Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner
September 22, 2002 7:15 AM   Subscribe

Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner is a spectacular Canadian film offering a rare glimpse into a rich aboriginal culture. It is written and produced by an independent Inuit film company and cast entirely with native actors from Igloolik, a settlement of about 1200 people in the Baffin region where it was filmed. Visually stunning, the story is based on local legend, with elements of stark realism, shamanism, suspense, humor and love. It's no surprise that it's raking in awards. I was spellbound. Can anyone recommend any other films by and about native cultures?
posted by madamjujujive (33 comments total)
posted by xmutex at 8:10 AM on September 22, 2002

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith
posted by matteo at 8:18 AM on September 22, 2002

I enjoyed Smoke Signals a great deal.
posted by ChrisTN at 8:31 AM on September 22, 2002

the gods must be crazy.
posted by quonsar at 9:01 AM on September 22, 2002

The New Zealand movie "Once Were Warriors" deals with the story of Maori people (original residents of NZ) dealing with inner city life in modern Auckland.

It touches on their history, but spends most time telling the story of a dysfunctional family racked by violence, alcoholism, and abuse. It's a powerful movie, but pretty painful to watch.
posted by mathowie at 9:13 AM on September 22, 2002

Atanarjuat is a film everyone should see, if only for insight into ancient traditional Inuit culture. At the same time, though, I found the movie to be disappointing - the pacing was rather clumsy, and the climax less than soaring. The run on the ice, though - oh my!
posted by Marquis at 9:14 AM on September 22, 2002

fyi, atanarjuat's running time is around 170 minutes. it seemed even longer to me.
posted by lescour at 9:14 AM on September 22, 2002

You can't forget this little gem, also centered around a native Canadian tribe steeped deep in tradition. It'll sweep you off your feet.
posted by dakotadusk at 9:28 AM on September 22, 2002

fyi, once were warriors was (is!) also a famous(ish - at least in nz) book by alan duff (and for a different take on the same general subject try bone people by keri hulme).
posted by andrew cooke at 9:54 AM on September 22, 2002

the pacing was rather clumsy, and the climax less than soaring

The pacing was certainly different, glacial (heh) at times, and it took a while (for me) to work out who was who and how they were related to each other. There was very little in the way of contextualizing, you're just thrown straight in. The experience was a bit like reading the kind of tale Atanarjuat is based on, while knowing very little about the culture that produced the myth. Disorienting, frustrating, but finally rewarding and even exhilarating.

From the website, it looks like there's an even longer cut of the film, with extra scenes of Atanarjuat's time with the old shaman and his family. On the map, click 8 and 9. This might've might the stuff about the rabbit make more sense.

Isuma, the collective that produced the film, also made Nunatinnit, a web-based documentary project based on Baffin Island.
posted by ceiriog at 9:55 AM on September 22, 2002

I recommend Rapa Nui, directed by Kevin Costner of all people. The movie's about Easter Island and an ethnic/cultural conflict that coincided with, and helped precipitate, the ecological collapse of the island.

Good stuff all around. It's got Jason Scott Lee (IIRC), Giant Heads, and surfing races. Very cool.
posted by stet at 10:17 AM on September 22, 2002

I agree, Marquis. The Fast Runner was aesthetically breathtaking, but before long I began looking at my watch face more than the screen.
posted by brittney at 10:51 AM on September 22, 2002

I just saw Bhutan's first movie, The Cup {click anywhere but on the 'home' button; the domain expired}, which is the story of a group of young Tibetan Buddhist monks in a remote Indian monastery who want to watch the World Cup final on television. The director-producer apprenticed with Bertolucci on The Last Emperor, and although this isn't in the same league by any means, it's a very well-produced film with Western-style narrative structure, in spite of being written in a near-improv (or Dogme '95) fashion, with characters and scenes chosen by a Buddhist ritual from one day to the next. Interestingly, the director himself is an important monk with multiple monasteries under his wing, and a mentor character is played by another monk important in Tibetan Buddhist culture. It's based on a real experience of the director.
posted by dhartung at 11:16 AM on September 22, 2002

Not only was Once Were Warriors a book, The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, is also adopted from a novel - by Thomas Kinneally.
posted by Marquis at 1:47 PM on September 22, 2002

Great to hear more positive reviews on Atanarjuat. I personally have wanted to see it ever since it was featured briefly on the Sundance Channel. The film seems remarkably akin, in film crew/cast "origin" and mythic inspiration, to the film Ofelas or Pathfinder as it is most commonly called.
The story is based on a 1000-year-old Sami legend and was filmed entirely in that language. Although the plot could be read on several levels, it is centrally about the (ageless) conflict between the native people and those who would oppress them. It received an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film in 1989 and was a huge favorite of my "Mythic Realm of the North" class. I heartily recommend it!
posted by nelleish at 2:36 PM on September 22, 2002

