<i>Atanarjuat</i> &#150; The Runner

Hugh Brody
13 February 2002

Atanarjuat running

The sea ice is vast, still, open… A few dogs and one man are a vulnerable thread of life in this immense and harsh-looking world. Three other men appear, clothed in thick furs, small figures miraculously alive in a huge, cold landscape.

Inside a snow house, human beings are warm. A family, busy, playful, loving to their children. An elder sings. Outside, a man ices the runners of a sledge. Possessions are loaded. A couple set off across the ice.

Humanity and environment – and the essences of both. The heat of the personal; the harshness of nature.

The opening images of Atanarjuat launch these themes and are, by themselves, mythic. Or so they appear to the majority of the many, many people from southern climates who are going to be seeing this film. For Inuit who watch these first pieces of the story, the human will not seem precarious; to them, the small figures on a vast panorama of sea ice, and the little family in their house made of snow blocks, and the couple alone on their sledge, will not evoke an elemental struggle for life.

Inuit watching Atanarjuat will not see a symbolic reality. They will see, rather, the enactment of an old story, a myth that has been passed down from generation to generation. Some of them – including the film’s director Zacharias Kunuk – will have heard this story, or some version of it, as they lay in snowhouses or tents or houses built of sod and whalebone, with the glow of an oil lamp or candle the only light. Elders have told the story over and over to their children and grandchildren.

And these elders are experts at story-telling, for their lives as hunters depend on the detail of stories. They know just the right word, use the perfect bit of hesitation, the exact imitation of the sound of a bird, or of the wind. They gesture in the shadows to evoke the movement of a seal or the thrust of a harpoon. They tell the story in their own way, to best effect. So that those who hear can do the same in their turn.

Inuit woman
(click for bigger image)

Knowing the world

Great oral traditions produce great stories. Great story-tellers keep these stories alive, make them real. And into the heart of such stories – the ones that survive through generations – are worked the steps each of its tellers will follow. The details, the riches of the narration, vary. But a central drama, a set of themes, becomes fixed – fixed, because these are themes at the heart of being human. So the story becomes mythic, and the footsteps become the trail leading to and from the wonders and mysteries of the world.

These trails – the narratives of the myth – also lead to the things that are most frightening; and, because they are the trail in a story, can terrify while also offering the route home, to safety. Myths that come from great oral traditions are playful as well as powerful, comic as well as terrifying. They are best told and best heard in the dark, and take us into the darkness while we lie safe, in bed, close to the story-teller. We are filled with fear; we know we are safe.

Great myths and cinema are allies. In the dark of the cinema we take the risk of being transported and allow ourselves to be terrified; but we are safe. The film, after all is not real. Films and myths are also both like dreams, in which the familiar is changed just that bit, and the world is made frightening because it is both familiar and unfamiliar. Films, with their light appearing in the dark and their stories free to cut back and forth in space and time, with no logic, no constraints other than those of the story maker.

When a film-maker comes from a great oral culture, and has known it first hand, then there is the possibility of something being made that is transcendent – something that combines the power of myth and film in a way that is rarely achieved.

Zacharias Kunuk and his team have made a film that has astonishing mythic and cinematic power. A great myth and great film-making. Kunuk grew up in hunting camps in the Igloolik area, a region famous for the strength of Inuit culture. The screenplay was written by Paul Apak, who was renowned in the Arctic for his epic journeys by dog team and walrus-skin boats.

Kunuk and Apak could both draw on their own experience of hunting camps and family life in order to reconstruct the time they chose to set the myth. Kunuk and Apak also worked for many years as technicians and film-makers at the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation, based in Ottawa. There they worked as editors, sound recordists, camera-men, producers – everything that it took to build up the first Inuit film and television-making centre.

So Atanarjuat is a film made by two men who know the insides of both the story and the means they have chosen for telling it. The actors they work with are all Inuit whom Kunuk knows well; some of them he had worked with on other films, others were doing their first parts. They are not playing themselves; this is never documentary in process or quality. But they know their characters – just as they know the appropriate costumes, hair styles, hunting equipment, dog team harnesses – in the most direct and complete way possible.

