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Film review: A detailed analysis of The Fast Runner Trilogy

Beginning in 2001, a series of films were produced which broke new cinematic ground on many levels. Dubbed the Fast Runner Trilogy (after the title of the first of the three films), they portrayed the lives and legends of the Inuit people of the Canadian arctic during three different time periods. What made these films stand out, and at the same time made them seem, at first glance, doomed to obscurity, was that they were not only made by Inuit filmmakers and from the perspective of the Inuit, but were the first feature films ever made entirely in Inuktitut, the Inuit language. Even when presented abroad, they were never dubbed into other languages, only subtitled.

The first film of the three was presented at Cannes in 2001, where its director won the Caméra D’or award for best first feature, along with 20 film award nominations in Europe and North America. Its critical success was a little surprising: not only was the film in a largely unknown language, but it, like the rest of the series, made no concessions to non-Inuit audiences.

The acting is meant to be naturalistic, in keeping with Inuit mannerisms, vocal inflections, and facial expressions, which makes the characters’ behaviour a little difficult to gauge at times. The pace of each film also tends to be slow, allowing the camera to follow subtle facial expressions and ‘watch people think’ for longer than is usually acceptable in conventional film. No effort is made to clarify distinctly Inuit activities or devices which are not immediately obvious, or to interpret Inuit concerns and values according to a European perspective. The non-Inuit viewer of the trilogy feels very much the outsider, watching a film made by and for an unfamiliar society. In spite of these barriers, the stories these films tell manage to reach across the cultural rift and make an impact.

But it is not only the strangeness of these films that makes them intriguing. The technical details, from costume and set design to camera work, are all of a high quality. The characters are real and engaging, and their concerns and struggles easy to identify with. The stories told are of personal conflicts, typically on a small scale but often impacting on others’ happiness or even survival. The films capture the drama of these conflicts in a way that draws viewers in and involves them emotionally in the characters’ lives, their concerns and perils, as any good movie does.

The trilogy was produced by an intrepid little organization called Isuma, which produces and distributes media by and for indigenous people of the far north. In addition to distributing the Fast Runner Trilogy and other films, Isuma holds an online film festival specializing in films by indigenous people; has branched out into Isuma TV, which helps produce Inuit programming and makes it and other media available to remote Arctic communities; and sponsors an Inuit women’s film group and projects by indigenous filmmakers from around the world. One of the trilogy directors, Madeline Ivalu, commented in an interview that the Inuit tend to communicate through art as much or more than through language, almost every member of the community using music, poetry, sculpture, etc as a form of expression. She feels this explains how readily the Inuit have adopted and made the most of an ‘outside’ art form: film. In fact, with its comparatively small population, the territory of Nunavut has a higher number of actors and filmmakers per capita than any other state, province, or territory in North America.

The three parts of the trilogy are not sequels, or in chronological order. Set in three time periods – pre-European contact, the 1920s, and the 1840s – they tell unrelated stories unified by a common culture.

Part 1: Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner

2001 Director: Zacharias Kunuk

Set in the semi-mythical past, The Fast Runner is a variation on an ancient Inuit legend, filmed in a realistic rather than folk-tale manner. Carefully authentic, it presents a richly detailed portrayal of Inuit life centuries before European contact. As mentioned earlier, all the dialogue is in Inuktitut, and even the film’s score consists entirely of traditional Inuit music.

The story begins slowly, taking time to introduce the characters and their relationships to one another, and to allow the viewer to become familiar with the setting. We meet the main character, Atanarjuat, as an infant. His father is a kind man but an unlucky hunter – a dangerous flaw to people who depend on hunting skills for survival. His family is reduced to accepting charity from a neighbouring household, and to being ridiculed by his mean-spirited benefactor. He hopes for better things once his two sons are grown.

