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Saturday, April 13, 2013

21st Century Essentials: Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001)

All eras have works of art that are fundamental to our understanding of not only the craft itself, but the culture from which it was created. The 21st century is still nascent, but it isn't too early to start creating a canon that demonstrates the heights to which film as an artform has reached since the year 2000. These are the essential films:

Director: Zacharias Kunuk
Starring: Natar Ungalaaq
Country: Canada

Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner is a story about evil and triumph over it, about the necessity of community and the danger of community coming apart. Based on Inuit legend, the film is truly a unique piece of work that is at once a dreamy piece of romanticism and a story of intense realism and intimacy. Although it is set during an unspecified time long in the past, the story of Atanarjuat is ultimately timeless, one whose message can be applied to just about any period in history.

The story begins with the eponymous character (played marvellously by Natar Ungalaaq) and his rivalry with the son of his camp’s leader as they vie for the affections of the same woman. Though the woman had been promised to the rival since childhood, the community recognizes that love has blossomed between her and Atanarjuat, and so a compromise is reached. The two young men are given the opportunity to fight for her, with Atanarjuat winning, his capacity to withstand pain far outmatching that of his rival. Though it decides the fate of the three lovers, this ritualistic act of violence has deeper consequences than simply deciding the outcome of a love triangle. Evil had already creeped into the village long ago (“Evil came to us like Death,” the voice over states matter-of-factly, “It just happened and we had to live with it”), but now it truly gets its hooks in, using Atanarjuat as a test of its power.

The film begins slowly, carefully planting its thematic seeds and building the complex relationships that will give the story its resonance, and then speeding up the rhythm in the last 2/3rds, which includes Atanarjuat’s famed – and exhilarating – run across the ice. A large part of the reason that the film works so well is that it has documentary feel to it, thoroughly setting the scene by depicting some of the minutiae of the community’s way of life (how its residents build their homes, get and cook their food, perform their rituals), which makes Atanarjuat’s journey all the more powerful and deeply felt. Although the story has the epic feel of mythology, it is nevertheless grounded and personal enough that it draws you right into the story.

Written by Paul Apark Angilirq (who died before seeing the film make it to the screen) and directed by Zacharias Kunuk, the film strikes the perfect balance between the larger than life and the eminently relatable. While the evil seems to find its focus in Atanarjuat and sets him off on his epic journey, it also tears the entire community apart, undermining it through infighting, rivalry, and power plays as individual desires start to be placed ahead of the needs of the group. This idea of the importance of community is strengthened by the liberties taken with the legend, transforming it from a tale of bloodlust and revenge into one of hope. The message of the film, ultimately, is that there is nothing without community; people need each other to survive – today, yesterday, and tomorrow.

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