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Films >> Fast Runner, The (Atanarjuat) (2001) >>

Reviews by Courtney Brown and Elena Zubenko

Almost all the reviews for Atanarjuat praised the film as a triumph for Inuit culture. As the first film made by Inuits in the Inuktitut language, Atanarjuat is a landmark film that dispels previous stereotypes about the Inuit, while simultaneously recording an integral oral tradition. Curiously enough, most reviewers also referred to the film as universal and timeless, even though it is the story of one unique culture’s ancient legend. In an article in American Anthropologist, Lucas Bessire notes the prevailing attitude of reviewers to view Atanarjuat as exotic and mystical, labeling this phenomenon “primitivist escapism.” “On one hand, an appeal to the common humanity of us all must serve as the foundation for any cross-cultural narrative. On the other hand, the homogeneity of reviewer reaction on this point suggests that this idea may play into dominant society’s desire to appropriate indigenous identity,” Bessire writes. Some reviewers, like James Verniere, mistakenly interpreted the film to be an accurate depiction of contemporary Inuit life comparable to Nanook of the North. The overwhelming majority of reviews also praised the cinematographer for his use of light and the novice actors for their natural sincerity. Some reviewers went so far as to compare Atanarjuat to literary epics and film classics such as The Iliad, King Lear, and Lawrence of Arabia, and hailed it as a new breed of film.

Anderson, Jason. "Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner." Eye Weekly 11 April 2002.
"In making The Fast Runner, [director] Kunuk, [cinematographer] Cohn and their team of collaborators were determined to create a film that would appeal to both Inuit audiences and outsiders. The filmmakers had to give viewers a new 'mental and visual vocabulary' so that they could understand the ancient Inuit culture that The Fast Runner painstakingly recreates. Cohn says that even though the film 'is not an educational film, it has to educate people how to watch.' 'Then you realize,' he continues, 'that what you're watching is a culture that communicates by watching. So all of a sudden the way in which you're watching is actually culturally appropriate. And just as you're starting to think, 'Even though this is a really foreign culture and I don't understand a word these people are saying, I sort of do understand what's going on.' Then the film takes off."
Ansen, David. "The Ice Capade." Newsweek 24 June 2002: 16.
In Ansen's opinion The Fast Runner gives us a chance to see Inuit culture from the inside. "This stunning tale of a community battling against Evil is filled with primal epic emotions: love and jealousy, betrayal and revenge, hatred and forgiveness." He mentions, though, that the first thirty minutes of the movie are rather "confusing." However, later on you are brought under the "spell" of the movie, which Ansen calls "juicy barbecued steak" compared to popular Hollywood "fast-food" movies.
Arnold, Gary. "'Runner' a Wilderness Escape." Washington Times 22 June 2002: D5.
Arnold doubts that non-Canadians would be able to fully grasp the "mock-primitive peculiarities" of Atanarjuat. He mentions the difficulties that the viewers of the movie might face, such as undistinguishable subtitles or similarities among the major characters, especially, the male ones. He is rather critical of the plot and pace of the movie, and he considers its humor "diverting." The only character worth praise is Puja, given merits for enlivening the movie. On the whole, Arnold states, that "thanks to 'Runner,' there's a fairly reliable measure for comparing the trade-offs in ethnic solidarity and entertainment value."
Atwood, Margaret. "Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner." Globe and Mail 10 April 2002: R10.
"For the people of the community out of which this film emerged, it will be what they have lacked for so many years: a validation of their roots. . . . If Homer had been given a video camera, this is what he would have done."
Bessire, Lucas. "Talking Back to Primitivism: Divided Audiences, Collective Desires." American Anthropologist 105.4 (2003): 832-38.
Contains an interesting overview analysis of the reviews.
Brown, DeNeen L. "The Direction of True North; For His Film of an Inuit Parable, Zacharias Kunuk Stayed Close to Home." Washington Post 1 August 2002: C01.
This article mostly focuses on the creation of the movie from its director Zacharias Kunuk's perception. "The Fast Runner" is "as close as you can get to the Inuit story." The movie aims to crush the wide-spread stereotypical image of the Inuit as the "all-innocent, all-good, all-smiling people who eat raw meat" created by the Hollywood industry, as well as "to bring back traditions that were dying." Kunuk relied on his own experience, as well as the help of the elders of his people.
Byrnes, Paul. "Inuit Take Over the Running." Sydney Morning Herald 22 August 2002: 14.
