Reviewed by: Carole McDonnell
Starring: Natar Ungalaaq, Madeline Ivalu, Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq, Lucy Tulugarjuk, Pauloosie Quitalik | Directed by: Zacharias Kunuk | Produced by: Paul Apak Angilirq, Norman Cohn, Zacharias Kunuk | Written by: Paul Apak Angilirq | Distributor: Lot 47 Films
One rarely sees epics nowadays, especially epics about the Inuit (Eskimo) people. The sub-titled film, Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner is such a movie. It’s myth, fable and docudrama all in one. Like all great mythic sagas, the film is about evil and how it works its way through a generation of people. Atanarjuat, the titular character, is a fast runner. He will need this skill to protect his life.
The plot is simple. Atanarjuat marries Atuat who was promised to Oki. Oki is unhappy about this. Later, Atanarjuat marries Oki’s sister and Atanrjuat has to run for his life. The film moves slowly but is never boring and the audience learns a lot about the Inuit culture, such as the hunting of caribou and the making of igloos.
Many Christians will not want to see the movie because this film contains nudity, witchcraft, ancestor worship and polygamy. Many Christians will object to this. They will see the externals and not give the movie a second chance. (Think of those people who don’t like the Shakespearean play Macbeth because the play features witches. Yet, the play is about how the supernatural and one’s own ambitions can be deceiving.) And so, this movie will offend people simply because of the strangeness of its culture. Many will probably declare the movie evil. It has always been difficult for North American Christian missionaries to separate culture from religion. How much, we ask ourselves, does an unChristian culture need to change in order to be truly Christian?
For starters, the characters in this film are very moral. Adultery is frowned upon, as is murder and telling lies. They are probably more moral as a community than most western communities. People share their foods with non-family members who had unsuccessful hunts. But, as in some Biblical cultures, whole families live under one tent. Would a missionary find this offensive? Especially if both brothers and their wives and kids are all sleeping naked close together? And, as in Biblical times and modern times, polygamy exists because life is difficult for a woman alone. How are the songs sung to their ancestors different from songs Americans sing about famous people long gone? (“Go Down Moses” and “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho” for instance.) Is praising and remembering ancestors the same as asking them for help?
Like all films about cultures different from the western model, Atanarjuat celebrates the glories of culture. Modern American women, Christians, moralists, all have something they wish to change about other cultures. It’s the old idea of taking up the white man’s (or white woman’s) burden and enlightening other cultures. As I watched the film, I wondered what I would do if I were faced with a culture such as this one. What would I accept of the culture? What would I want to get rid of? The director, Zacharias Kunuk, is working on a film about the devastation Christianity brought to the Inuit people. I suspect the movie will be painfully honest and hard for some Christians to deal with.