The story then moves ahead about twenty years, during which time the rift between the two households has continued in spite of a superficial peace. When a dispute arises over a woman, who marries Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq) in spite of a tacit engagement to a man from the rival clan, the hostility between the two factions comes to the surface. It gradually escalates from antagonism, to malicious acts, and ultimately to the attempted murder of Atanarjuat, who manages to escape death through an otherworldly experience in which his deceased ancestors intervene to help him. The feud is ended and good allowed to triumph according to a uniquely Inuit interpretation of a happy ending.

Part 2: The Journals of Knud Rasmussen

2006 Directors/Screenwriters: Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn

The second part of the trilogy is set mainly in the 1920s, and is based on the journals of one of the first Europeans to study and record Inuit life and philosophy, Danish ethnographer Knud Rasmussen. His respectful, in-depth description of the lives of Inuit he spoke to and lived with, in particular of Avva (played by Pakak Innukshuk), a renowned shaman of the Inuit, and his rebellious daughter Apak (Leah Angutimarik) are the basis for the central plot, although the film is also about contacts between Europeans and Inuit, and their many consequences.

In this twentieth century setting, the Inuit, although still following their traditional way of life for the most part, have adopted outside technology. Some of them live in wooden houses, they use metal tools and rifles, and employ a written form of their language, and there is regular interaction with Europeans who come to the Arctic for a variety of reasons. Consistent with the rest of the film trilogy, the story of Avva and Apak and their family are told from their own point of view. Ethnographers study the Inuit’s lives and customs, but the Inuit also observe and comment on theirs.

Of the trilogy, this film is perhaps the most accessible to non-Inuit viewers, not only because of the inclusion of English and Danish characters, but because the structure is closer to standard Western films. The plots and sub-plots are easier to identify, and scenes of emotional drama, more frequent and overt than in the other two parts of the trilogy, identify the ongoing conflicts within the community very clearly.

Music is used extensively in this film, and often represents the battle of cultures which is taking place. An amusing moment occurs when Rasmussen and his assistants visit Avva’s family, explaining he would like to hear their stories and songs. Avva suggests the visitor first share a song from his own culture. Startled at being made the object of study, Rasmussen awkwardly sings part of an Italian aria, while the Inuit listen impassively. In the next scene, the same aria, professionally recorded with orchestra, is the background music as young Inuit shyly admire the Danish visitor’s European food and apparatus. He makes gifts of small items to the group, including Avva’s daughter. From one scene to the next, his European culture has changed from foreign and irrelevant, to unconsciously dominant. (This recording is played again over the final credits, bringing home the film’s quietly tragic conclusion.) Similarly, a serious conflict between traditional Inuit and those who have adopted Christianity is represented by the reluctance of Avva’s clan to join them in singing hymns. Music, Inuit and European, continues to mark this ongoing, largely unacknowledged struggle.

Avva remains carefully aloof from the European explorers and missionaries, seeing them as a potential threat to their beliefs and way of life. When Avva’s family find themselves stranded and without food, an enclave of converts to Christianity offer food in return for a gesture of allegiance to the Christian faith, something many of Avva’s companions decide to accept. When starvation threatens, he and his family must choose between death, and what he sees as betrayal of his own culture and spirituality. His choice is made more difficult by the attitude of his daughter, who shares his spiritual gifts but has little respect for them.

One item which is confusing at first is the presence of mysterious characters who are left unidentified for most of the film. They are often present but do not speak, and do not appear to be visible to all. The most often seen is a girl dressed in white fur. Calm and thoughtful, she remains close to Avva, and seems to quietly take in what happens around her and reflect on it. She, and two others who are seen mainly toward the end of the film, are Avva’s spirit guides. A heartbreaking final scene shows Avva, having reluctantly chosen to accept the missionaries’ offer, firmly sending the spirit guides away, as they weep in distress and he silently grieves. The scene demonstrates beautifully that his acceptance of this provisional hospitality, which the missionaries see as a simple act of benevolence, is to Avva and his people a deep and resounding tragedy.