Rarely can a film have been made with such depth of expertise. The camera work of Norm Cohn, who is not from the Arctic but who has built strong connections with the landscapes and people of Igloolik and Kunuk’s imagination, is intimate and informal: he is not afraid to hand-hold as he moves towards a scene, and he takes delight in tight close-up: the intensity of the story and the reality of the performances are made all the more compelling. No wonder that Atanarjuat is a masterpiece. No wonder, either, that it receives accolades and awards wherever it is shown.

The layers of myth: Inuit life, Canadian treasure

The story itself, like the story of all great myths, is both very simple and very complex. Evil comes into the lives of a family. People who depend on collaborating with one another become enemies. The source of this enmity is shamanic: a mysterious stranger – a spirit force of some kind? – visits and bewitches the lives of two families.

The drama of the enmity is love: two young men, Atanarjuat and his cousin Oki, do battle over a the beautiful Atuat. Atanarjuat prevails. Oki is possessed by demonic rage, and by murderous anger against those who have denied him the woman to whom he was pledged. Encouraged by his father, Oki attempts to murder Atanarjuat and his brother.

Atanarjuat escapes, helped by his own extraordinary strength and by advice from the supernatural. He is able to return to the camp where Oki, Atuat and others of the family are living. With great humour, skill and cunning he lays a trap for Oki. But Oki is transformed, not by Atanarjuat’s plans, but by another moment of magic.

Good against evil; the supernatural played out in a story about love, murder, family breakdown, and reconciliation. Themes of many myths. Yet this is unlike any other that has ever reached the cinema because it is an Inuit film made by Inuit and in Inuktitut, the language of the Canadian eastern Arctic. This has obvious consequences for the surfaces of the film – what it looks like and how it sounds. But it also bears on the essence of the story.

This is a world where each newborn child is given the ‘name’ of a loved relative who has recently died. This grandfather or grandmother then is the child; and the child is its own grandparent. So the wisdom of the oldest generation passes to the newest.

This is also a society where men and women openly recognise their dependence on one another. A hunter without a wife is unable to hunt; just as a woman without a husband is unlikely to be able to feed her children. And this is a society where skill and knowledge are the only markers of hierarchy: no one accumulates wealth at the expense of others; no on is born or even elected to have power over others.

Moreover, this is a world in which the boundaries between the human and the non-human are porous. At any moment, the supernatural can slip into everyday life, and everyday life can feel the influence of the supernatural. The task of the shamans – who play key roles in the Atanarjuat narrative – is be able make journeys through these boundaries, journeying back and forth between the human and the supernatural, bringing special knowledge, and using it for better or for ill.

The power and originality of Atanarjuat come from the way epic and mythic themes play out in the Inuit world and the Inuit language. It is in this way that the story is complex. The opportunity for such an important piece of work begins, of course, with the existence of this complexity.

Inuit culture and heritage, its myths and story-telling as well as its skills and knowledge, are distinctive. The Inuit in Canada have managed to maintain their rights to their way of life, and to lands on which it has long depended, despite the advances of many kinds of colonial frontier. The history of Canada is the history of many such peoples and many such struggles to survive alongside, or within, the advance of agricultural and urban settlers.

In every part of Canada there are peoples who have myths as compelling as Atanarjuat. And everywhere there are young men and women who have grown up in distinctive indigenous societies. Some have been destroyed by aggressive settlement. Others, especially at the geographical margins of the country, in the boreal forests and along the coastlines as well as throughout the High Arctic, still tell their own stories in their own languages.

For these peoples, Canada is both a threat and an opportunity: a colonial power in relation to its aboriginal inhabitants, but a liberal democracy with a relatively strong commitment to a land claims process of some kind.

The indigenous peoples of Canada are not just a national problem, however. They are also an important national resource. Their societies are what gives to Canada its long history and social complexity. The stories and languages of aboriginal Canada are an astonishing treasure house of knowledge, wisdom and stories. So Canada – especially its film-funding institutions, which are branches of government – can look to its treasures as a vital part of its national culture and future achievements. If they look over their shoulders, as it were, they can see in the strength of aboriginal culture the material for many potential Atanarjuats.

And they can rely on the skills of their technicians, who take the raw material of such wealth and make it into another kind of resource, with another set of values. Atanarjuat won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, has received a string of awards at festivals around the world, and with five awards has been hailed by the press as ‘the big winner’ at the Genies (Canada’s version of the Academy Awards). And there are the ‘real’ Academy Awards to come. Canadians can take deep satisfaction that the deepest riches of its territory are bringing due fame and fortune.

