The creative growth of the director of the Inuit film Atanarjuat mirrored the flowering of his native territory, Nunavut, writes Michael Bravo.
Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner), the Inuit-made feature film that won the Camera d'Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year, opened to acclaim last month in London and is now on a national tour. The film's director, Zacharias Kunuk, has been praised for the freshness of his vision, proof that cinema can still offer up genuine aesthetic surprises.
Atanarjuat is the classic story of an Inuit feud. Hatred and jealousy, like knowledge and wisdom, are passed down from one generation to the next. Evil simply arrives one day and grips one of the two extended families in a small, tight-knit community. Atanarjuat and his childhood friend, Oki, inherit the feud and grow up to become adversaries. Oki is driven by bitterness and jealousy over a girl promised to him as a child who, as a young woman, falls for Atanarjuat. Oki and Atanarjuat settle their score in a traditionally brutal contest inside a large igloo, where each protagonist, facing the other, takes his turn in landing a straight-armed fist to the other's temple until one can no longer stand. But the jealousy proves insatiable, and the feud spirals out of control into murder and revenge. The logic of the feud, like that of the temple-bashing contest, requires that each family in turn avenge the murder of one of their own, until the evil has been exorcised.
The film has taken its audiences by surprise. Its directness creates a kind of vertigo that disorients viewers as they try to work out who is who and how the feud began. The lack of the usual explanatory voiceover or ethnographic perspective is a new experience. It is striking that even the most sympathetic and knowledgeable viewers come to this 172-minute epic filmed entirely in Inuktitut (the Inuit language) expecting to see a big-screen documentary or ethnographic self-portrait. This may reflect the extent to which Inuit culture has been so heavily mediated by others via anthropology and natural-history programmes and travel literature. Atanarjuat deftly bypasses all of these with its own fluid and precise aesthetic, demonstrating that Inuit culture has in its oral traditions all the narrative technique and linguistic apparatus of a Homeric epic.
But just as dramatic as the film Kunuk has made are the parallels between his development as a film-maker and the story of the political emergence of his native territory, Nunavut.
I first met Kunuk in the late 1980s as I was attempting to understand Arctic history through the eyes of Inuit today. He seemed to be trying to shed the weight of a colonial history by honing his artistic vision. He turned first to sculpture and then to film. His early dramas about Inuit life in the 1940s can be seen as a form of historical exegesis in which he makes precise observations about the movement of the human figure on the land, reconstructing and clarifying exactly how centuries-old traditions were actually lived.
It is tempting to suggest that Kunuk is the next Robert Flaherty, whose portrait of Inuit life in Nanook of the North (1922) is widely held to mark the beginning of documentary film-making. While Flaherty charted the beginning of the colonial era in northern Canada, Kunuk's film could be seen as its post-colonial resolution. But it is unclear what Kunuk thinks about post-colonialism or about whether Nunavut is post-colonial or merely devolved from the old colonial powers, possibly because he is still working his thoughts through on this.
Kunuk was one of 13 children of a family of accomplished hunters who had lived a hard, semi-nomadic life. He once told me that his family had not been strongly placed in terms of local alliances and had often spent long periods hunting on their own. Just as his parents still live at an outpost camp away from the modern settlements, Kunuk himself looks to a fluid way of life on the land, away from static settlements.
He is part of the generation, now in their 40s and 50s, who were forced off the land into settlements for government schooling in the 1960s. Colonisation was driven by Canadian nationalism, one product of which was the development of a domestic satellite communications network carrying radio and television signals. Igloolik, Kunuk's home community, seeking time to adjust to the pace of change, voted against the immediate introduction of television. Yet without the creative outlet that broadcasting afforded Inuit, it is impossible to imagine that Inuit political self-determination, devolution and the formation of the Nunavut territory in 1999 could have happened.
Kunuk emerged as one of a new generation of young Inuit film-makers in the early 1980s, producing films in the Inuit language, broadcasting Inuit content for Inuit audiences. But his ambitions outgrew the bureaucratic constraints of the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation, which was governed from Ottawa. In 1991, Kunuk broke away to set up a private company, Isuma, where he could exercise creative and executive independence - in effect self-determination.
When Kunuk says the reception of Atanarjuat is more important at home than on the world stage, he is sincere. Atanarjuat owes its existence to the community of Igloolik, where Kunuk and his long-time collaborator, the late Paul Apaq, grew up. The communal approach at the heart of Isuma's film-making mirrors the wider Inuit culture, in which individuals tend to lead by example and in which elitism, self-promotion and coercion of others are lowly regarded.
For Atanarjuat , community elders advised on how the roles should be played; the actors were all local men and women; women reconstructed period clothing; the community marked off shooting locations to exclude snowmobiles, whose tracks would have spoiled shots. None of this could have happened without collaborative work, without drawing on the same traditions that Kunuk has spent a lifetime documenting.
Kunuk's mother played a crucial role in the film's creation. One day in the early 1960s, in a sod hut, she inscribed in her son's memory the story of Atanarjuat, the naked man, the fast runner, fleeing for his life across the ice.
To paint a detailed, dramatised portrait of life as it was traditionally lived required Kunuk to reconstruct Inuit traditions in a rapidly changing political and economic environment. Isuma's entrepreneurs, anticipating the bureaucratisation that has accompanied the creation of Nunavut's government, held meetings to work out how the company should govern itself. I attended one such meeting in November 1992 at which Kunuk, Paulossie Qulitalik and Norman Cohn, three of Isuma's founding partners, were developing the company's constitution. Key questions were who would be the shareholders; how investment would be distributed throughout the community; how decision-making could reflect Inuit values of consensus-building without coercion, and how the company should prepare for the arrival of the region's self-government.
Financing start-ups is extremely difficult in Nunavut, where large distances, small populations and extreme physical conditions make marginal costs among the highest in the world. Isuma, retaining its artistic control by working independently of Hollywood financiers, attracted public and private investment. But its private-sector ethos is received with ambivalence in a region where the biggest employer is the government.
The combination of a private-sector company embracing community-based corporate values in a regulated market is rare in the production of feature films. It makes it possible for audiences in London and Cannes to see for the first time the vivid story of Atanarjuat through the eyes of the actors and their director. But no less important, Inuit audiences have a courageous lead to follow in their fight to make self-determination workable against the odds.
Michael Bravo is lecturer in geography at the Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge University.