Gazing north: YBCA presents a trilogy from Inuit Films, including Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner.

Independent Inuit Films at YBCA

Dennis Harvey April 8, 2010

Inuit peoples–those indigenous cultures rooted in Arctic regions from Alaska to Greenland–have an honored place in film history. Robert Flaherty’s 1922 Nanook of the North was a major hit that remains the silent era’s most famous documentary, and was a huge influence on the genre in general. (Even though it turned out Flaherty’s portrait was largely staged, with members of the onscreen “Eskimo family” not even related to one another in real life.)

But apart from scattered other nonfiction, anthropologically-focused films, or occasional jokey mainstream references (in everything from the crazy “Turn on the Heat” number in 1929 musical Sunny Side Up to The Simpsons Movie), Inuit life has seldom made significant appearances at the movies. Rare exceptions have included Nicholas Ray’s 1960 The Savage Innocents and Philip Kaufman’s 1974 The White Dawn, as well as (if it counts) Disney’s 2003 ‘toon Brother Bear. Typically, even these rare efforts have been told from the viewpoint of white interlopers.

That finally changed a decade ago, with the completion of the first among three (so far) narrative features from Isuma Igloolik Productions, a multimedia company based in Canada’s northernmost federal territory Nunavut. Billed as “The Fast Runner Trilogy,” all three are playing Yerba Buena Center for the Arts this weekend and next.

Largely comprised of islands, Nunavut has one of the lowest-density human populations on the planet. There are just 1,200 people living in the community of Igloolik (also the name of the region’s language), where co-founder Zacharias Kunuk said Isuma’s goal was to make up for “4,000 years of (Canadian Inuit) oral history silenced by fifty years of priests, schools and cable TV.”

Shot on video, its first feature Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner is based on a legend at least five centuries old, about a deadly rivalry between two men. Though promised chief’s son Oki (Peter Henry Arnatsiaq), comely Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu) also attracts the titular “fast runner” (Natar Ungalaaq), who wins her after a fight trading fists to temples (ouch). This does not please arrogant Oki, who takes terrible vengeance on the other man’s family–prompting the film’s most famous scene, in which Atanarjuat flees his would-be assassins, buck-naked, over miles of featureless ice and frigid waters.

Kunuk’s nearly three-hour film reflects the freely digressive nature of Inuit storytelling traditions. (There was no written language until the Canadian government imposed conventional schooling.) It, and the two other features in YBCA’s program, are notably short on the plot propulsion and emotional cues one ordinarily expects from narrative cinema. There are stories within stories; the (mostly non-professional) actors are “naturalistic” in the extreme, and seldom given to overt expression of what’s on their characters’ minds, save in extremis.

Patience is definitely required. Yet despite its often placid affect, eventfulness isn’t lacking in *The Fast Runner*–there’s patricide, rape, infidelity, murder, supernatural intervention, graphic meat preparation and more in the late Paul Apak Angilirq’s screenplay.

Its wade into entirely foreign landscapes and lifestyles made Atanarjuat an international sensation almost comparable to Nanook some eight decades earlier. The 2000 production won numerous awards (including the Cannes Golden Camera), became the highest-grossing Canadian of its year, and was distributed around the world.

That success led to a followup feature, 2006’s The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, which Kunuk co-directed with Isuma co-founder Norman Cohn. Based on the titular Greenlandic explorer’s chronicle of a 1922 expedition (his fifth and last before one which caused his pneumonia death), it contrasts with The Fast Runner’s expression of “pure” Igloolik culture by showing a moment when outsider contact began to change forever ways of life hitherto unaltered for millennia.

Rasmussen and his fellow travelers were largely there to record indigenous lore and custom for anthropological study. Thus, like the prior film (and the following one), Journals features a lot of oral storytelling that’s sometimes illustrated, sometimes not. The spirit world is seldom far from reach, in stories told or present-day reality. (One young woman is chided for continuing to have enthusiastic dream-sex with her late first husband while ignoring her current, living one.) The film’s powerful close signals an end of sorts to that, as a shaman is forced to renounce old beliefs and embrace those pushed by Christian converts whose resources might ensure his family’s survival during a famine.

Making its San Francisco debut, the 2008 Before Tomorrow is both Isuma’s third fictive feature and the first from Arnait Video Women’s Collective. As one might expect, it abandons the earlier films’ primarily male perspective to a distinctly female one. Circa 1840, elders Ningiuq (Madeline Ivalu, who co-directed with Marie-Helene Cousineau) and Kutuguq (Mary Qulitalik) go to a small island for the annual ritual of winter fish preparation. This is usually a task for younger women; but sickly Kutuguq has come here to die in her friend’s company, Ningiuq bringing along favorite grandson Maniq (Paul-Dylan Ivalu). When grandmother and child return alone to their community, they discover horror–the aftermath of an offscreen massacre by some of the first European colonizers–and become one another’s only hope for survival.

Each successive Isuma feature has been shorter and more technically polished, if also less widely seen. Before Tomorrow, based on a novel by Danish author Jorn Riel, is the most beautifully crafted to date. Yet despite its often spectacular views of the stark Arctic scenery, this is even more intimate a tale than its predecessors. It boils down to one character at the end of her life struggling to maintain the energy to teach a youngster skills he’ll need to avoid starvation, freezing, animal attack and other very immediate perils once she’s gone.

Cousineau will be present to introduce Tomorrow and answer audience questions. Folk fans will be excited to hear the film’s original score is by famed Quebec sister act Kate & Anna McGarrigle.

Those intrigued by the series’ should keep an eye out for a fourth recent feature (albeit one not produced by Isuma): Benoit Pilon’s The Necessities of Life, which played San Jose’s Cinequest fest last year, is a wonderfully touching drama starring Atanarjuat’s Ungalaaq as an Inuit man who undergoes major culture shock when he’s taken from his remote home to 1950s Quebec City for longterm tuberculosis treatment. Though theatrically released in Canada, it as yet has attracted no U.S. distributor. Should that fail to materialize, you are heartily urged to settle for its Region 1 DVD from Canadian label 101.