Tinseltown on the Tundra

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.

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