The Greatest films of all time: 85. Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001) (Canada)


At the dawn of the second millennium and the fall of cinema as an enlightening art medium, Hollywood fast and furious facilitated this by stupefying people by depicting sorcery and magic like in the dark ages with films such as “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” and “The Lord of the rings”. But at the same time around the world there has been a huge effort to survive this art medium. Through this endeavor, groundbreaking works of cinema such as “Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner” from the aboriginal Inuit first nation of Canada and “Kandahar” from Iran both for the first time showing the stories of two unknown worlds to a global audience.  

Zacharias Kunuk, the creator of “Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner”, himself of the first nation was born in Kapuivik, one of Canadian arctic island in Nunavut territory of Canada. He attended school in Igloolik, an Inuit hamlet of Nunavut and in order to afford admissions to the movies, carved soapstone sculptures. From his hard work money, he purchased a camera and started taking photos of Inuit hunting scenes. Soon he purchased his first video camera with some basic equipment and taught himself how to make his own films, the first “Nunavut: Our Land” in 1995 before making his masterpiece “Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner” in 2001. The film in the 2004 edition of top 10 Canadian films of all time by Toronto International Film Festival, was voted the 5th greatest Canadian Film of all time and in the last edition of the list in 2015, was ranked the number one and the greatest Canadian film of all time.

An Arctic Epic:

The winner of Camera d’Or of the Cannes Film Festival and six Genie Awards including the Best Motion Picture became Canada’s top-grossing film of 2002. The first feature film ever to be written, directed and acted entirely in the Inuktitut language recites an ancient story of the aboriginals that until the film has been passed down through the centuries of oral tradition. In Igloolik off the Eastern Arctic wilderness at the dawn of the first millennium, the community have been poisoned by a shaman visitor Tungajuaq (Abraham Ulayuruluk) with hatred, infidelity and murders. During a spiritual duel with the shaman, the camp leader Kumaglak (Apayata Kotierk) dies and his leading sign of a walrus-tooth necklace around his neck is taken off and given to his son Sauri (Eugene Ipkarnak) as the new camp leader. The whole camp’s lives stricken by the evil magic of the shaman have been doomed. Tulmaq (Felix Alaralak) has bad luck in hunting and can barely feed his family with his two children, Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq) and Amaqjuaq (Pakak Innuksuk) but Panikpak (Madeline Ivalu) brings meat for his children, hoping that one day their lives will be back normal.

Atanarjuat grows up to be a fast runner and his brother Amaqjuaq grows to be strong. Atanarjuat pursues the beautiful Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu) provoking jealousy in his rival Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq). Oki’s sister Puja (Lucy Tulugarjuk) is also attracted to Atanarjuat. In a punching duel with Oki, Atanarjuat wins the right to marry Atuat. Later, Atanarjuat leaves his wife Atuat at a camp to hunt caribou, but he stops at Sauri’s camp where he is persuaded to take Puja on the hunt and when camping by a lake, they have sex. Later on Atanarjuat unhappy in his marriage with Atuat and Puja, catches his brother having sex with Puja and strikes Puja, who flees to Sauri’s camp and lies that Atanarjuat tried to kill her. Sauri and Oki decide to kill Atanarjuat, but since Panikpak is skeptical of Puja’s accusations, she admits to her false accusation and returns to Atanarjuat’s camp apologizing and she is accepted back.

When one day the women are out eggs hunting, Oki and two men sneak up and kill Amaqjuaq sleeping in his tent. Oki is startled by a vision of his grandfather Kumaglak, and Atanarjuat, naked and barefoot bursts out of the tent and runs for miles across the ice, chased by Oki’s gang. Atanarjuat jumps in a wide open crack of the ice and collapses, but rescued by Qulitalik (Pauloosie Qulitalik) the brother of Panikpak and his family, who conceal him when Oki arrives in pursuit. Back at Igloolik, Sauri refuses to let Oki have Atuat, but Oki rapes Atuat, who is comforted by Panikpak. During a hunt, Oki stabs Sauri and claims it was an accident, and takes over as camp leader.

In her heart, Panikpak summons her brother Qulitalik who had left earlier and would come back if her sister really needed help. Qulitalik feels her call and with his family and Atanarjuat who has healed make a long sled journey back to Igloolik. Making magic with the rabbit foot, Oki catches a rabbit with his bare hands, eats it and falls under a spell that makes him forget his grievances. Atanarjuat is joyfully reunited with Atuat but rejects Puja. Atanarjuat prepares an ice floor in an igloo and invites Oki and his brothers inside, declaring that the killing and hatred are over and now it’s the time to confront the evil that has plagued the community for so long. With everyone gathered together, Qulitalik calls forth the spirits and the evil shaman Tungajuaq who is confronted with the powerful spirit of the walrus and magic soil is destroyed and vanishes. Panikpak tells the group it is time for to forgive Oki and Puja and their friends for their evil deeds, but they are exiled from Igloolik forever.

Filming from 1999 and from 3 PM to 3 AM to have the natural sun light for shooting the film and creating special eye-catching cinematography by Norman Cohn was an awe inspiring effort. Filmed by 90% Inuit crew, the film was hailed by most critics around the world as a “masterpiece”, “cinematic landmark”, “work of visual beauty”, “extraordinary excursion into an unknown world”, “defining an epic in every way”, “passion filtered through ritual and memory”, “remarkable world first”, “impressively vivid and detailed depiction of a particular was life”, “extraordinary cinematography”, “the combination of dramatic realism and archaic grandeur is irresistibly powerful”, “unique and refreshing script, cinematography and visual style”, and “a privileged peek into Inuit culture and a stirring, deeply personal drama”.  

The film showed how for thousands of years the Inuit communities had survived and thrived in the Arctic, and also through the universal film medium and the film’s powerful cinematic achievement helped the Inuit communities to survive long into the future. The director Kunuk himself stated “Four thousand years of oral history silenced by fifty years of priests, schools, and cable TV. I first heard the story of Atanarjuat from my mother”.  The producer and cinematographer has explained “Kids all over Nunavut are still playing Atanarjuat in the streets”.


In closing remarks “Atanarjuat” one more time will be redefined based on the following criteria:  

  1. Originality: The originality of “Atanarjuat” is in being the first film about the ancient Inuit culture until then unknown to the rest of the world at large. Filming and performance by all the aboriginal first nation people in their own native language all in location in Inuit all were as original as it can get.
  2. Technicality: The technicality of “Atanarjuat” is in the set location, performances, great direction by the native Zacharias Kunuk and above all the mesmerizing cinematography of Norman Cohn and its complementing native music score by Chris Crilly.
  3. Impact Factor: The influence of “Atanarjuat” has been broad on Canadians at large, the world to know the ancient Inuit nations how survived the arctic for thousands years and lastly not the least the influence on the Inuit people themselves to survive for long in the future.
  4. Survival: “Atanarjuat” has survived well to this day for even after 14 years in 2015 becoming the greatest Canadian films of all time and still being fresh and enlightening to watch.



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