Byrnes praises the authenticity of The Fast Runner, convinced that because the movie had been created by the Inuit from writing the screenplay to the shooting of the last scene there is "a guarantee of pristine cultural value, as pure as the driven you-know-what that gives the film its overwhelming whiteness." He also mentions that the purpose of the movie is to "revive" the Inuit culture in comparison to Nanook of the North (1913), which was filmed for the purpose of "preserving" it. Byrnes states that the storytelling is skillful, the characters are real, and the story itself is "full of warmth."
Camhi, Leslie. "For Your Ice Only." Village Voice 12 June 2001: 152.
Camhi's review focuses on the reasons why two people, Zacharia Kunuk and Norman Cohn, decided to create The Fast Runner movie. The former being an Inuit had been fascinated with the stories and the lifestyle of his people. The latter could not refuse a chance to capture the "unearthly beauty" of the arctic landscape. The lesson that this movie was supposed to teach, according to Cohn's words, was that you can not "let your personal pride and needs destroy your community."
"Canadian Film 'The Fast Runner' Details Inuit Life." National Public Radio (NPR) 4 July 2002.
This interview features the director of The Fast Runner Zacharias Kunuk and the filmmakers Norman Cohn and Robert M. Young. In Kunuk's words, this movie is about "modesty." He says that it was "supposed to teach us a lesson when we were kids." "It's how you want to be when you grow up." Cohn mentions that this story of love, betrayal, and revenge is special because it is "told entirely from the point of view of people that we've all believed never even had a point of view" for these kinds of things. Young, on his turn, talks about the philosophy of the movie being different from the philosophy of the American cinematography, with it's idea of "eye for eye, tooth for tooth."
Corliss, Richard. "The Ice Storm Cometh." Time 8 July 2002: 86.
Beneath this icy surface of exotic ethnography and glistening photography bubbles an elemental tale of sex and violence. The blood feud leads to patricide, a rape, and a stabbing through a tepee cover (Polonius-like). Plus this is the film that answers the question, What do Inuit women wear under their parkas? You will find out during a furtive, furious love scene lighted by licks of fire. Of course, the pace of Kunuk's epic is less Vin Diesel fueled than dogsled deliberate. Which is only to say that Atanarjuat is not like every other film this summer. It's not like any other film, period.
Curiel, Jonathan. "'The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat)' swept awards in Canada and France." San Francisco Chronicle 23 June 2002.
Curiel's review focuses on the world acknowledgment of The Fast Runner as well as the obstacles to its creation. The main challenge was to find funds in Canada for the production of this non-English, non-French movie. However, this movie will open the path for other Inuit-made movies into the world cinematograph. Curiel also mentions that the purpose of the movie is to "rectify" the harm that colonization and the spread of Christianity have done to the Inuit culture.
Dawson, Tom. "Atanarjuat -- The Fast Runner." British Broadcasting Corporation 22 January 2002. http://www.bbc.co.uk/films/2002/01/22/atanarjuat_review_2002_review.shtml
"Yet it's also an impressively vivid and detailed depiction of a particular way of life: shelter is provided by carefully-constructed igloos, clothes are fashioned from animal skins, transport consists of husky-drawn sleds, whilst the staple food is walrus or seal meat. And director Zacharias Kunuk also includes ritualistic events, such as a grieving ceremony and a bizarre head-thumping contest between two adversaries, which immerse us yet further into Inuit culture."
Ebert, Roger. "Review of The Fast Runner." Chicago Sun-Times 28 June 2002: 35. http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20020628/REVIEWS/206280303/1023
Ebert looks at such different aspects of the movie such as the facts, feelings, and lore of the Inuit people and the film production. In the latter case, he pays attention to the opening scene that sort of "plunges" the viewers into the Inuit community, thus making them closer to the characters. He admits that "the intimacy of the production" makes us perceive this movie as "a documentary of the real life." Ebert talks about the uniqueness of the movie, calling the Fast Runner "passion, filtered through ritual and memory."
Fuller, Graham. "Shots in the Dark." Interview June 2002: 45.
To Fuller The Fast Runner is "one of the most beautiful movies ever made," with "naturally achieved visual majesty" that captivates the viewer. The landscape helps to "magnify" characters' feelings. Apart from admiring the scenery, Fuller mentions the saturated plot and images of the Inuit everyday life filled with work, flirt, and "ribald jokes." He calls Kunuk's work a masterpiece in which every shot "radiates the divinity of life."
Gillespie, Eleanor Ringle. "At the Movies: Mythic 'Runner' Exerts Primal Pull." Atlanta Journal-Constitution 19 July 2002.
In Gillespie's point of view the movie combines the mythical and nature-documentary sides, as well as emotional aspects that allow us to think of it "as a cross between cave drawings and an Elizabethan revenge play." This movie is able to "pull you in" despite the fact the it's "slow," "simple," and "subtitled."
