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

A New Ending For A New Beginning

By Taara Ness-Cochinwala

[1] Isuma Productions’ film The Fast Runner is the first film about Inuits that is completely written, directed, and produced by native Inuit people. Considering this, the writers and directors have the responsibility of accurately and positively representing their people in the public eye. The film embodies the theme of good versus evil in the Inuit society, emphasizing morality and social responsibility along the way. From this film the audience learns how the Inuit culture is advanced, advocating non-violence, recognizing that such behavior is exemplary, and producing a film to share that example with the world.

[2] After escaping death, the protagonist Atanarjuat spends a summer away from his village regaining the strength to return home. When he finally does reenter his community, he must deal with the unfinished business between himself and his attempted murderer, Oki. In doing so, Atanarjuat has a choice: to perpetuate the violence or promote the passive route. The scene begins with Atanarjuat generously sharing his meat with the villain Oki and his men. All parties then enter the igloo and begin talking. As Oki and his men are gluttonously enjoying the meat, Atanarjuat steps out and readies himself for the task at hand. He digs up the ice shoes he previously buried, grabs his weapon, and reenters the igloo. With the clear opportunity to avenge his brother’s death and kill Oki, Atanarjuat surprises everyone and resists. He deals a fatal blow not to Oki but to the adjacent ice and passionately exclaims, “The killing stops here!” Through this encounter, Atanarjuat is portrayed and developed as a non-violent hero, a man displaying restraint, tact, and loyalty to his people.

[3] This film is paramount in creating a first and lasting impression of the Inuit culture, and this scene specifically helps to create a positive impact. It brings the film and its message full circle as the individual and the overall community are portrayed as peaceful and upholding social responsibility. Good and passive resistance triumph over evil and violence.

[4] Considering this scene’s importance, it is necessary to bring up the fact that it was indeed altered from the original legend. Whereas the movie depicts an ending in which Atanarjuat resists violence and turns the other cheek, the original legend has Atanarjuat avenging his brother’s murder and killing Oki. Despite some controversy, I am of the opinion that this change in ending was justified. When asked about the change in ending, writer Paul Apak responded with a sentiment that the original ending simply wouldn’t make sense, that the cycle of violence and revenge would go on and on. He also knew that the Inuits did in fact banish people, as opposed to killing them, as a form of punishment. So, while the story was changed from the original, the chosen ending remained one that fit within the Inuit tradition. If it were not, the elders of the Inuit community would not have agreed to its use.

[5] When Apak inquired of the elders whether it was acceptable to alter to the ending, they responded, “We are storytellers.” Just as filmmakers, the elders simply intended to tell a story and teach a lesson, a heritage. The aim was to emphasize the importance of social responsibility and morality, and that goal was accomplished. As producer Zacharias Kunuk explained, “Every generation has their version. It was a message more fitting for our times. Killing people doesn't solve anything” (Shubow 1). Whether one thinks the decision to alter the ending is right or wrong, it is a testament to the difficulties of filmmaking, the immense accomplishment of the Inuit people through this first film, and the respect they have for their culture.

[6] In addition to the pressures of positively portraying their culture, the Inuit directors of Isuma Productions encountered the difficulties inherent to all film production for the first time with this scene. Given the form of media, providing closure for the audience was necessary to make the film a success. As soundbite number 1268 on the Reel American History website states, “We don’t want complicated icons.” We can see this idea transcend our society with the media’s nuanced portrayal of iconic figures, especially in the film industry. The Inuit people did not want to complicate the character of Atanarjuat for the audience because he is the icon of and for their people. Through this film and legends passed down, Atanarjuat is representative of the Inuit culture, and for this reason, they desired to depict him as a nonviolent and socially conscious hero.

[7] As the scene closes, Oki and his men exit the igloo and must face their people and their actions. Heads bowed, their embarrassment of betraying their people is deeply felt. Atanarjuat, the last one to exit the igloo, receives a different reaction. His wife is shown smiling and beaming with pride. Next, the eldest male removes the necklace from Oki and places it on Atanarjuat, symbolically bestowing the leadership role onto him and relinquishing it from Oki. Good has triumphed over evil. Atanarjuat has proved the best man for the job as he places his community and the good of his people before his personal issues and desires. The scene finally ends with the elder calling a meeting to rid the community of the evil that has persisted in their people for so long--until now.

[8] Without this scene and the alteration within it, the entire message of the film would be changed. The entire image of the culture would be changed. Instead of the humanitarian and peaceful culture we think of now, there would be an image of barbarianism, savagery, and violence. We need to appreciate the Inuit people for their bravery, originality, and arctic mastery. They are a community like none other, and in trying to combat the previous misrepresentations and stereotypes of their culture, the filmmakers took the liberty to make this original contribution and rectify their image. As we stand on the balcony of history, we must appreciate this film for opening our eyes, and privileging us with the experience of their culture. We are all storytellers, and as my sage Professor Ed Gallagher often reminds us, it is the stories we choose to tell that shape the lives we lead. If the Inuit people wanted to present a peaceful and passive story of their culture, it is likely because this is the lifestyle that they are aiming to lead. Who can blame them for that?

Shubow, Jason. "Cold Comfort: The Misrepresentation at the Center of The Fast Runner." American Prospect 28 February 2003.