Adds Kunuk: "We were seeing all the Hollywood movies. We thought there are human beings making these; so can we." Not that production of "The Fast Runner," which cost $1.9 million and was shot on digital wide-screen video, didn't run into its share of problems. Pre-production began in 1995, but the film wasn't finished until nearly five years later. Kunuk and Cohn had funding problems involving a private investor that delayed shooting for a while--the film received both Canadian government and private funds--and there were stoppages related to weather and other factors. In total, the shoot took 150 days.
Unlike what Cohn calls the "military" style of Hollywood filmmaking, the production of "The Fast Runner" took on an almost communal aura. The script was cobbled together from eight versions of the Atanarjuat legend that village elders told Kunuk.
Cast and crew lived in tents and ate what was caught or killed for them by local hunters, like the characters in the picture. Costumes and props were rendered in authentic detail (the film is not time-specific but is set before the arrival of Europeans).
The acting and directing process was equally democratic. Nearly all the performers had appeared in other Igloolik Isuma productions, or as Kunuk puts it, "Norman had been shoving the camera in their face for 10 years. They were used to it." This led to a directing style based on an Inuit cultural assumption that Cohn describes as "once you've grown up to a certain age, everybody is assumed to know what to do."
Despite Kunuk's seeming bravado, he admits that making the film was a learning process, and that he expects to be more polished the next time. Besides, Kunuk was more worried about the reception the film would get at home. "My greatest moment and my scariest moment was when we finished the film and showed it to our people," he says.
As it turned out, three screenings held in Igloolik in December 2000 proved a success. More than 1,500 people saw the film, 300 more than the town's population. Of the reaction, Kunuk reported: "A lot of people cried. A lot of people patted us on the back." Next up for Kunuk and Cohn is a film about the first contact between the Inuit and Christian missionaries.
The project, in the research stage now, will be shot in video not only because it's the format Kunuk and Cohn feel most comfortable with, but also because, says Kunuk, "the place where we are, if we shot in film and wanted to see our rushes, it would take two weeks to get them."
The director is asked if he has a favorite scene in "The Fast Runner," and he gets a faraway look in his eyes while contemplating his answer.
Finally he says no, he doesn't have a favorite sequence. But then he adds: "My proudest scene is when we called the actors to the set. They were coming over the hill in all their costumes. You could imagine that's how it must have looked like in the past."
Lewis Beale is a freelance writer based in New York.