Cooperation. Consensus. Intuition. Spontaneity. Not necessarily words that bring to mind Hollywood filmmaking. They are, however, words that evoke the expansive spirit behind The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat), a groundbreaking independent movie that took the industry by storm in 2001, winning six Canadian Oscars and the award for the best debut feature at the Cannes Film Festival in France and opening to great critical acclaim in the United States last summer.
The three-hour epic, shot in Igloolik, a tiny Inuit community about 125 miles north of the Arctic Circle, is based on a 4,000-year-old Inuit legend and is the first feature film made in Inuktitut, an aboriginal language spoken from Alaska to southern Greenland. Set against a vast blue sky and glaring, ice-hardened snow, The Fast Runner tells a sweeping tale of rivalry for a beautiful woman and the sometimes poignant, often tempestuous struggle between the forces of good and evil, love and revenge. The film?s narrative power and age-old human themes have led critics to liken it to Homer?s Iliad and Shakespeare?s plays.
Shooting on digital video, the filmmakers were freed from the constraints of heavy equipment, large crews, and prohibitive costs. Video also conveyed an immediacy that evokes the raw and intimate feel of a documentary.
The film?s creative team includes the late writer Paul Apak Angilirq; an authority on traditional Inuit life, Paul Qulitalik; director Zacharias Kunuk; and photographer, producer, and editor Norman Cohn?the only non-Inuit in the group. A native New Yorker and widely exhibited video artist, Cohn first arrived in Igloolik after viewing a collection of short dramas and documentaries that Apak and Kunuk had co-produced. ?Zach and Apak were kind of self-invented Inuit filmmakers, making much more observational, nonverbal kinds of stuff,? Cohn tells the Canadian film and television magazine Take One. In the late 1980s, the four founded Igloolik Isuma Productions, a Canadian Inuit production company known for its use of low-cost video and digital filmmaking. (Isuma is an Inuit word meaning ?the quality of thoughtfulness.?)
It may seem strange to employ digital technology to portray one of the world?s oldest oral cultures, but as Kunuk told the Twin Cities alternative weekly City Pages, the unlimited flexibility of digital filmmaking is merely a revival of the Inuit communal storytelling tradition. Cohn echoes the sentiment. ?If you spoke Inuktitut,? he notes in the Minnesota-based newspaper The American Jewish World, ?you could have heard this story anytime in the last thousand years. But without speaking Inuktitut, the first time you can hear this story and understand it is through our film.?
Indeed, Apak based the 115-page screenplay on a compilation of eight Inuit elders? story versions of the Atanarjuat legend. Apak, Qulitalik, Kunuk, and Cohn met every day for three months in either a tent or an office in the middle of the Arctic to flesh out the script, often taking breaks from writing to hunt seals. They wrote two scripts, one in Inuktitut for the actors, the other in English for potential funders, ?since no one in the Canadian film industry could read Inuktitut,? Cohn explains in the Canadian literary journal Brick.
As Cohn describes it in Take One, the Inuit approach to moviemaking differs greatly from the ?military style? that prevails on the usual Hollywood set. Inuit leadership is ?completely horizontal . . . an unstated, undesignated, lead-by-example, generally nonverbal process,? he writes. The Isuma group?s style of filmmaking is ?very intuitive, very spontaneous, while remaining very deliberate in its intentions,? he adds. ?But you can?t plan. If you plan, you don?t get it. There was no storyboarding, no shot list.?
In other words, The Fast Runner is not just the retelling of a legend, it is a representation of the collective nature of an entire culture. ?We implant these values?our collective process?in our filmmaking practice,? Cohn tells Brick. ?Community support and participation are qualitites of production we make visible on the screen.?
Heather Dewar is an editorial intern at Utne.