Part 3: Before Tomorrow

2008 Directors: Madeline Ivalu and Marie Helene Cousineau

The third instalment of the trilogy is loosely based on a Danish novel, For Morgendagen, but once again is presented very much from the Inuit rather than the Danish perspective. It is set around 1840, a time when Inuit were starting to encounter European traders and whalers. Meant to be realistic and historically accurate but not specific to any one year or location, the film focuses primarily on family and community relationships and how the arrival of European settlers changes those things.

Set in the Arctic summer, the film shows two families meeting for a reunion and fishing expedition, and the drying and storing of fish on a small island used for the purpose. The ordinary events, the social activities and conversation, are interspersed with references to the ‘strangers’ newly arrived in the region. Sightings are described, and occasional European artifacts are found or obtained through trade with those who have encountered these unfamiliar people. One man who had interacted and traded with a shipload of Europeans describes the meeting, and the sailors’ odd customs, to everyone’s amazement. For the most part, however, these new arrivals have little effect on daily life. After a merry reunion celebration, the group establishes a camp site and sets to work fishing.

Most of the participants ignore the stories, but Ningiuq (Madeline Ivalu, the film’s co-director), an elderly woman with a reputation as a visionary, can’t escape a sense of foreboding. Following an impulse, she, her closest friend Kuutujuk (Mary Qulitalik), and her young grandson Maniq (child actor Paul-Dylan Ivalu) stay behind on the island to prepare the cache of fish for drying and storage, while the others continue the hunt elsewhere. Someone will come to convey the three back by boat, before the weather turns cold. Soon Ningiuq becomes ill, and after experiencing anxious dreams, she dies and is buried on the island. Her grieving friend and grandson continue the work of preserving food for the winter.

When no one comes for them by the time winter begins, Kuutujuk and Maniq take a boat and travel to the mainland. There they find the horrible site of their families’ mass death, apparently of an unfamiliar disease. Finding European implements among the deceased’s belongings, Kuutujuk implicates the new arrivals as the cause of death. They return to the island and do their best, an elderly woman and a child in isolation, to survive the winter, forming a community of two and trying to understand what the future might hold for them.

The story focuses inward at this point, activity slowing as autumn ends and the surroundings change from lush and hospitable to cold and desolate. The time the two survivors spend together, working, providing shelter for themselves, and sharing stories and songs, along with Kuutujuk’s prayers and private talks with her deceased husband, in which she expresses fear over what will become of young Maniq if they remain stranded, mark the passing days. Their ultimate fate is left unresolved, as the film ends ambiguously in a dreamlike sequence, in which a badly injured Kuutujuk either dreams of being once more with her family, or meets them again in the afterlife she has obliquely described to Maniq.

This film is visually stunning; the arctic landscape in summer is filmed with great affection for its stark beauty; and the quiet interior scenes lovingly take in small gestures, whispered conversations, and faces deep in thought, at a pace more leisurely than is usually tolerated in films. Unlike the first two parts of the trilogy, Before Tomorrow uses English or French language Western music for its soundtrack, making the score more familiar to ‘outside’ viewers.

Monica Reid.

For further viewing:

Tungijuq an eight minute short with no dialogue, Tungijuq was meant as a response to the international opposition to the Inuit’s traditional seal hunt. It attempts to express what the hunt means in the Inuit world view, using a series of beautiful and surreal images with a soundtrack of Inuit “throat music” – a traditional form of non-verbal singing that expresses mood and emotion without words. When presented at the Sundance Film Festival, the film incited both admiration for the quality of the film, and indignation for its content. Tungijuq can be seen in its entirety here:

The Legend of Sarila is an animated children’s film which tells a fanciful version of an Inuit mythology, about a quest to find a mystical land of plenty which is thwarted by an evil wizard. At an older child’s level, it is available dubbed into English with Christopher Plummer as the voice of the central character, and is highly accessible to a European audience.

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