The New Canadian Canon: Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner


In January of this year, the Toronto International Film Festival held its decennial poll to determine Canada’s All Time Top Ten films. TIFF polled filmmakers, film critics, and academics to come up with the consensus choices, and the result was a bit of a surprise to the uninitiated. Instead of Claude Jutra’s Mon Oncle Antoine topping the list as it had done since the poll’s inception in 1984, Zacharias Kunuk’s Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner took its place as the best Canadian film of all time. It was likely the first time an Indigenous film had topped a national cinema poll, which is a landmark in its own right. The reasons Atanarjuat topped the poll are both obvious to those who’ve seen the film, and indicative of a larger moment in world cinema as a whole. It’s simply a superb film, but also one that shares a vision of Indigenous culture, crafted by and for Indigenous peoples, in a way that had never been done on film before.

Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner is an adaptation of a traditional Inuit myth following the hunter Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq) and his epic quest to restore peace to a community divided by evil spirits and romantic rivalries. In the decade and a half since its release it has become something of an institution. The film was a major hit when it was first released as well. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2001, winning the Caméra d’Or (Golden Camera), awarded to the best first feature film in the festival. In its theatrical release it also won the Genie Award for Best Canadian film and grossed over USD $5,000,000 at the box office, becoming the top grossing Canadian film of that year.

The reasons for Atanarjuat’s success are numerous, but a large part of its appeal lies in its relationship to Canadian cinema as a whole. To help us understand the film and its place in the legacy of Canadian cinema, we spoke to Jesse Wente, Director of Film Programmes at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and pop culture critic for CBC’s Metro Mornings. Atanarjuat is “in a legacy of films that transmit something about Canadian identity,” Wente says. It’s part of the tradition of films like Donald Shebib’s Goin’ Down the Road that try to capture something essential about Canadian identity and Canadians’ attempts to define themselves in this massive geography. However, this Canadian “tradition is borne out of what is the outsider or colonial identity coming into a land and applying its own identity here. It’s about self-definition of the over-culture of Canada,” Wente says. 

On the other hand, “Atanarjuat tells a very old Inuit myth, one that predates contact with the West, with Europeans, and because of that you not only have that lineage, but in a way, it also suggests a different way to look at that lineage. In terms of Canadian cinema, there are few films that not only make you reconsider the entire art history of cinema in the country, but that also suggest a new course for cinema—and I think that’s what Atanarjuat does.”

It’s important to note that from a global perspective, Atanarjuat represents Canadian culture in a way that non-Indigenous Canadians often overlook. While non-Indigenous Canadians generally tend to envision essential elements of Canadian culture as fixating on the harsh climate, or, if delving a little deeper, about exploring the immigrant experience of arriving in a new, overwhelming geographical location, Wente posits that “what people outside of Canada view as actual Canadian culture isn’t hockey or those sorts of things.” He says that for foreigners, “it’s actually the culture of the First Nations people, the Inuit, and the Métis that they would identify as distinctly Canadian.” This being the case, Atanarjuat becomes an emblem of essential Canadian culture to the rest of the world. Like the non-Indigenous films sitting beside it in the Canadian canon, it explores humanity’s relationship to the land and the notion of survival, but unlike these other films, it explores these notions from the perspective of an Indigenous community.

The specificity of Atanarjuat’s storytelling contributes greatly to its canonization. At the time of its release, there was plenty of excitement about Atanarjuat being the first feature film to be made by an Inuit filmmaker entirely in Inuktitut. On a larger scale, it is also the first historical epic to be made by an Indigenous filmmaker about an Indigenous way of life that is entirely independent of non-Indigenous characters or references. This makes Atanarjuat a pioneering film, as well an important statement of Indigenous artistry. It also undeniably lends the film a feeling of newness.

The film is also overwhelming dedicated to authenticity. Zacharias Kunuk and producer Norman Cohn were sure to correct historical inaccuracies in past cinematic portrayals of Inuit life, and hew as close to historical reality as possible. For example, Wente points out that “the costumes were all made as they would have been at the time.” The film has countless scenes of women cleaning seal skins or men making igloos, and all of these actions are represented exactly as they would have been done historically by the Inuit community. Kunuk and Cohn assured authenticity by engaging the Inuit community in the making of the film, turning it into a “community-based project.” It’s the case of an artistic visionary “engaging with the community that’s represented in the film...[which in] the history of Indigenous cinema is very, very rare.” This engagement of the Inuit community in the creation of Atanarjuat made the film “an act of cultural revival,” Wente says. “It actually allows contemporary Indigenous people to engage with traditional craft that they would have maybe forgotten or abandoned—and ditto the language.”

