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By and for the Whole Inuit Village

For a movie based on a tale told by elders, a Canadian filmmaker relied on the teamwork used in hunting

June 09, 2002|LEWIS BEALE

NEW YORK — It was between hunting seasons above the Arctic Circle, so Zacharias Kunuk was able to take a few days off and fly south to publicize his new film. Hunting season is important for Kunuk, the world's most famous, if not only, Inuit filmmaker. The 44-year-old Canadian may have won the Camera d'Or at last year's Cannes Film Festival for his astonishing debut, "The Fast Runner," but he is a country boy at heart.

Although Kunuk has been a professional video maker for more than 20 years, he still lives in Igloolik, a small community near Baffin Island, and spends his free time hunting seal, caribou and whale, like his ancestors did. In fact, as far as Kunuk is concerned, hunting and filmmaking have a lot in common.

Filmmaking is about teamwork, he says, "just like how we hunt. A group of us go out there and try to get one seal. Somebody is standing at the seal hole, while other people are trying to scare it to them. There has to be teamwork, otherwise it wouldn't work."

This is a long speech for Kunuk, a short, dark-skinned man with weathered features and a bowlegged, rolling gait that makes it look as if he has just stepped off the deck of a ship. He has a natural cultural reserve that he expresses in long pauses before answering questions, and short, often mystifying responses. Which is one reason Kunuk was in New York with Norman Cohn, his cinematographer and business partner, a transplanted New Yorker who has lived in Canada for years and acts as a sort of ethnographic interpreter. (The two were in New York in April for an early screening of the film.)

Not that "The Fast Runner," which opens Friday in Los Angeles and New York, needs much explanation. The first feature film shot in Inuktitut, Kunuk's native language, and featuring an all-Inuit cast, it has visual panache and an incident-filled story line that plays like a cross between "Peyton Place" and "Once Upon a Time in the West." Based on an Inuit tale that Kunuk first heard as a child, "The Fast Runner" tells the story of Atanarjuat, a young man blessed with the gift of speed, who falls in love with a woman promised to another man.

This universal plot line is fleshed out with occult elements, sex, fratricide, murder and revenge. Two sequences have already attained cult status on the film festival circuit, where "The Fast Runner" has been greeted with ecstatic reviews: One is a head-punching contest that looks like an Inuit version of an extreme sport; the other is a magnificent chase scene in which a naked Atanarjuat flees across miles of sea ice pursued by two men bent on killing him.

"The film is about love, jealousy, murder and revenge," says Norman Cohn. "What else is there? It's not a surprise that the world responds to the film. It's not a film about some ethnic particularity."

True, but "The Fast Runner" also acts as a crash course in Inuit culture, pre-European contact. The film is filled with scenes that show how igloos are built, clothes are made, hunting is performed. It is, in a sense, Kunuk's gift to his people, former nomads who now live in towns, wear westernized clothing and have access to the Internet and satellite TV.

"I never really expected ['The Fast Runner'] to get out of my community," Kunuk says. "I was making the film for my community. Sharing the film with the outside world, that's great."

Like many of the younger Inuit who appear in "The Fast Runner," Kunuk is a product of two distinct cultures. He grew up in sod houses and igloos, living the nomadic lifestyle of his parents. But at age 6, Kunuk was sent to Igloolik, a town of 1,200, for schooling. There he grew up as a John Wayne fan, thanks to the 16-millimeter movies shown weekly at the local community center. Later, he established a reputation as a talented carver.

It was carving that took Kunuk to the outside world--Montreal--where he sold his work to a local gallery and used the money to buy a TV set, VCR and video camera. Back home, he began to make films about his community, culminating in "Nunavut," (Our Land) a 13-part TV drama set in 1945 about the clash between traditional Inuit life and the arrival of the "modern" world. (The 1995 series aired locally only.) In 1990, Kunuk, Cohn and two Inuit partners had created Igloolik Isuma Productions, an Inuit video company that has made several films about local culture.

Kunuk and Cohn don't seem overly surprised by the reviews for "The Fast Runner": The New York Times called it a masterpiece. It's not as if they've been living on the moon all these years; they've been making films, all right, it's just that their work has been shoved into the "ethnographic" category. Because of this, it seems as if they came out of nowhere.

"We weren't two 20-year-olds," Cohn says. "We'd been at this for a long time. And we know that the people who make 'Planet of the Apes' aren't any smarter or more talented than we are. We knew we had actors and the technical skills. It wasn't our fault that other people didn't believe us."

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