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By and for the Whole Inuit Village

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.”

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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.”

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.”

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Lewis Beale is a freelance writer based in New York.


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