At first blush, it's the perfect movie for the modern coffee sipping art house crowd. The film has no stars, it comes at your conversing in an obscure foreign language, and tells a ethnic folk tale, one rooted in a threatened culture's intricate mythology. It's called The Fast Runner (originally Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner), and apparently it is the first film made in the Inuit language.
The art house set seems to have made The Fast Runner a modest hit (about four
million dollars and counting). It quickly became one of those movies that dwell
forever at a single local theater, its title announcing itself reprovingly on
the marquee for months on end to those still unconvinced. It’s a film that the
modern art house set can take to its tremblingly rebellious Patagonia-garbed
chest, since it is in the general anti-Hollywood spirit of previous favorites
such as The Secret of Roan Inish and
the films of Abbas
This wrinkly, gray-haired set consists of
those gently laughing people you see in the lobby of the local art museum when
it mounts a festival of films from Burkina Faso. These are the people who only go to their town's museum films.
They hate Hollywood movies, usually don't watch television, and only hear about
new films from their friends and the New
York Times Arts and Leisure section. In many ways they have noble goals,
such as a combined resistant to presidential war mongering, but their taste in
movies tends to be middlebrow, with an emphasis on "moving tales" of
That fits The Fast Runner to a T. The film, directed by Zacharias Kunuk from a screenplay credited to Paul Apak Angilirq, tells the story of two brothers and the destiny of their tribe. Amaqjuaq (Pakkak Innukshuk) is the "Strong One," and Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq) is "the Fast Runner." They are the good guys. The bad guy is Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq), whose father also happens to be the leader of the tribe, which gives him the Inuit version of a higher station in life.
Oki is supposed to mate with Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu) in an arranged marriage, but she and Atanarjuat are in love. Atanarjuat challenges Oki to a duel, which consists of each one methodially belting the other until the last one standing wins. Atanarjuat wins, but ends up with both Atuat and a second wife, Puja (Lucy Tulugarjuk), a spoiled troublemaking brat who is the Heather Locklear of this Melrose Ice. Oral tradition plot machinations guide Atanarjuat to a flight for his life, naked, across the undistinguishable tundra. The rest of this long movie (161 minutes) chronicles how Atanarjuat rounds on his enemies and reunifies his tribe.
One of the unusual things about The Fast Runner is that the film was shot entirely on digital video in what appears to be natural lighting. It is one of a handful of feature films (200 Motels, Tadpole, Roger Dodger, Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones) using that highly touted high definition format. It's drawback is that, currently anyway, the video has to be transferred to that soon-to-be-archaic substance "film" in order to be projected in theaters, usually with a softening or a "videoizing" of the image. When formerly conventional movie theaters come to have digital projectors then viewers will be able to see the real, unmediated image with all of its attendant, new problems.
They show up on the new DVD of The Fast Runner (Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment, ISBN 1 4049 2303 9). The scenes in normal daylight are super sharp, but interiors can be grainy, and when the snow in the background of certain exteriors is "too white," than the image loses its bearings. (The disc, by the way, comes in Dolby Digital 5.1 in a digitally mastered widescreen – 1.85:1– transfer with supplements consisting solely of trailers for Lagaan, Lawrence of Arabia, and Limbo).
That being said, the larger issue is what kind of entertainment is The Fast Runner? To one viewer at least it is boring non-entertainment. The narrative is padded out to ungodly lengths, and there is nothing particularly unique about the story itself (a recent film from Tibet told virtually the same tale). It's not a film that entertains or enlightens. Rather it's a film that flatters the audience's taste and smugness. It's even kind of a bore to review a movie by reviewing its audience, but for all its length, The Fast Runner ends up lame, and drives the viewer to contemplate the world around him – wrinklies and their taste in movies – rather than the ostensive subject of the film.
This essay originally appeared in Black Lamb in 2003.