There is no easy way to say this. Not to an audience coming down off a summer movie blitz. Not to an audience whose most recent art-house dabbling was likely My Big Fat Greek Wedding. So let's just jump right in. Here are the facts: The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat) is a milestone, the first film shot in Inuktitut, the language spoken by the nomadic people who live in the far northern Canadian territory of Nunavut. That's within the Arctic Circle. The last time we met up with the Inuit in a movie was 80 years ago when Robert Flaherty made Nanook of the North.
A few more facts: The land up there is frozen and goes forever; the sun's glare lays a piercing, spooky glow on everything. The story comes from a folktale that's as old and universal as Greek mythology. The movie was made with Inuit actors. Most of the crew was Inuit. You may know them as Eskimos. Also, the movie is three hours long, subtitled, and yes, slow.
Anyone still with me?
I hope so, because the cultural and historical significance of The Fast Runner is modest when compared to the experience of sitting through The Fast Runner itself. It's an extraordinary, absorbing film, a landmark by any standard, an epic with the grace and sweep of a John Ford western, one that creates the 21st century's newest film scene while paying tribute to 100 years of filmmaking. Miss it at your own peril. First your eyeballs, then, before it's over, your bones, simply vibrate.
Maybe it's all that throat singing on the soundtrack, deep, low rumbles that gurgle and purr in the place of traditional music and shake your seat. Or maybe it's the movie's length, which seems to be a mountain to overcome during the first confusing scenes, then grows fundamental to the film's spell. It's so long and involving, and stark, it swallows you. During the closing credits, we see snippets of footage of the production. Director Zacharias Kunuk and cinematographer Norman Cohn glide along the tundra on dogsleds, using the runners to speed the camera. And we also see the camera, of course, and then one of the actors listening to a Walkman, and it all comes as something of a shock. Watching The Fast Runner, you forget it was made by anyone.
The film feels like a found object, ancient newsreel of some sort that's been chipped out of the polar Earth. It's hard to imagine a world more alien to suburban America than these impossibly vast plains, holding nothing for long periods until your heart leaps at the faintest sight of a figure on the horizon. Most movies take you places; the best ones show you something you've never seen, and you have never seen anything like this, and yet the story is so familiar you could skip the subtitles and still be engrossed. (Indeed, if I have a gripe, it's that the subtitles, although a necessity, distract from the luminous images above them, shot on digital video.
When the film begins, we're not sure who is who, or what is going on exactly - maybe for the first 30 minutes, in fact. Then it suddenly clarifies and you realize the artistry involved. You've been submersed headfirst into a culture. We hear a narrator: “We never knew what he was or why it happened. Evil just came to us one day.” Then the scope widens and we're among a small tribe whose members rely on each other to survive. They migrate, scrape down animal skins for clothes, clean seals, fish, and kill. Their existence relies on the unspoken assumption that everyone gets along.
The time frame is unclear; it could be now or 1,000 years ago. The focus falls on two men, Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq), the chief's hotheaded son, and Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq), whom everyone calls “Fast Runner.” Atanarjuat and Oki are rivals - or they are after a curse is placed. There's a love problem. Oki was promised Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu), but Atanarjuat is in love with her. So the two settle it with a fight: They stand nose to nose and trade blows to the head until one falls.
Atanarjuat wins Atuat, but the jealousies continue until Atanarjuat's wandering eye instigates a personal war between the men that begins in murder and spans years. In the most spectacular scene, Atanarjuat escapes a shocking attack and takes off across the ice, completely naked, pursued by men with spears. He runs and leaps ice floes and keeps running until his feet are bloody and behind him is a red trail. It's one of those breathtaking movie moments you will not be able to wipe from your memory.
I first saw The Fast Runner last year at the Toronto International Film Festival. It was Sept. 12, and although the film won the Camera d'Or for best first feature at Cannes, Roy Thompson Hall was only a quarter full. But most of the cast members were there and they walked on stage, all smiles, and the vibe in the air was unmistakable: Here's a movie that just shrank the world.