Friday, April 18, 2014

In Defense of Boring Movies - Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner

Part of a series of essays In Defense of Boring Movies.

I got my life, 
And it's my only one,
I got the night, 
I'm running from the sun,
So good night! 
I made it out the door—
After tonight,
There will be no return,
After tonight,
I'm taking off on the road.
—"See You In My Nightmares," Kanye West (feat. Lil Wayne)

The story behind Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner is unlike that of any movie I've ever seen, so that's where I'll start: it's the first feature-length movie ever written and performed in the Inuktitut language.* Its entire cast and most of its crew were of Inuit descent, and that level of representation of native North American peoples is an extreme rarity in the history of cinema (though not completely without precedent). The film is an interpretation of an ancient Inuit legend; to flesh out and ensure the accuracy of their story, the creators (all but one of whom were Inuit themselves) interviewed eight tribal elders over the course of several years to get different versions of the tale, and edited them together. It depicts with exacting detail a society and way of life practiced centuries ago by the ancestors of its creators. It is, in a word, extraordinary.

For all that, it is also a boring film, though as always in this series, I use that term in a positive sense. A "boring" movie, in my personal parlance, is one that challenges the audience, forcing the viewer to do expend substantial quantities of mental energy in order to get meaning or enrichment from the film.


Unlike the some earlier entries in the IDoBM series, Atanarjuat is not boring because it leaves aside plot for extended periods of meditation on nature, poetry, or philosophy, but simply because its world is so alienating and confusing for most western audiences. The film does very little in the way of hand-holding for newcomers to its cultural norms, social bonds, and personal and place names. It opens with a mysterious social (and apparently magical) ritual, the consequences of which reverberate throughout the film, but what exactly is happening is never spelled out directly for the viewer, and we are left to puzzle it out over the course of the film's three-hour run time.

As always with movies in this series, though, putting in the energy yields rich rewards. In this case, the reward is the opportunity to immerse oneself in and examine a fascinating culture. The basic elements of this scene, for example, are timeless (woman displays interest in man, woman's brother shoves man because he doesn't like him), but they are played out against a unique background, the construction of an igloo using ancient tools and methods, by people dressed in the manner of their ancestors:

The plot is both simple in its basic outlines and fiendishly complex in the network of kinship ties, motivations, and protocols that it traces. It involves family conflicts stretching over several generations, as well as ghosts, reincarnation, and evil shamans, but the center of it all is a timeless story of a clash between two men—the naive but good-hearted Atanarjuat, and the jaded and calculating Oki—over the affections of a woman, Atuat. Oki has been betrothed to Atuat from childhood, but she and Atanarjuat love each other. Naturally, a ritual fighting game ensues, complete with meddling ancestor spirits:

Unfortunately, this is not enough to resolve things between Oki and Atanarjuat for long. The plot eventually achieves a Shakespearean level of social drama, replete with nefarious plotting, illicit affairs, rape, murder, revenge, and an extended chase scene featuring a naked man fleeing over a vast field of ice (that happens in The Winter's Tale too, right?) It is, to put it mildly, probably not a movie to watch with your parents.

Viewers willing to put in the mental energy required to sort through the complex network of characters, motivations, and alien cultural elements are likely to find themselves deeply engrossed in the world of the film.

The filming style, done with handheld digital cameras, lends a sort of real, on-the-ground feel to the movie, with the result that the viewer may forget that what they're seeing is a re-imagining and a re-enactment of a events a thousand years in the past. As Roger Ebert put it in his review, "There is a way in which the intimacy of the production and the 172-minute running time lull us into accepting the film as a documentary of real life. The actors, many of them professional Inuit performers, are without affect or guile: They seem sincere, honest, revealing, as real people might, and although the story involves elements of melodrama and even soap opera, the production seems as real as a frozen fish." This makes watching the credits at the end, in which we see the modern, up-to-date reality of the people on and off camera, both jarring and fascinating in itself.

Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner and its sequels can be downloaded for free (or a donation, which I encourage!) here. A streamable version is embedded below:

*This makes it the third movie in this series that employs the indigenous languages of the Americas, the others being The New World and Dead Man. This was not intentional, but I'm still very pleased by it. Also, all of the movies in the series so far include non-English long as you're willing to count the screeching of the Skeksis in The Dark Crystal "Directior's Cut" as language, which it's intended to be, whether or not it really is. Stalker is, of course, entirely in Russian.

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