The film accuracy is also evident in its structure, foregoing many conventions of western epic cinema in favour of Indigenous oral storytelling traditions. Wente explains that while Atanarjuat is “an Indigenous story that very much acknowledges or understands the notions of traditional epic storytelling technique, especially in terms of mise en scène and framing and the positioning of the character against the uses that and adapts that to tell an Indigenous story the way an Indigenous story would be told.” Wente goes on to explain that the film “does many things that are not traditionally the three-act story structure of the western narrative.” The opening of the film does little to introduce the characters or the structures of the storyworld. As well, the film matter-of-factly incorporates magic and spirits into the fabric of the narrative. For instance, one of the final scenes of the film finds a character chewing on a walrus-skin bag to call forth spirits that have been plaguing the community, but Wente explains that Kunuk “doesn’t clue the audience into when the characters are speaking to spirits or people who aren’t physically there and things like that which are a part of the way Inuit and a lot of First Peoples pass along stories.” This lends the film an intimate perspective. 

Unlike most historical epics, Atanarjuat is not framed in such a way as to allow the viewer the comfort of looking back from the modern context, nor does it frame the film as an outsider’s perspective of a very insular culture. Instead, it displays the ancient way of life of a tight-knit Indigenous community in such a way that assumes the viewer is familiar with the rules and reasons of the actions presented on screen. Instead of offering a perspective of a fascinating culture from the outside looking in, Atanarjuat frames the viewer from the inside looking out. The film aligns the viewer with Atanarjuat and his fellow community members, bringing us into their tents and igloos, into their beds, allowing us to see the world through their eyes. It supplies an intimacy that is almost unheard of in epic filmmaking.

In light of its historical importance as a landmark Indigenous film and its natural appeal to non-Indigenous viewers eager to have a glimpse of an ancient community, it’s easy to understate Atarnarjuat’s powerful filmmaking. The film captures the overwhelming expanse of Canadian geography and the intimacy of tight-knit hunting communities. It contrasts stunning vistas of endless ice fields with cramped igloos and tents, lit by oil lamps and fires. It’s a personal tale of Atanarjuat as he fights to win the woman he loves and avenge the brother he lost, but his quest takes on significance of mythic proportions. The film is an epic, after all.

It also has some spectacular action scenes. The centrepiece of Atanarjuat is a chase scene across the ice fields of northern Canada. It starts with Atarnarjuat’s rival, Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq), and his two cronies ambushing Atanarjuat and his brother, Amaqjuaq (Pakak Innuksuk), as they sleep in their tent. They spear Amagjuaq with walrus tusks, killing him, but Atanarjuat escapes, fleeing across the ice stark naked. Oki and his men lay chase, and Atanarjuat has to run across the fields in the bitter cold and wet until Oki relents. The scene is startling for its rawness—there is nothing more visceral than the sight of a naked man fleeing for his life running across a frozen landscape—and justifies the film’s subtitle, The Fast Runner.

But the scene is also an example of director Zacharias Kunuk blending traditional filmmaking wizardry with visceral authenticity. Wente points out that “they did the movie trickery, they made prosthetic feet, and they did all that stuff you’d do when making a movie to tell a story, but ultimately, it still came down to the fact that you know the actor had to run across the ice in his bare feet.” Actor Natar Ungalaaq’s feet wouldn’t have been liable to frostbite as they filmed the scene, but he still had to run across an ice field stark naked. This rawness is part of the film’s undeniable power.

The appeal of Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner is evident to any viewer who sees it. Wente notes that “The artistry of the movie is pretty extraordinary.” But it’s easy to overlook its emotional strength when it casts such a large shadow as a historical document and pioneering film for Indigenous cinema. 

The reason that Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner is a global sensation is ultimately simple. It is film that is both profoundly Indigenous, and utterly universal.

This article was originally published at the now-defunct Toronto Film Scene.