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With: Natar Ungalaaq, Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq, Sylvia Ivalu, Lucy Tulugarjuk
Written by: Paul Apak Angilirq
Directed by: Zacharias Kunuk
MPAA Rating: R for some sexuality/nudity and violence
Language: Inuktitut, with English subtitles
Running Time: 172
Date: 03/18/2013
IMDB

The Fast Runner (2002)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Run, Atanarjuat, Run!

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Probably not many film buffs remember Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North opening in the summer of 1922, but few would deny its landmark status. Introducing world audiences to Eskimos' daily routines, it was the first film to tell their lives' stories. Eighty years later comes another, oddly similar, fillm. Zacharias Kunuk's The Fast Runner (a.k.a. Atanarjuat), which opens today at the Bridge Theater, is a near-great movie, not without nagging flaws. But, unlike anything else in theaters this year, it's unquestionably a landmark in cinema. The first full-length (three-hour) film shot on digital video and made entirely in the Inuktitut language to be released in the United States, The Fast Runner takes place over a lifetime and turns a less-than-ordinary squabble between neighbors into a timeless epic.

As the film begins, a wicked shaman divides an Inuit community into two warring clans when the future heroes of each clan, the good Atanarjuat and the evil Oki, are merely infants. Years later, the rivals butt heads over Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu), who has been promised to Oki but who falls in love with Atanarjuat. The grown-up rivals establish a shaky peace through a carefully moderated fighting ritual. Satisfied, Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq) moves to a new spot with his wife to build a homestead and start fresh. While alone on a fishing trip, he stops for a meal with Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq) and his family. Oki insists that Atanarjuat take his sister Puja (Lucy Tulugarjuk) with him. Later, alone in the remote wild and sleeping in a warm tent, Atanarjuat and Puja (who has an alluring sideways smile) fall prey to sexual attraction and -- before long -- Atanarjuat finds himself with a second wife and child. Angered, Oki -- with two evil sidekicks forever at his side -- attempts to kill Atanarjuat in his sleep and winds up with the wrong corpse. Realizing their error, the villains chase the completely naked Atanarjuat across the frozen tundra in the movie's most astonishing, mesmerizing sequence. This is the scene film buffs will be talking about for years to come. After, as in Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo, Atanarjuat must hide, rest and heal from his run before the final showdown in which the rivals face off once and for all.

While we know director Kunuk has made several other movies, mostly documentaries and short films (though to the best of my knowledge none have been released or shown here), and we know even less about screenwriter Paul Apak Angilirq, who passed away in 1998, I have to assume both were familiar with American pop movies and TV shows, considering how they created their villian. The cliched Oki and his two mindless sidekicks have been ripped from the frames of a thousand American movies -- most recently Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone with its evil Draco Malfoy and his lackies Crabbe and Goyle. The Fast Runner can hardly be called inspired storytelling. (Not to mention the fact that our hero Atanarjuat would have gone on to live a fairly unremarkable life if not for Oki's evil intervention.) But strangely, that's where The Fast Runner succeeds. Over the course of the film's leisurely three hours, we see the fascinating daily routines of the Inuit people -- how they eat, how they gather, how they dress, how they sleep, how they hunt. Surviving and getting through the day becomes gripping drama. Even if the good vs. evil story is overly familiar, I guarantee the beautiful, sensual setting is not. When it comes to the look and feel of The Fast Runner, it's clear that Kunuk is unimpressed by Hollywood filmmaking and its obsession with short attention spans and quick cuts. He films the northern Canadian landscape with his tiny digital camera as if it were a giant Cinemascope magnifying glass. The expansive world somehow fits properly, majestically onto the square-shaped screen. The sparkles on the surface of water, the bulky animal skin cloaks -- even the wind -- become characters. (It's a clue to what Flaherty could have achieved had he such a small camera on Nanook.) The Fast Runner continues to amaze, and not just because it was made at all, but because it's getting distribution in American theaters. We have seen our first crossover Bollywood film this year -- the rich, wonderful Lagaan -- and here's a glimpse into something even rarer. It's a film that expands our idea of the world.