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The Fast Runner: Filming the Legend of Atanarjuat is the first in a series of books titled Indigenous Films edited by Randolph Lewis and David Delagado Shorter and published by the University of Nebraska Press. The series addresses other films by or about Native peoples, including Dances with Wolves, Black Robe, Pocahantas, and more. The goal is to support classroom instruction and, more broadly, “to challenge the Eurocentrism that often afflicts the study of cinema, and to initiate conversations about the promises and challenges of indigenous media now emerging around the globe” (p. xi). Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (released in 2002) was chosen as the subject of the first book in the series not only because of its box office success, but also because it has inspired so many reviews and commentaries by authors, scholars, and film critics.
Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner is the first feature film of its kind and the first to be entirely in Inuktitut. It is also the first of a trilogy of Canadian films produced by Isuma Igloolik Productions. Atanarjuat, directed by Zacharias Kunuk, is based on an Inuit legend that is still retold in the Arctic. The film is set in the Igloolik region of 500 years ago, and jealousy is the motive leading to the high point: a man’s escape from a murderous gang by running alone, naked, and without provisions across the ice. The second film in the trilogy, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (2006), also directed by Kunuk, is based on the writings of Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen who visited the Igloolik area with Therkel Mathiassen and Peter Freuchen in 1922. The third film, Before Tomorrow (2009), is based on the novel Før Morgendagen by Danish author Jørn Riel. Set in 1840, it is about a boy and his grandmother who find the others in their camp dead of disease brought by white men.
Michael Robert Evans, who also wrote a chapter on The Fast Runner for his book Isuma: Inuit Video Art (2008), tells us much about the film, and readers are likely to wish that he had covered the complete trilogy. The Fast Runner: Filming the Legend of Atanarjuat includes such useful materials as a chart showing the film’s characters and family relationships, a pronunciation guide, two maps, a gallery of nine black-and-white photographs, a bibliography, and an index. Chapter One is a short historical background, including the introduction of video into this region and its use as an art form. Chapter Eight describes the founding of Nunavut in order to set the historical context for the development of video as an art form in the north. There is also a comparison with similar developments in video production in Australia. Chapters Three and Four further describe Igloolik Isuma Productions and the lives of its founding members: Zacharias Kunuk, Norman Cohn, Paulousie Qulitalik, Paul Apak Angilirq (d. 1998), and others. It was Paul Apak Angilirq who first thought of filming the Atanarjuat legend. Chapter Four specifically explains the funding process for the film, and identifies the goals and priorities of Isuma, including the importance of using Inuktitut and representing Inuit values. Chapter Five provides synopses of several versions of the legend, including one of the film script. Chapters Two and Seven discuss the representation of certain themes in the film, including shamanism, games, marriage, laws and leadership, architecture, resources, clothing, and nomadic life. Chapter Six summarises published reviews and discussions of the film.
The book might have benefited from some minor reorganisation of the material, but it is well written and the information clear and easy to follow. Students should make their own close reading notes from the film, as the synopsis in Chapter Five evidently follows the script, not the final production. Despite efforts to present both positive and negative reviews, Chapter Six gives the distinct impression that only those who praise the film understand it. While this impression might have been mitigated by some attention to the values and goals of the venues that featured these reviews and commentaries, it does not lessen the value of the book, but rather points to avenues of discussion beyond those already discovered and traversed by the author.
All three films are available at http://www.isuma.tv/fastrunnertrilogy.