Hoberman, J. "Let There Be Light." Village Voice 11 June 2002: 145.
In Hoberman's words, The Fast Runner combines the universal drama themes with the "fantastically specific" description of the life of the single Inuit clan. Among the strongest sides of the movie are the vividness of the characters, as well as obvious commitment of the cast. He points out the "feel of the eternal Now" in the movie that is not concerned with the time frames but focuses more on the objects in front of the camera. Hoberman's admiration of the movie allows him to conclude that it is "so elemental in its means yet so comic in its drama, it could herald a rebirth of cinema."
Hoberman, Jim. "Lux et Veritas." Village Voice 19 March 2002. http://www.villagevoice.com/2002-03-19/film/lux-et-veritas/1
"Mysterious, bawdy, emotionally intense, and replete with virtuoso throat singing, this three-hour movie is engrossing from first image to last, so devoid of stereotype and cosmic in its vision it could suggest the rebirth of cinema. As the arctic light and landscape beggar description, so the performances go beyond acting, and the production itself seems little short of miraculous."
Howe, Desson. "'Fast Runner' a Stunner." Washington Post 21 June 2002: T44.
Howe calls The Fast Runner "the kind of primal storytelling that George Lucas can only dream of." The story's main features are "timelessness" and "unadulterated, free-flowing magic." Howe is also pleased with the special attention given to the small details, such as eating habits, clothing, behavior in various situations, etc.
Hussain, Amir. "The Fast Runner." Journal of Religion and Film 6.2 (2002). http://www.unomaha.edu/jrf/antan.htm
The landscape and physical geography of The Fast Runner are stunning. However, there are flaws, the use of common clichés (such as, for instance, images of good and evil) being the most "disappointing" of them. Hussain criticizes the salvaging image of the protagonist, comparing him to images of Jesus Christ and Hercules. Hussain argues that the idea of a non-violent way of living was brought to the Inuit by Western colonizers, and he grieves that it has been adopted and turned into the Inuit myth.
Johnson, Brian. "An Arctic Masterpiece." Maclean's 15 April 2002: 53.
Skepticism gives way to amazement as Atanarjuat "creates its own sense of time and space." Johnson compares the film to Lawrence of Arabia, combining aspects of Greek tragedy with the style of cinema-verite. Although it was shot on digital video, "its wide-screen vistas of Arctic light are intensely cinematic." Johnson praises the cast, saying, "Their acting is so natural it's invisible." He refers to Atanarjuat as both "a landmark for world cinema" and "a new kind of Canadian movie."
Kauffmann, Stanley. "Truth and Inconsequences." New Republic 24 June 2002: 26.
Atanarjuat is a "not-too-modest epic" that surpasses Nanook as the best film about Inuit life. The cinematography makes brilliant use of light as it is reflected in the sky and the terrain, as well as the Inuit faces. Characterization may not be complex, but the performances are better than expected and full of sincerity. "Kunuk concentrates so wholeheartedly on the story, he is so smitten with love for his people and for their legend, that we are affected as much by his feelings as by the film. . . . [His] prime accomplishment is that he actually made this film, that it now exists."
King, Loren. "'Runner' Captures Epic Sweep of Inuit Life." Boston Globe 21 June 2002.
The film "becomes a humbling reminder of the universality of the human experience."
Movshovitz, Howie. "Canadian film "The Fast Runner" details Inuit life." National Public Radio (NPR) Morning Edition 4 July 2002.
"The story comes from a culture that Kunuk has been trying to preserve for two decades. He's made more than 20 documentaries and short films about the Inuit people. 'The Fast Runner's' his first feature film. Kunuk says he's not only interested in preserving Inuit culture. He wants to revive it. When he was a boy, missionaries persuaded Kunuk's family, along with many other Inuits, to leave the land and settle in Igloolik. Kunuk says that once the Inuit began to attend church, they gave up their storytelling and rituals. He says it was a bad trade.
O'Hehir, Andrew. "The Fast Runner (Artunajurat)." Salon.com 7 June 2002. http://www.salon.com/ent/movies/review/2002/06/07/fast_runner/index.html?CP=IMD&DN=110
The main thing about the film is light. It may be a half-hour too long, but it is an amazing sensory experience. "It's like swimming in illuminated milk." The film was shot on widescreen digital video and is meant to be watched in the theater, as "seeing it on a small screen would be deeply beside the point, like looking at ‘Guernica' in an art-history textbook." Atanarjuat is "daring and original. . . . Kunuk tells his story primarily through his realistic characters and often-astonishing imagery, not through mystical rhetoric." The "compelling human story [is] both mythic and realistic; it might not be a stretch to call this an Inuit version of ‘The Iliad'." Sylvia Ivalu gives a stunning performance as Atuat, the story's Penelope, and Puja can be likened to Helen of Troy. Johnson says the film is "ethnography from the inside out." It destroys the flat stereotypes about indigenous peoples and portrays them as multidimensional individuals we can relate to. Atanarjuat and Oki are "just a couple of testosterone-pumped guys… who want the same girl."
