Director: Zacharias Kunuk
Starring: Natar Ungalaaq
Note: This review was first published as part of the Counting Down the Zeroes series over at the fabulous Film For The Soul. Check it out for a very thorough look at the films that defined the last decade in film - and when I say "thorough" I mean that it's a project that seems staggering in its goal and the effort that must go in to bringing it all together so mad props to Ibetolis for taking it on.
“Evil came to us like Death. It just happened and we had to live with it.” If you were to break The Fast Runner down to a single principle it would that one, spoken during the opening moments of the film. In a small Inuit community during an unspecified time long in the past, evil infiltrates, turning people against each other, and they must learn to live side-by-side with it because the harsh conditions necessitate that they stay together. The Fast Runner tells a story that is in certain respects simple and familiar, but the way that it is told by director Zacharias Kunuk is entirely original, a viewing experience unlike any other.
After a brief prologue we come to the story proper which concerns Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq), the fast runner of the title. Atanarjuat is involved in a rivalry with Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq), the son of the camp’s leader, Sauri (Eugene Ipkarnak), and they vie for the affections of Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu). Atuat was promised to Oki in childhood but now she and Atanarjuat are in love and so a compromise is reached, allowing Atanarjuat to fight for the right to marry her himself. Atanarjuat wins the competition – a fight in which he and Oki take turns hitting each other until one drops – but his happiness with Atuat will be short-lived.
During Atuat’s pregnancy, Atanarjuat goes away to hunt caribou and is talked into taking Puja (Lucy Tulugarjuk), Oki’s sister, along to help him since Atuat’s condition makes it impossible for her to undertake the journey. This will, of course, end badly. Atanarjuat makes Puja his second wife and things become tense within his household. Aside from the obvious issue of jealousy between the wives, there is also the fact that Puja is lazy and leaves all the work to Atuat and Uluriaq (Neeve Irngaut), who is married to Atanarjuat’s brother, Amaqjuaq (Pakak Innuksuk). All five, plus Atanarjuat and Atuat’s young son, live in the same tent, sleeping side-by-side. This will end badly. One morning Uluriaq wakes to find Amaqjuaq and Puja doing more than just sleeping and soon Puja is running back to her family – who are predisposed to disliking Atanarjuat - with a black eye courtesy of her husband. This will also end badly.
The story is based on Inuit legend, though liberties have been taken in order to flesh it, and its characters, out. The ending has also been changed somewhat as writer Paul Apark Angilirq - who died before being able to see his pet project make it to the screen – wanted the story’s message to be one of hope rather than bloodlust and revenge. As shaped by Angilirq and carried out by Kunuk (who is credited as one of the film’s additional writers), it unfolds slowly – too slowly, perhaps, during the first of its nearly three hour running time, though in its last 2/3rds the film seems to really find its rhythm and runs at a faster pace. It takes the time to really establish the sometimes complicated relationships between the characters, making the sense of community that is at the heart of the film really stand out. Though Atanarjuat is the hero of the story, it is the community itself – in all its shifting incarnations – that becomes the protagonist. The evil that occurs is not the injuries caused to one person by another, but the injury to the community caused by infighting, rivalry, and power plays. The evil is in putting individual desires ahead of the needs of the community.
The most talked about part of the film – deservedly so, given that it’s not the kind of thing you see in every movie – is Atanarjuat’s long run across the ice, naked and shoeless. It’s an extraordinary sequence which ends with his feet beat up and bloody, resulting in a long convalescence as he plots his revenge against Oki, who believes that his rival died during his flight. His endurance is astounding, though not unbelievable within the context of the larger story. Nothing about The Fast Runner feels unreal or unnatural; the sense of intimacy that Kunuk engenders draws you right into the action, so close that you almost forget that it’s a fiction film rather than a documentary. Several of the roles are played by non-actors and there is an emphasis throughout the story how the community lives and survives – how they build their homes, get and cook their food, their rituals, etc. – that further adds to the film’s intense sense of realism. It is so entirely different from any other film I’ve ever seen that the only thing I can really think to compare it to is Nanook of the North and that is, at best, a very shallow comparison. The Fast Runner is truly in a league all its own, a beautiful piece of work brought vigorously to life both in front of and behind the camera. It’s an unforgettable film.