A labyrinth of plenitude

The week before the Genies, and more than a year after Atanarjuat’s triumph at Cannes, the government of Nunavut (the Inuit jurisdiction set up two years ago as a final settlement of Inuit land claims in Canada) announced a new proposed language policy for the Eastern Arctic. Anxious about the future of Inuktitut in its new territory, Nunavut’s language commission came down with a set of recommendations, in the form of a draft Inuktitut Protection Act.

This Act is designed to give Inuktitut parity, with English and French, as an official language in the Eastern Arctic. The proposals are carefully stated and avoid any linguistic radicalism: there is no suggestion that English, or even French, be demoted. There is no plan to stem the rise of English or ensure that Inuit children learn only in Inuktitut, though it does provide protection for monolingual Inuktitut speakers in the employment market. In reality, this is a series of measures that aims to put in place the fullest possible bilingualism, or, for Francophones, multi-lingualism.

In the view of Nunavut’s Language Commissioner, Eva Aariak, culture and language in Nunavut are inseparable; the stories and knowledge of the Inuit live in their only full form in Inuktitut. Part of the Nunavut dream is to have an Inuit jurisdiction in which Inuktitut is spoken by just about everyone and at just about all levels of society – from the hunting camp to government offices.

This is not a pipe-dream: Inuktitut is spoken by virtually all Inuit in Nunavut; and many younger men and women, including Inuit now holding high government office, are fully bilingual. The job on hand, for the government, is to make sure as best it can that this bilingualism prospers.

Given the compelling attractions of English, in northern Canada as much as the rest of the world, the urgent need is to give as much status to Inuktitut as possible, be it in symbolic form (for example, public signposts or government leaflets); or as language rights for all the population (including the right to run a business or have a trial and judgement in any of three, not two, official languages). A Nunavut government that did not embark on language protection of this kind would be failing in its duty and ignoring its mandate.

A response to this proposal came as a think piece in one of Canada’s most important newspapers. The Toronto daily, the National Post, ran a virulent attack on Nunavut’s proposed measures for protection of its language.

Stating that “the government of Nunavut functions because taxpayers in the rest of the country pay its bills” to the tune of over ninety per cent. The piece insists that: “This level of generosity should engender some respect for Canadian institutions among Nunavut’s officials and politicians”. The paper then complains that the new proposals will now be subject to four months of public scrutiny – apparently, such ingratitude must be rejected outright rather than after due debate. The comparison is made with Quebec’s aggressive language policies, and reference is made to the way its government “holds the rest of the country in contempt”.

The article plays on the highest pitched strings in the orchestra of Canadian anglophonia. It is a shriek of anger, aimed at the government and heritage of Nunavut. This is the noise that has always whined a little in the Canadian air, and was once the theme tune of its policy on indigenous rights and languages. The residential schools, with their abusive assault on all aboriginal languages that came their way, are the shameful representatives of this old, and we had hoped forgotten, attitude to indigenous languages.

It is to be hoped that a shriek of this kind in one Toronto newspaper will be judged for what it is – the atavism of English Canadian politics posing as business sense; the cry from and on behalf of people who perhaps struggle to achieve a smattering of anglophonic French.

The article ends with a final couple of thumps on a drum: “… in Nunavut, it is not just a case of the seal biting the hand that feeds it. If Nunavut’s government officials wish to turn their territory into a living museum filled with Arctic natives quaintly speaking their old language, then Ms. Aariak’s proposals are just the ticket. But if the territory hopes to become even modestly self-sufficient or prosperous, it should leave the language issue alone.”

Without its indigenous populations and their languages, Canada is a diminished country. Atanarjuat reveals just how much could be lost. Canada, and the rest of us, owe a great vote of thanks to all who made Atanarjuat happen – from the Inuit of Igloolik to the officials in Canadian film-funding agencies. They are showing just what wealth lies in that country, inscribed as it is in dozens of “old languages” being “quaintly” spoken. Let us hope that the genius of Atanarjuat can halt an urge to monocultural self-destruction set out in at least one noisy little article in the Canadian press.

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