Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner

Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner by (2001) by Zacharias Kunuk is a moving reenactment of an Inuit oral legend touching on issues of “power, intrigue, love, jealousy, murder and revenge” (Raheja 2007, 1172) through the lens of spiritual duality and a circular time-continuum. As a ciné-ethnography, the film subverts the anthropological tools and Western media technology that has previously acted as weapons of colonialism that marginalized communities, perpetuated racism and suppressed indigenous culture. Filmed entirely in Inuktitut, with an Inuit cast and crew Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner is the embodiment of “visual sovereignty”; a revisionist approach to portraying a native-centered history that both dismantles “white-generated representations of indigenous people” (1161) and validates native epistemes through autonomous self-representation.

As Michelle Raheja discusses in “Reading Nanook’s Smile,”  Atanarjuat is arguably a film belonging to the “fourth cinema” in its holistic approach to indigenous history, careful attention to “individual, national and tribal distinctions” (1168) and most importantly, continued activism within the indigenous community. Preserving native knowledge otherwise lost or misrepresented, along with community involvement and democratic production methods further distinguish this film as a carefully crafted community effort with goals that supersede ticket sales.  

A noticeable change of pace from Hollywood, Atanarjuat takes the viewer “hostage” in it’s thoughtful downtempo; obliging the audience to pay attention to what Atanarjuat and his counterparts find meaningful. This visual sovereignty extends itself into the cinematography, holding shots of the surrounding landscape and quotidian tasks that are typically considered uninteresting (1178). As a character in its own right, the Arctic environment is attributed prolonged screen time, occasionally left unedited in its rawness. A stream of sharp sunlight overexposes a scene depicting Atanarjuat and his brother talking near the sea; in most films, this would warrant a reshoot or post-production edit. Nevertheless, it survived the final edit of The Fast Runner and cultivated a visceral connection between the audience, the land, and its native inhabitants.

Ample use of POV shots further embeds the viewer into the narrative, providing a unique opportunity to feel Atuat’s excitement as she patiently waits for Atanarjuat to return from his hunting trip or, to witness Oki’s rage as Atanarjuat accidentally stumbles onto him. When Pouja makes love to Atanarjuat for the first time, we become immersed in their passion. When Oki attacks Qulitalik, we feel attacked. The use of POV is perhaps the closest we’ve come to living vicariously through someone; as an ethnographic tool, it is a source of great power, revealing insights otherwise unknown to us.

But what strikes me as truly ethnographic are the attempts to keep the viewer camera cognisant. A subtle tactic, often perceived as a technical mistake, reminds us of two things: the first being the intentional effort of ethnographers ( particularly indigenous ethnographers) to cinematically preserve a culturally specific event, tradition, belief or other significant aspects of the lived experience. It is a conscious effort that Zacharias Kunuk and Igloolik Isuma Productions researched, filmed, produced and distributed the film. In an industry that stereotypes native people, underpays indigenous actors and reduces their existence to a conquered past the occasional interjection of an overhead boom mic is a statement; visual sovereignty a struggle of great pursuit. The secondary reminder stifles the inherent power of film to present itself as omniscient, and it’s depictions as undoubtedly real. Instead, the camera is a perspective, not the only perspective. And its views are subject to control, bias, and manipulation.  

I wonder how far we can push transparency, unveiling the act of filming and collecting research that puts the very ethnographic process on display- can we be reflexive and subjective in our work through film? I also wonder how we can further empower indigenous ciné-ethnographers?    


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