Film of the Week: Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner

In his essay “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” Andre Bazin compares the act of filming to the Egyptian custom of preserving the dead. Bazin writes, “If the plastic arts were put under psychoanalysis, the practice of embalming the dead might turn out to be a fundamental factor in their creation. The process might reveal that at the origin of painting and sculpture there lies a mummy complex…Seen in this sociological perspective photography and cinema would provide a natural explanation for the great spiritual and technical crisis that overtook modern painting around the middle of the last century. Andre Malraux has described the cinema as the furthermost evolution to date of plastic realism…(1, 3).” Bazin is arguing–and I’m in agreement with him–that like mummification, film is a form of preservation. What makes film unique, however, is that unlike photography or painting, film is able to preserve a moving image. I’d like to take the idea of film functioning as a process of preservation and apply it to the idea of preserving ancient tales, legends, and stories

Going back to Bazin’s quote of Malraux, films can be seen as the next step in preserving stories after first, the oral tradition, and then, print, although it should be noted that films haven’t completely replaced print; memoirs, biographies, and the like are still made. The importance of film then lies in its capability to preserve and present stories in ways that can only be accomplished through cinema, i.e., presentation of the moving image, camera angles, etc.

The specific act of preserving stories in this manner can be seen in Zacharias Kunuk’s Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, a film that is itself a retelling of an Inuit legend.

The story takes place in Igloolik and is essentially about an ancient curse which stirs evil in the hearts of the villagers. That in itself is a gross simplification of the plot, yet at three hours long, I believe it’s the best way to describe the film to someone who knows nothing about it.

Fast Runner is a fantasy, drama, romance, and at times, comedy and action film. Most importantly, however, is Fast Runner’s roots in the poetic-realist style of cinema-verite.

Take for example the opening scene which depicts a duel between two shamans. The setting is the inside of a tent, the two shamans stand in the center, and the rest of the villagers sit in a circle watching the battle. Kunuk’s camera moves throughout the frame with ambivalence and low and high angles seem to be the preference here.

The effect created here is that through the mobility and placement of Kunuk’s camera, the audience is seemingly made a spectator in the film. The act of spectating, however, is a secretive one, because the angles Kunuk uses gives the impression that he is filming in secret recalling Vertov’s later experimental documentaries.

Although Vertov himself might be jealous of Kunuk’s access to modern technology. To clarify, The Fast Runner is shot with an HD camera; the depiction of ancient rites, clothing, and homes is made anachronistic through the quality of the camera. We are at once made to realize we’re watching a film although I don’t see it as a negative. Rather, it may be that Kunuk is aware that the creation of the fast runner itself is an act of preservation and that by filming it in HD, he is calling direct attention to the ancient tale’s modern existence. In essence, the modernity of cinema becomes a way of not only keeping tradition alive but also a new way of telling stories.

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