It has been 80 years since the adventurous son of a Michigan iron miner trained a silent-movie camera on the everyday life of an "Eskimo" family in the Canadian Arctic and virtually invented documentary filmmaking. Through the decades, Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North has attracted its share of criticism -- Flaherty staged some scenes, and the white man's bias is evident in places -- but no one has ever questioned the purity of the pioneer director's intention to show Nanook's confrontation with nature as it really was.
Now comes a new work, Zacharias Kunuk's The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat), that deserves a place of honor next to Nanook as a landmark in film history. Made by Canada's first Inuit production company, this powerful mixture of tribal taboo, bloody violence and family preservation derives from an Inuit legend that's been passed down through almost a hundred generations struggling to survive on the sea-ice of the Arctic. But the story's universal appeal is everywhere evident: All human beings fear betrayal, seek to feed their families and petition the spirit world for the strength to endure.
Director Kunuk believes one way to reclaim traditions lost to time and the incursion of mainland culture is to film them, and to that end he and his extraordinarily perceptive cinematographer, Norman Cohn, have reproduced a wealth of ethnographic detail that would dazzle Flaherty. If you want to see Kunuk's ancestors piecing together igloos, curing skins or feasting on walrus heart, this is the movie for you. Meanwhile, the director's vision of his hero bent over an exhausted dog team in the blizzard-driven wastes of winter is more chillingly poetic than anything in Nanook, and the views of magenta foliage sprouting on the cold spring tundra have a hard beauty all their own. All of this is a far cry (thank heavens) from Anthony Quinn's portrayal of a latter-day Nanook in 1959's The Savage Innocents or the whalers-rescued-by-Eskimos plot of The White Dawn (1974).
Still, there's plenty of instructional melodrama here. The legend of Atanarjuat, as retold in Paul Apak Angilirq's screenplay, concerns the love the titular hero (played by Natar Ungalaaq) has for Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu), a woman who's been promised to another man -- a ruthless warrior called Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq). In the ensuing conflict, we see that neither the ancient Greeks nor the Sopranos have anything on their neighbors to the north in terms of sin and retribution. Between carcass-skinnings and caribou hunts, Kunuk fills this tale of betrayal and family unity with enough adultery, lying, larceny, rape and murder for a dozen movies -- all in the service of a final lesson about how individuals must sacrifice themselves to the needs of the group, especially when it's 30 below zero outside and you're running low on seal oil.
The Fast Runner's length -- a not-so-swift 172 minutes -- may present a challenge to viewers with short attention spans or a low tolerance for native arts and crafts. But the gorgeous chill that envelops the film's harsh landscapes in all seasons (it was shot near Iglooik, in the North Baffin region of the Canadian Arctic) and this cast and crew's loving grasp of the eternal cycles of birth, life and death will prove irresistible for moviegoers in the right frame of mind. Flaherty's 1922 classic produced some famous sequences -- among them Nanook's patient seal hunt, the construction of an igloo, assorted snowstorms -- that seem to be mirrored by Kunuk. But nothing in Nanook produced the sheer force of Atanarjuat's memorable chase scene in which the hero, having just seen his brother murdered, runs across miles of sunlit open ice, pursued by three spear-waving villains. The tension and the gravity of the sequence are immeasurably heightened by the fact that Atanarjuat is naked and barefoot at the time, threatened not only by his enemies but by nature itself.
In the history of ethnographic filmmaking since Flaherty, good sense and moral suasion have increasingly put cameras and microphones into the hands of "exotic" films' subjects as often as the outsiders who want to tell their stories, and it's encouraging to behold the nearly total control an Inuit cast and crew were able to exert over The Fast Runner. The exemplary National Film Board of Canada helped fund the project through its six-year-old Aboriginal Filmmaking Program, but then NFB executives stood back while the natives, well, went native. The result is an authentic and thrilling glimpse into Inuit culture and tradition that Robert Flaherty himself -- the white man who lived in an igloo -- would no doubt admire as much as the present-day descendants of Atanarjuat and Atuat do.