribution International Inc. Archived from the original on 2006-12-06. Retrieved 2006-12-08.
  22. "Festival de Cannes: Atanarjuat". Archived from the original on 2012-10-09. Retrieved 2009-10-19.

External links

This article is issued from Wikipedia - version of the 10/31/2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.