Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. Review by Tony Lee

Posted by in Aboriginal Stories, Film, Inuit, Place based, Secondary

The resource I have chosen to include in our Common Bowl is a film called Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. It is a Canadian film that was directed in 2001 by the Inuk filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk. Kunuk was born in Kapuivik on Baffin Island and attended school in Igloolik. Produced by Kunuk’s production company Isuma Igloolik Productions, Atanarjuat is Canada’s first feature-length fiction film entirely written, produced, directed, and acted by Inuit in Inuktitut. Set in Igloolik in the Eastern Arctic at the dawn of the first millennium, the film retells an Inuit story passed down through centuries of oral tradition. I chose this film as an important resource because it provides an authentic and authoritative viewpoint on the importance of storytelling as a way to transmit culture and traditional knowledge. More importantly, it does so in a way that honours this tradition in a complex way while maintaining applicability in a contemporary context. The film has been made accessible to everyone free of charge by Kunuk. It can be streamed online from his production company’s website at:

Storytelling as a focal point of intergenerational learning is a key tenet of Indigenous knowledges. Holding 4000 years of oral history (and now archeological evidence) of continuous habitation, the community of Igloolik, relied entirely on the custom of their strong oral traditions. Sstorytelling was used as a means to not only entertain one another, but to disseminate their culture and teachings. The story of Atanarjuat reveals a lesson that is timeless and fluid for today’s contemporary audience, be it people of Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal origin. In essence, evil is ripe to occur when individuals place their own selfish needs and desires before the needs of the collective community. Furthermore, the film poignantly reveals that people are held accountable to their actions and that punishment is meted out by the elders of the community. Tracing the genealogy of the story of Atanarjuat, the film’s namesake and his brother, Amaqjuaq, first appeared in the journals of British explorer George Lyon around the beginning of the 19th century. The Inuit believe the story of Atanarjuat to be more than five centuries old. Kunuk, along with Inuk writer Paul Apak Angilirq and others on the production team, had all heard the story of Atanarjuat when they were young from their elders. Over the course of five years, Angilirq interviewed eight elders for their versions of the story and combined them to write the script of Atanarjuat. There is a real sense that the filmmakers created this film in order to honour the manner in which Inuit communities have been able to survive and thrive for thousands of years. Furthermore, I believe the filmmakers have set out on a quest to storytell through the entirely new medium of film so as to ensure and promote the survival of Inuit communities and Inuit knowledges about place and people well into the future.

The film poses a number of benefits in its usability. Depicting Inuit storytelling not as a mythical relic of the past or as a cultural stereotype, Atanarjuat benefits greatly from being told as an Inuit narrative from the perspective of Inuk filmmakers. While putting the film together, historical accuracy was of paramount importance to the filmmakers, including bringing back to life the beliefs and practices of shamanism. The film itself is a retelling of a story that has been passed down for generations and refrains from depicting the Inuit as savages steeped in a barbarism far-removed from the current ‘civilization’ we live in. Instead, viewers will come to appreciate the ability of the film to tell a story in and of itself and how that story is bursting with themes, messages, and lessons for our time.

While the benefits of using this resource are many, there are a couple of challenges that one might encounter. As commented on by some users, the streaming of the film may prove to be too slow for some users who will experience lag. Another issue is that while attempting to watch the film in “Low SD” (Standard Definition), there was a delay between the sound and the video, which can serve to distort one’s enjoyment of the film. However, this issue was not noticeable when attempting to stream the film at “High SD” or “720p HD”. As the film is completely in Inuktituk, English captions are included in the film. This can be problematic especially since the English translations are merely the translations of the writers and their true meanings may not be conveyed with the same effect as if one were listening directly to an Inuk elder speaking.

In my own teaching practice, I would certainly be able to use this source in the classroom. The film does contain violence and sexual content so certain scenes would need to be excluded from showing a high school audience (or discussed with them in advance). After watching the film, it would certainly be plausible to develop activities for the students that revolve around the concept of intergenerational learning. Not only asking them to recall where this is prevalent in the movie, but asking them to reflect on how they live through intergenerational learning. With the diversity that makes up today’s student population, different people will most certainly exhibit different ways of passing on knowledge, traditions and culture. As an equally fun and challenging activity, students could perhaps, in the spirit of Zacharias Kunuk, create their own short film, depicting a teaching or lesson that is important in their culture. This would then be preserved in the medium of film for future generations to witness, appreciate, and pass on potentially through the same medium or perhaps a medium that speaks to their own time.

By Tony Lee