If you're in Boston and missed Atanarajuat at Kendall, MIT's Lecture series committee will be showing the movie November 9th and 10th for only $3. A ways into the future, yes, but inexpensive, in 35mm with DTS sound. In general, they show 2nd-run movies and classics every weekend and they're open to the public.
posted by whatzit at 3:50 PM on September 22, 2002

Nanook of the North was not directed by indigenous people, but by someone who was living with them. It is a wonderful documentary of the Inuit.
posted by Raichle at 3:58 PM on September 22, 2002

by Thomas Kinneally.

btw Keneally also wrote the "Schindler's List" nonfiction book adapted by Steven Zaillian and Steven Spielberg
posted by matteo at 4:10 PM on September 22, 2002

I think Nanook is a bit misleading, Raichle. I studied it in a "History of Documentary Film" class. Flaherty staged and orchestrated a lot of what appears "natural" in the film. Nanook's struggle to haul in a walrus seems a lot less heroic when you know it was already dead. The famous igloo building sequence is a bit of cheat, since Flaherty made them build it twice as big and cut half of it away to provide more light for the cameras. My favorite parts are the random occurrences of the "extra" woman. There's Nanook, and his wife, and their kids, and then occasionally you just see another woman. Who was she? Nanook's second wife. But Flaherty just glosses over that point in his quest to make the Inuit culture acceptable and heroic to mainstream Western audiences.

What I'm saying is, I think a film created within a certain culture retains the stamp of that culture, no matter what the subject matter is. I doubt that Inuit filmmakers would make a film like Nanook. I guess that raises the question of how close and "authentic" filmmakers have to be with regards to the culture in order to make a truly accurate portrayal of it. And I don't really have an answer for that.
posted by web-goddess at 5:26 PM on September 22, 2002

Can anyone recommend any other films by and about native cultures?

The Buena Vista Social Club. It made me seasick a few times from all the Steadicam circling, but it definitely captures a native culture. Which, thanks to American political policies, isn't that easy for U.S. citizens to see in person. And much of the music is excellent.
posted by LeLiLo at 8:23 PM on September 22, 2002

my big fat greek wedding! keke :)
posted by kliuless at 9:30 PM on September 22, 2002

quonsar, I really hope that your suggestion of "The Gods Must Be Crazy" is a joke, because it's an incredibly racist film.
posted by panopticon at 9:34 PM on September 22, 2002

There are some excellent comments and suggestions here. These should provide some great new viewing and reading material - thanks everyone!

kliuless: I just saw MBFGW today - great fun!

A few peope were thoughtful enough to e-mail me some additional recommendations which I share here:

Kurasowa's Dersu Uzala

Tian Zhuangzhuang's 1985 The Horse Thief

Rabbit Proof-Fence along with an article on the film

Whispering in Our Hearts
posted by madamjujujive at 10:09 PM on September 22, 2002

panopticon, the question of whether TGMBC is racist has been debated ever since its release. On the surface, the film is a critique of modern -- i.e. white -- civilization. In latter years it's become much more fashionable to deride subtextual racist divisions, such as the buffoonish portrayal of the black guerrillas or the noble savage tropes put on the bushmen. Still others feel it's damaging simply to tell a story where the product of First World capitalism (the Coke bottle) is understood to have come from "the Gods", which is almost certainly beyond Uys's intent. Is the racism deliberate? Does it merely perpetuate subtle racism, which its white South African director could not escape? And can the film be judged apart from its racism? We certainly accept films from a wide range of societies without condemning them for portraying those societies accurately -- or bringing out a voice accurately. Vincent Canby looked at these questions nearly 20 years ago. I think it's safe to say that it's a very good film that can certainly be enjoyed without concentrating on subtexts of racism that are either beside the point of the story or an inevitable outcome of its structure.
posted by dhartung at 10:29 PM on September 22, 2002

"The Gods Must Be Crazy" is a fascinating look at the primitive society of the filmmakers.
posted by kindall at 10:40 PM on September 22, 2002

Robert Duvall produced and directed Angelo, My Love but the story line and acting was created daily by a family of New York Roma. When I first saw it the theater was packed with local Gypsies who loved it. You could easily tell who they were because there was one guy who would read out the Romani subtitled translations for everybody a second after everybody had already laughed at a line. (American Roma are not big on literacy...)
posted by zaelic at 3:10 AM on September 23, 2002