Pulver, Andrew. "Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner." Guardian 21 August 2001: 19.
"At a shade under three hours, the first-ever Inuit-language feature film could easily have been as arduous an experience as riding a dog-team sled across the ice floes following the caribou. Thanks, however, to the limpid clarity of its storytelling, performances so natural as to blur the line with documentary, and a roving camera that is almost anthropological in its attention to details of landscape and habitat, Atanarjuat emerges as a genuine delight. . . . It puts a subtly human face on what has been the raw material for generations of blizzard-defying documentarists. As a corrective to Robert Flaherty's 1922 film Nanook of the North, it couldn't be more welcome."
Ryan, Tom. "Film of the week -- Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner." Sunday Age (Melbourne) 25 August 2002: 10.
Ryan gives the movie five stars, calling it "a work of epic proportions and intimate detail" that is "uncompromising [and] untainted by the curse of modernism." He compares viewing the film to the excitement of the first time being in a movie theater. Atanarjuat is a timeless fairytale "rendered with a sublime poetic precision." Its context may be strange, but its content is familiar; it deals with universal human themes such as family, greed, community, love, lust, and revenge. The image might suffer from being shot on hand-held digital video, but the film's imagination makes up for it. Ryan comments on the scene in which Atanarjuat is running naked across the ice after being ambushed by Oki and his crew: "Rarely before has the classic hero's situation or the rich symbolic force he represents been presented with such stark precision and disarming simplicity. For the moment, it's as if he's carrying the future of the entire human race with him."
Sadashige, Jacqui. "Atanarjuat the Fast Runner." American Historical Review 107.3 (2002): 989-90.
By incorporating a variety of sources of Inuit culture (recording oral versions of the legend, speaking with Inuit elders, and even consulting a journal from a British naval expedition), Kunuk meticulously reproduces every detail to ensure historical accuracy. The film is an epic that has "such honest sincerity that [it] ultimately escapes being either an ethnographic curiosity piece or a melodrama in caribou skin." However, Sadashige notes, "In the honest attempt to avoid the pitfalls of exoticism. . . . Kunuk and company subsequently naturalize everything they present." Also, the film maintains a strict gender hierarchy that it fails to question; in fact, it "validates it through the governing trope of nostalgia." She points out that while Atanarjuat's nude scene is heroic, that of Puja is sexualized. "Atanarjuat certainly makes cinematic history . . . but none of this constitutes a reinvention of film."
Said, S. F. "Northern Exposure." Sight and Sound 12.2 (2002): 22-23.
The film has a classic mythic structure that Joseph Campbell identified in his Hero with a Thousand Faces: "it is perhaps the purest, freshest burst of mythic narrative that cinema has produced in recent years." The film creates an awesome sense of place, both in its external and internal images.
Schwarzbaum, Lisa. "Amazing Race." Entertainment Weekly 14 June 2002: 67.
"The northern Canadian vistas of ice, light, and vivid nothingness . . . are dazzling in their real vastness (the utter opposite of computer-generated backdrops)." Schwarzbaum believes Atanarjuat's naked run is destined "to become one of the great cinematic sequences of modern times." The film is long, but "there's none of the field-trip fatigue that sometimes distances audiences from far-flung specimens of world cinema." Kanuk is "gifted at incorporating his culture's mysteries into universally appealing art."
Scott, A. O. "An Inuit Epic in Shades of White." New York Times 7 June 2002: E18.
"‘The Fast Runner' . . . is not merely an interesting document from a far-off place; it is a masterpiece. . . . a work of narrative sweep and visual beauty that honors the history of the art form even as it extends its perspective." The complex ideas of honor and loyalty make it easy to overlook the film's artistry. "Though the story takes a while to establish itself, it has the clarity and power common to epics from the sagas of ancient Scandinavia to the westerns of the old Hollywood. . . . The rivalry between [Atanarjuat and Oki] is as violent and stirring as anything in Victor Hugo, and it fills the screen with a kind of outsize life-or-death passion that is all too rare in movies these days." The scene in which Oki chases the naked Atanarjuat across the ice (and the film as a whole) will quickly become classic.
Shepard, Lucius. "Getting Inuit." Fantasy & Science Fiction 103.6 (2002): 108.
