Atanarjuat The Fast Runner Review

If you are looking for something different from the usual fare at the multiplex, you really can’t get much more original or further away from traditionally made cinema than Atanarjuat The Fast Runner. Surely one of the most original films of recent years, Atanarjuat is the first film written, produced, acted and directed by the Inuit people of northern Canada. Set in the settlement of Igloolik (which means literally “the place of houses”) in the north Baffin region of Canada at the start of the first millennium, Atanarjuat The Fast Runner tells the tale of an oral legend (the Inuktitut language has no written form), illustrating the nature of good and evil and the consequences of human behaviour on other members of the community.

A mysterious shaman has cast an evil spirit on Sauri, making him the ruler of a small community of Igloolik. Tulimaq is passed over and as a result his family suffer, being reduced to surviving on left over scraps that the hunters bring back for the community. Tulimaq’s two sons, Amaqjuat, the Strong One and Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner however grow up with the nature to fight against the injustices brought upon their family. The brothers get into trouble with Oki, the son of camp leader, Sauri. Atanarjuat marries Atuat, who had been promised to Oki, and when he also marries Oki’s sister, the scheming and flirtatious Puja, as his second wife, trouble flares up and Oki threatens to kill Atanarjuat. Atanarjuat is forced to flee, naked and barefoot across the frozen Arctic sea.

The society depicted is a primitive society, dependant on and at the mercy of the forces of nature. Consequently there is much superstition and belief in the supernatural and the film depicts this as part of the everyday lives of the characters. Although the film might seem about as alien and removed from modern society as it is possible to be, the basic themes and the universal nature of human characteristics remain true and recognisable. Family, friendship, love, jealousy, hatred and vengeance are all present here and as important to our own society as to the people of Igloolik a thousand years ago. Most importantly, the film depicts the everyday struggle to survive in a harsh and inhospitable environment and how a person can have the strength to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges.

Now, I’m no expert on Inuit society at the dawn of the first millennium, but this all looks fairly convincing and authentic to me. What convinces is the manner in which the film has been made. Atanarjuat is a total immersion experience that draws you in and holds you. It is not possible to just watch the film, this is a film that you have to inhabit. The film helps create this immersive atmosphere with an effective 5.1 soundtrack, some beautiful photography and some memorable scenes. Filmed using widescreen digital Betacam which has then been converted to film negative, the digital photography takes us right inside the homes of the characters and allows the crew to film often within an igloo with only the light of burning seal-oil to illuminate the scene. All this contributes to the atmosphere of being there and once totally immersed in the lives of the characters and their story it is not easy to come out of the film again - you literally inhabit the film for 2 hours and 48 minutes.

PictureThe picture is quite good considering its source and the difficulties involved in its making. Digital photography was the only feasible option to film in such a remote and hostile environment. The conversion process to film negative works quite well giving a grittier and more natural feel than we usually come to expect from digital photography. There are still many white dust marks and artefacts on the print, but this really doesn’t register at all. If anything it adds to the film, giving it a stronger sense of authenticity. The image is clear and bright. It is not colourful, but this is not surprising considering the snow-bound setting of the film. When colour is apparent through a blue expanse of sky, the purple growth of lichen or the warm glow of seal-oil burning in an igloo, it suffuses the screen with its luminance. Filming in these conditions must have been quite a technical feat, but the crew have turned these difficulties to their advantage and the film is remarkably well photographed.

SoundAn excellent 5.1 soundtrack, the surrounds might not seem to be well used, but are actually very subtly and effectively employed, drawing the viewer into the film without drawing the listener’s attention. A Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack is also available, but is nowhere near as effective and sounds harsh and rough in comparison.

ExtrasFact trackOne of the subtitle tracks on disc 1 of this release is a "fact track". In lieu of a commentary tracks it presents facts about the making of the film, about the cast, characters, the Igloolik society and even, on occasions, explanations about what is going on. A lot of the information presented here is also in the other text extras. If you select ‘Fact Track’ from the set-up options, you will get the information subtitles (track 5) only. As there are sometimes gaps of up to five minutes between facts , you might want to switch to subtitle track 3, which provides English subtitles for the dialogue when there are no facts on the screen. Fact track information is presented in yellow subtitles, while white subtitles are used for the dialogue to help differentiate. This is the only extra on disc 1, the remainder of the extras are on disc 2.

Production diaryThis section is divided into three parts. Audio clips contain a few very short soundbites from Natar Ungalaaq (Atanarjuat), Sylvia Ivalu (Atuat) and Zacharias Kunuk (director) on aspects of the shooting with the accompaniment of scenes from the film. Film-making Inuit style is an informative text piece on getting the project together. Behind the scenes is a 2 minutes selection of behind the scenes footage, the same clips that are shown at the end of the film. It gives some idea of the challenges of filming in such an environment.

The Legend of the LandA text based feature, this follows the progress of the story through its locations on a map. Edited footage from the movie illustrates the scrolling text.

Photo GalleryA few photographs can be viewed as stills or with a slideshow option.

About Igloolik IsumaText information on the production company, Canada’s first independent film production company.

TrailerPresented in letterbox 1.85:1, the trailer shows clips of characters and settings, giving away nothing of what the film is actually about. A warning though, the trailer shows a full-frontal scene of the naked Atanarjuat running across the ice.

Cast, Characters & CrewIncludes family trees for the characters. Information is presented on the actors, everyone of whom is superb in the film. A mixture of experienced and unskilled actors, I was surprised that I was almost completely wrong trying to guess who the experienced and inexperienced actors were.

Art DirectionAnother text based feature on the costumes, sets and designs used in the film. Extensive research gathered information from books and museums to try and make the film as authentic as possible.

ConclusionAs a result of this film the Inuit community of north Canada has received an important economic boost, as well as renewed interest in their culture. For the Inuit themselves the making of the film led to a rediscovery of the skills, traditions, legends and history of the people who lived on the tundra hundreds of years ago. For an outsider watching the film it is a remarkable experience, and the DVD extras do everything possible to make this an accessible and comprehensible experience, but it will still not be a film that will suit everyone’s tastes. If you do take a look at this however you will see a fascinating and very well-made film, totally removed from anything else you will have seen in the cinema recently.

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