Latcho Drom, a documentary of Roma (gypsy) music around the word. No narration, just amazing musical/dance performances from India to Spain. Great soundtrack, too.
posted by gottabefunky at 6:52 AM on September 23, 2002

Walkabout, without giving too much away, is about a clash of cultures when a couple of Australian children find themselves lost in the Outback and become companions to an aboriginal adolescent -- their only hope for survival. This striking and beautiful 1971 film, directed by Nicholas Roeg, was acclaimed in its time but fell into obscurity until recently when re-released on video in a director's cut with restored nude scenes that were controversial. Here's a list of reviews from Movie Review Query Engine.
posted by skimble at 7:25 AM on September 23, 2002

dhartung, TGMC is problematic because it perpetuates the myth of the noble savage. I have a big problem with the film because the tone of the early scenes with the Bushmen proposes that it's an anthropological film - it's not. It's even more problematic when I heard about the film being used for kindergarten classes to teach about "Africa". Children are very impressionable.
posted by panopticon at 7:27 AM on September 23, 2002

panopticon, some people are able to perceive that pseudo-documentary style as satire.

And while I don't really want to derail this thread, I must simply say that "the noble savage" is not so much a myth, as a point of view, and shows up in all sorts of unlikely places.

Overnight, by the way, I thought of an ethnographic type of film: Friday. I watched this with black friends who were rolling in the aisles even as I struggled to realize that certain things were, in fact, very subtle jokes. Oh, I got a lot of the broader stuff, of course, but there was much that was simply inaccessible to me, a well-meaning, open-minded boy from white-bread Wisconsin. I plan to see Barbershop with much the same expectation (and no coaches this time).

Or am I a racist for saying that?
posted by dhartung at 10:27 AM on September 23, 2002

Being native american myself (Mi'kmaq First Nation) I think I can provide a somewhat different viewpoint of this discussion. I've listed a selection of films and documentaries that contain either a sizable amount of First Nations or aboriginal content, or smaller sections that are of significant interest. Hope this proves to be of interest to those following this thread...

Acts of Defiance (1992) A film account of events preceding and during the summer of 1990 with particular reference to the so-called "Mohawk Crisis." Focuses on the Mohawk territory of Kahnawake but also reflects on Canada at a particular time in its history.

Black Robe (1991) In the 17th century a Jesuit priest and a young companion are escorted through the wilderness of Quebec by Algonquin Indians to find a distant mission in the dead of winter. The Jesuit experiences a spiritual journey while his young companion falls in love with the Algonquin chief's beautiful daughter.

Canada: A People's History (2000, mini-series) Through dramatizations and detailed documentation, we see the development of Canada from the Native American nations to contemporary times as we explore what made this country what it is.

Centennial(1978, mini-series) Story of the evolution of the town Centennial, Colorado. It follows the paths of dozens of people who come to the area for many reasons: money, freedom, or crime. It also shows the bigoted treatment of the Native Indians by the advancing US colonists.

Children of the Eagle (1990) This documentary addresses the healing of three sexually abused aboriginal children. The eagle, representing bravery, leadership and wisdom, symbolizes the qualities needed by the community to deal with children in crisis.

Dances With Wolves (1990) Exiled to a remote western Civil War outpost, a soldier befriends wolves and Indians, making him an intolerable aberration in the military.

First Nations, The Circle Unbroken Series (1998, 23 documentary series) The finest series of videos on First Nations perspectives ever produced in Canada. Perspectives on a wide range of topics including dams in Québec, low-flying bombers in Labrador, alternative justice on the west coast, artists on the east coast, epidemics, education, cultural genocide, the environment, racism, spirituality, Aboriginal title to the land, and self-government. Also cultural resurgence, including the revival of canoe-building, the traditon of salmon-fishing on the West coast, the role of culture in the education of children, the use of oral history in court cases, and the drama of a young mother defending her child against racism.

Forgotten Warriors (1997) Although they could not be conscripted, when World War II was declared, thousands of Canadian Aboriginal men and women enlisted and fought alongside their non-Native countrymen.While they fought for freedom for others, ironically the Aboriginal soldiers were not allowed equality in their own country. As a reward for fighting, the Canadian Soldier Veteran's Settlement Act allowed returning soldiers to buy land at a cheap price. However, many of the Aboriginal soldiers were never offered nor told about the land entitlement. Some returned home to find the government had seized parts of their own reserve land to compensate non-Native war veterans. Whole First Nations communities still mourn the loss of the thousands of acres of prime land they were forced to surrender.

