Wednesday, January 5, 2011

It's The Citizen Kane of Inuit Drama

Today, I will cover another film that delves into the art of storytelling. But, in a first for me, it will be my first foreign language film – and in a first for it, this film was the first film to be entirely acted, written and directed in the native Inuit tongue, Inuktitut. The film? Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner.

Based on a legend passed down for at least 2,000 years, the film tells the tale of good v evil –in this case, a village beset by evil spirits bought to it by the shaman, Tungajuaq, who steals spiritual power for himself by killing the village leader, Kumaglak, at the behest of the murdered man’s son, Sauri. A local warrior, Atanarjuat, finds himself tasked with removing the evil. Along the way he finds himself clashing with Oki, grandson of Kumaglak, who has taken after his father as not very good at all and later becomes so much worse. Usually over Atuat - Oki’s promised wife, who has feelings for Atanarjuat, although, soon she becomes his. In addition to the clashes with Oki, the fast runner also finds himself entwined with the duplicitous Puja, who manages to “charm” her way into the role of Atanarjuat’s second wife (polygamy was apparently a done custom in Inuit society many years ago), before revealing herself as a trickster and a witch, of the human variety.

This is a film of two parts, in many senses of the word. Not only is my copy divided into two files, but the story itself divides between the real and the mystic, with the first half of the film (opening 10 minutes and a few minor touches aside) focusing mostly on the character interactions and the aspects of everyday life; and the second half allowing the mystical elements to take more focus in the story. Not to the point that they overwhelm the worldly aspects, but they do feature more.

As someone who had not even heard of this story before a few months ago, when it was mentioned in passing on The Age Of Uncertainty. It may have only been a few sentences, however, the way the author described the film certainly made me curious enough to check it out. And I am very glad I did – to use his words, it is unlike anything I have ever seen. And it really is, not only does it show a culture that I have the smallest of knowledge of, but it shows a time hundreds of years ago. From the scant reading that I have done on the film, the makers strived as much as they could to show life as it actually would have been back then – from everyday life, to family interaction, to customs.

This is a film that, to me succeeds as both a narrative and an anthropologic postcard, giving a snapshot into a people who no longer exist in the way portrayed by the story – and yet, still do in some approximation, with only the mildest touch from modernity. In fact, the parts of the film that I loved the most were those moments of family life and of culture, rather than the tale itself. This could come from the fact that it seems that there are only one or two “actual” actors in the cast, with the rest made up of “local” Inuit talent, which no doubt adds an air of authenticity to the entire project. To use a quote from the Los Angeles Times, “Everything combines in The Fast Runner to create a film that does not feel acted and rather as if it is simply happening in front of our eyes”, which could not be truer, as there are parts of this film (particularly in the first half) that feel as though one is watching a documentary rather than a movie.

I have always found the “high Arctic” areas (northern Canada, Iceland, the upper Scandinavian regions) to be hauntingly beautiful and it is just reiterated with this film. No matter the chronological setting of the film, from the earlier Winter set times to Spring/Summer, the film plays against a backdrop that is nothing short of breathtakingly beautiful. This is another aspect that makes one forget that one is watching a movie, as the entire story was filmed in areas that one would not normally see outside of a documentary. Miles of pristine snow, ice, water and tundra permeate every shot, making you feel that you truly are in a completely different world.

What Atanarjuat shows above all else, as far as the story goes, is that all cultures base their storytelling on the same tenets – love, loss, fear, betrayal, heroism. No matter when, where or who the story is about, they all have the same base elements, just in different mixes. This is a tale that has been told and handed down through Inuit culture for many hundreds of years, and yet all you have to do is change location, put some people in armour and add robots, and you have Star Wars (well, not exactly, but you get what I am saying).

The film was made as an exercise with multiple levels – to show the Inuit that their storytelling ways can continue in different, modern mediums, and to show Inuit people on screen in positive lights. Speaking as a person who has zero stake in this film as anything other than entertainment, I hope it has succeeded on the levels that it hoped to. And, judging by the positive responses and accolades it has picked up since its release, it looks like it has.

All in all, an absolutely fascinating film.

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