Shepard defines an epic as "a complex story about simple characters," citing Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and The Matrix as prime examples. However, Atanarjuat, "a simple story about complex characters," redefines the definition of an epic, and "seems the kind of movie for which cinema might have been invented." Shepard likens the film to a Shakespearean drama and Lawrence of Arabia, saying, "Atanarjuat deserves every ounce of the praise it has received." The scene of Atanarjuat running naked is "the most poignantly tense and beautifully paced chase sequence ever filmed." Shepard argues that the film is both a fantasy and "the antithesis of the ethnographic. Rather than offer analysis, the movie seems to rub itself against your skin, causing you to [physically] experience Inuit culture." The film also "succeeds in capturing a different reality with far more efficacy than Lucas achieved [in Star Wars]." Shepard notes some of the film's drawbacks, including the film quality, the length of the film, and the confusion of the opening scene. However, the directing, the acting, the screenwriting, and the cinematography combine to create a masterpiece "demonstrating that the true power of fantasy is not to provide escape from the oppressiveness of reality . . . but instead to amplify the real and allow us to perceive the magical-seeming underpinnings of our lives."
Turan, Kenneth. "Review of 'The Fast Runner'." Los Angeles Times 14 June 2002.
"‘The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat)' is the cinematic equivalent of adventure travel." The opening sections are confusing, and director Kunuk's slow, even pace (much attuned to that of Inuit culture) makes it essential to "give yourself over to the experience on its own terms. . . . Because the story, performers and landscape are so unfamiliar, everything combines in ‘The Fast Runner' to create a film that does not feel acted and rather as if it is simply happening in front of our eyes. . . . At the film's beginning, one of the tellers of this tale says, ‘I can only sing this song to someone who understands it.' What's special about ‘The Fast Runner' is that by its epic close, the select group includes us."
Verniere, James. "`Fast Runner' Not Fleet Enough to Dodge Apathy." Boston Herald 21 June 2002.
Giving Atanarjuat only 2 ½ stars out of 4, Verniere states "It's very tempting to confuse social significance with quality. But by the end of [‘The Fast Runner'] . . . I was wondering what colleagues who have heaped praise on this film were thinking." Verniere comically dismisses the film as "‘National Geographic' hosts Greek tragedy in the Arctic tundra," claiming that the documentary-like scenes are more interesting than the plot or the characters. "Of course, you'd also learn much of this from Robert Flaherty's landmark 1922 documentary ‘Nanook of the North,'" Verniere states. Unlike any of the previous critics, Verniere compares the scene of Atanarjuat running naked across the ice to that of Cornel Wilde's "The Naked Prey" (1966), in which a white man is being hunted down by a savage African tribe. It is worth to note that Verniere makes this comparison between a film made by Inuits about Inuit culture to a film made by whites about "primitive" African culture.
Weiskind, Ron. "Drama on the Tundra -- 'Atanarjuat' Tells Inuit Tale That Resonates As Story for All People." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 26 July 2002.
Atanarjuat is timeless and universal. "Its echo reverberates through Greek tragedy, Shakespeare and such recent pieces of popular culture as ‘The Lion King.'" The film "[tells] an old story in a new setting, a place so far off any path we would recognize that we could scarcely imagine it." Weiskind says that the film breaks stereotypes by showing "a seduction culminating in a discreet but sensual lovemaking scene that wouldn't be out of place in a contemporary love story set in the concrete canyons of civilization." He describes Atanarjuat running naked across the ice as "a newborn gazelle bursting from its mother's womb."
Williams, Evan. "An Arctic Lear." The Weekend Australian 24 August 2002: R19. LN
Williams emphasizes Atanarjuat's cultural significance in its preservation of Inuit culture and ability to educate outsiders about the Inuit way of life. He suggests that up until now, Nanook of the North was cinema's greatest contribution to anthropology. He compares Atanarjuat to King Lear. The wide open space gives the film "something of the character of a western, in which the landscape has the same elemental quality. . . . [The landscapes] are perfectly attuned to the passions of the story." The scene of Atanarjuat running naked is "an electrifying sequence, already being hailed as a classic in modern cinema." Although the first half hour may be hard to follow, once the viewer adjusts to the pace and mood of the film he/she will recognize its timelessness. "The film's power derives from the emotional intensity of the characters. . . . The combination of human drama and revelatory cultural insight once again proves irresistible."

See Also

Kaufman, Debra. "A Collective Effort: Inuit Legends Inspire Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner." American Cinematographer 82.12 (2001): 80-87.

Monk, Katherine. "Native Film a Festival Revelation." Vancouver Sun 28 September 2001: F7.