Incident at Restigouche (1984) On June 11 and 20, 1981, the Québec Provincial Police (QPP) raided Restigouche Reserve, Québec. At issue were the salmon-fishing rights of the Micmac people.Because salmon has traditionally been a source of food and income for the Micmacs, the Québec government's decision to restrict fishing aroused consternation and anger among the Indians. This film provides a historical perspective on the issue, and documents, with newsclips, photographs and interviews, the two police raids. An interview with former Québec Minister of Fisheries Lucien Lessard explaining the motives of his decision complements the Micmacs' account of the event. This investigation into the history-making raids is a powerful film that puts justice on trial.

Kanehsatake 270 Years of Resistance (1993) On a hot July day in 1990, an historic confrontation propelled Native issues in Kanehsatake and the village of Oka, Québec, into the international spotlight and into the Canadian conscience -- 78 nerve-wracking days and nights of armed stand-off between the Mohawks, the Québec police and the Canadian army. A powerful feature-documentary emerges that takes you right into the action of an age-old aboriginal struggle. The result is a portrait of the people behind the barricades, providing insight into the Mohawks' unyelding determination to protect their land.

Little Big Man (1970) Jack Crabb (portrayed by a young Dustin Hoffman), looking back from extreme old age, tells of his life being raised by Indians and fighting with General Custer. Notable for it's multidimensional portrayal of the natives and their view of life and "human beings". Canadian actor Chief Dan George shows the true origin of the quote: "It is a good day to die!"

Last of the Mohicans (1992) Tale of the 18th century frontier and the virtue and tragedy that results when the uniquely different cultures of the French, English, Native Americans, and colonists collide, based on the book by James Fenimore Cooper.

Medicine Man (1992) An eccentric scientist, portrayed by Sean Connery, working for a large drug company is working on a research project in the Amazon jungle, believes he's close to a cure for cancer. The film is tolerable, but does showan interesting view of the suffering of the local natives and their environment caused by the greed of the large corporations.

Mi'kmaq Family - Migmaoei Otjiosog (1995) Mi'kmaq filmmaker and mother, Catherine Anne Martin takes a reflective journey into the extended family of Nova Scotian Mi'kmaq society. Members of her community share their stories about the recovery of First Nations values, particularly through the teachings of elders. The wisdom of experiene and the collective responsibilities of the Mi'kmaq community play a major role in the way their children are raised. An enlightening and inspiring resource for both First Nations and non-First Nations audiences who are looking for ways to strenghten and explore their own families and traditions.

500 Nations (1995, 8 part documentary) Explores the history of the indigenous peoples of North and Central America, from pre-Colombian times, through the period of European contact and colonization, to the end of the 19th century and the subjugation of the Plains Indians of North America. 500 Nations relies on historical texts, eyewitnesses accounts, pictorial sources and computer graphic reconstructions to explore the magnificent civilizations which flourished prior to contact with Western civilization, and to tell the dramatic and tragic story of the Native American nations' desperate attempts to retain their way of life against overwhelming odds.

posted by Jade Dragon at 11:40 AM on September 23, 2002

Very cool, Jade Dragon - I have only seen a few of these films and will look forward to seeing others. Thanks for taking the time to share these - that was very thoughtful of you.

Luriete, I am with you - Atanarjuat seemed to fly by for me. I will probably see it again. I agreed with ceiriog's comments too about being thrown in with little context, and it taking a few minutes to be able to orient to the plot and the pace.

Panopticon, I am pretty much in agreement with dhartung about "Gods," tho I certainly wouldn't see it as being an appropriate film to use with school kids to teach them about Africa - nix, nix! Maybe I am misremembering, but the whites came across as the buffoons and the bushmen with all the dignity. True, there was a bit of the "noble savage" tinge to it, but I didn't perceive it in a malicious or damaging way. Reasonable people may disagree on that. However, I don't think it rises to the level or quality of most of the films being discussed here (tho there are many I haven't seen) if only from the perspective that it didn't come from a native viewpoint.
posted by madamjujujive at 1:03 PM on September 23, 2002

Two aboriginal films spring to mind-- both about nomadic people of Asia.

The youngXiu Xiu, The Sent Down Girl is about a teenager sent to a remote corner of the Sichuan steppes for manual labor in 1975 (sending young people away to the country was a part of Cultural Revolution). Later, she is sent to an even more remote spot with a much older Tibetan man to learn horse herding. Beautiful scenery, heartbreaking story.

The other film, Genghis Blues is a documentary about a blind, bluesman from San Francisco who has taught himself to throat sing and journeys to the tiny republic of Tuva in central Asia to a throat singing festival. An amazing journey followed by astonishing musical performances by the nomadic people of Tuva who can sing more than one note simultaneously, using vocal harmonics.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:25 PM on September 23, 2002

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