Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sat Mar 08, 2003 3:01 pm 
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A stark and memorable ritual tale of ancient Inuit life told in modern digital video

A friend said this was the first time he'd seen a film story told in the manner of the Icelandic sagas. What's that mean? Well, that the characters are opaque, for one thing. There's no introspection, and no insight into personality. You know them only by what they do, and they don't say a lot. There's an awesome neutrality about everything, a submission to fate. Other primitive epics like the Anglo-Saxon 'Beowulf' are like this, and a folk epic doesn't explain everything because the traditional audience knows the tale already. Zacharias Kunuk, the director of 'Atanarjuat' or 'The Fast Runner,' grew up in a poor, remote Inuit community, and he may not have heard of Icelandic sagas, but his own traditional culture by its nature contains similar elements. I think it's valid to say this movie doesn't show us just a remote culture but a remote way of telling a story, a slow-moving, ritualistic way that is formal and sometimes awesome, sometimes inaccessible, and the movie in consequence is sometimes moving, sometimes tedious.

Needless to say some viewers have found the result uninteresting while others find it magnificent. In a sense both camps are right. The barbaric, stoical life in the harsh, cruelly lovely landscape, the primitive, shocking family conflicts, the working out and eventual ending of an ancestral curse, are inspiring and thrilling things to watch and experience. One is transported to another world. But one is also alienated, and confused, and sometimes perhaps bored. Boredom can lead the way into a wonderful aesthetic experience, and experiencing an alien culture isn't an easy, fun way to spend an afternoon - though watching this movie, three hours or not, is a great deal easier than living in an igloo dressed only in skins and eating raw seal meat.

This is a movie, though. In that sense too there are two opposite ways of seeing it - as somewhat amateurish, and as a masterpiece and a remarkable achievement. I can't begin to imagine what it's like to shoot in these conditions, even though the filmmakers grew up in this environment. The authentic quality achieved is none the less remarkable for having been produced by a cast and crew who are almost entirely Inuit. 'The Fast Runner' stands up against other movies about the far north. It also has a sense of how the story being told relates to cinematic history: the filmmaker first fell in love with movies by watching 16 mm. reels of John Wayne at the community center. Two related pictures that come to mind are 'The Pathfinder' ('Ofelas') from Norway (1987) and Phillip Kaufman's fascinating 1974 'The White Dawn,' with Warren Oates, Timothy Bottoms and Louis Gossett Jr. as three whalers shipwrecked among the Inuit in the 1890's. 'The Fast Runner' has a more primitive, epic quality than either of these, though there were times when I wished for some of the narrative economy of 'The Pathfinder,' and some of the point of view of the Phillip Kaufman film: it can be more enlightening to see the clash of two cultures than to be plunged into one without mediation.

Even those who consider 'The Fast Runner' a masterpiece acknowledge that the opening half hour is confusing and disorienting when it might have been a helpful introduction. It's not until the attack of Oki and his henchmen on the skin tent, from which Atanarjuat escapes, naked, running across the ice, that the action begins to be clear and forceful and the movie takes on a visual life of its own. Until then, though this is really a brutal world of violent action, we are only watching gestures that show relationships and the direction of the narrative is muddy. But from the moment when the killings happen and the chase begins, all is clear. A much more powerful and dynamic movie might have been made by cutting down to the bare bones of the action. For me it's only the old woman's banishing the two wrongdoers that has a really profound emotional punch. Otherwise I am mostly watching ritual displays of emotion and I am occasionally arrested for a moment, but I am not deeply moved.

There are powerful scenes, however, and not just the naked run across the ice. When Atanarjuat returns from being hosted by strangers, he cuts off his good wife Atuat's coat and puts on a splendid new one. But when Puja, the disloyal wife, comes up to him, he cuts open her coat too - she thinks she'll get a new one and is at first pleased - but he just leaves her with her breasts exposed and sends her back in shame and humiliation. It's a powerful demonstration of ritual punishment. Equally striking (and ritualistic) is Atanarjuat's inviting Oki and his two sidekicks to a separate igloo later on, excusing himself, putting on ice-shoes and taking out a hidden bone knife, and going back to attack and subdue the three men.

When the old grandma banishes Oki and Puja, all the slow scenes in igloos and on the ice have paid off and one feels the gut-wrenching power of such a gesture in a culture where communal life is everything.

The tension between traditional culture and modern filmmaking techniques and traditions sometimes seems too powerful, and the Inuit filmmakers' desire to convey a sense of their culture too dogged, to allow a finished work of art to emerge. Nonetheless the movie as a whole has a feel that is distinctive and memorable. I may not be happy with every moment of 'The Fast Runner,' but I'm keenly aware that its appearance is a special event whose like we rarely see. This is much more than a first film and something far more moving, because it's the first film of a whole culture, a whole nation. I'm grateful to all the Inuit people who made this movie for their determination and skill in bringing their traditions to life for us and providing the world with this remarkable cinematic experience.

(July 13, 2002.)

[See also the same fimmakers' Journals of Knud Rasmussen (2006), which I reviewed as part of the 2006 NYFF.]

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