the inuit community of igloolik didn't have TV reception until 1983. And yet less than 20 years later, a movie set in and made by members of that community has earned five Genie Awards, won the Camera d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and is entertaining viewers all over the world.
Writer/director Zacharias Kunuk's Atanarjuat -- The Fast Runner (see review, page 89) is an epic film based on an ancient Inuit tale (the story takes place during the first millennium) about two brothers, Amaqjuaq (The Strong One) and Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner). Both are resented by the other members of their tribe, especially the evil Oki, who is jealous of the siblings' hunting skills and their attractiveness to women.
"I worked for the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation for eight years," says Kunuk, "and I used to interview elders who talked about the good old days. I wanted to see it, they wanted to see it, but there is no footage of it. Now we have a living record."
Atanarjuat is a compelling drama shot on location in the Inuktitut language, using a mix of professional and amateur local actors. The costumes and props were handmade to resemble ancient artifacts, including the dogsleds, which were constructed out of bones, stone, antlers and ivory.
Kunuk and his writing partner, the late Paul Apak Angilirq, who died of cancer last year, recorded eight elders reciting their version of the oral tale of Atanarjuat, and then, true to Inuit storytelling practice, joined with a group of other writers to hammer out the screenplay.
"The first draft was five and half hours long," laughs Kunuk, who dropped by Toronto recently to talk about the film.
"There's a lot of arguing over scenes -- everyone has to agree before moving on to the next one. The longest time we fought was three days. It was the scene in which the bad guy pushes down the elder. In Inuit culture we don't tell our elders what to do; they've seen more of life and they know more than us, so of course we would never do that. That was hard, deciding to make a dramatic point instead of sticking to our cultural ways. We had to try it out in the office just to see how it would look."
Kunuk, who first made a name for himself as a carver, has been making films for more than 20 years. In 1981, after selling three sculptures in Montreal, he bought a video camera and took it home to Igloolik, where he co-founded the Igloolik Isuma Production company. He's made short films and documentaries, and his work is being highlighted at this year's Images Festival (see Rep Cinemas, page 102).
"Igloolik was the first place we screened Atanarjuat," remembers Kunuk. "It was my scariest moment. But it was so great. People were crying, clapping and shaking our hands. Right then I knew we did our jobs. To expose it to the outside world was easy.
"But the thing that touched me the the most was this man telling me one morning he couldn't find his two children, four and five years old. He was looking all around for them, and he was scared. Then we went outside and saw they were in a tent, and when we got close we could hear them re-enacting the Atanarjuat story. That was sweet."
atanarjuat -- the fast runner directed by Zacharias Kunuk, written by Paul Apak Angilirq, produced by Kunuk, Angilirq, and Norman Cohn, with Natar Ungalaaq, Pakkak Innukshuk, Sylvia Ivalu, Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq and Lucy Tulugarjuk. 172 minutes. An Igloolik Isuma and National Film Board of Canada production. An Odeon Films Inc. release. Opens Friday (April 12). For venues, times and review, see First-Run Movies, page 89. Rating: NNNN