Our film this week was Atanarjuat, a film written and shot entirely in the Inuit language of Inuktitut, and directed by Zacharias Kunuk. It was based on an ancient Inuit legend about Atanarjuat, also known as “the fast runner” – I don’t know if this is a literal translation of the name, but if so it only adds to the legendary quality of the story since he has the (appropriate, as you will see) name as a baby.
The film opens quite confusingly, which may not be particularly surprising given the completely alien nature of the setting and the people of the film. We see the parting of a brother and sister, as the brother heads off in a depature that appears to be exile, and we see the mysterious death of the tribe’s leader, after which his son Sauri is given the walrus-tooth necklace of leadership (Atanarjuat’s father is passed up) amidst accusations that the son and his ambition played a role in the father’s death. It is stated that an evil had entered the people.
Later, we find Atanarjuat and his elder brother Amaqjuat (“the strong one”) fully grown members of the community, but always pestered by a gang led by Oki, the tribal leader Sauri’s son. This antagonistic relationship is only intensified by the fact that Atanarjuat has got the hots for Atuat, who has been promised in marriage since childhood to Oki.
Well, Oki has just about had enough of Atanarjuat horning in on his girl, so they enter into an official headpunching contest to determine who gets her. This is one of many times in the movie when the non-Western nature of the culture stands out – Atuat doesn’t actually have any say in the matter at all. Whoever doesn’t get knocked out first gets to marry her.
As you might guess, Atanarjuat (left above) wins the match and gets the girl. But don’t even begin to think you’ve heard the last from Oki. Some time later (during a summer, when we first see bare land instead of ice and the tribe splits up into smaller families), while Atuat is pregnant, Atanarjuat is sent off to go caribou hunting on his own. After being teased by everybody but Atuat that he needs a second wife (I guess that’s kosher) he heads out and meets up with Oki’s gang. Oki decides to send along his town-slut sister Puja (who has already had her eye on Atanarjuat) as an assistant on the caribou hunt. Needless to say, she easily seduces Atanarjuat and he comes back from the hunt with extra meat and an extra mouth to feed.
It turns out that Puja is lazy and nobody seems to like her, but tough patootie. They’re stuck with her, for a while. In fact, if it weren’t for some very bad planning, everything might have gone all right. Just see below for a diagram of how to make one-tent, one-blanket extended family sleeping arrangements.
(Uluriaq is Amaqjuat’s wife.) As you can see, the preferred sleeping arrangement leaves the brother who is NOT married to the town slut as far as possible from the town slut. This is important, considering that these folks all sleep naked under a communal blanket.
So when the family chooses arrangement B above and one night Puja seduces Amaqjuat, well, it’s not terribly long before her heavy breathing gets them caught. It’s a small tent. This results in Puja being smacked about the head a bit before she flees to her brother Oki with a tale of undeserved aggression from Atanarjuat.
The brothers eventually make up, and Puja shows up (apparently of her own accord) with an appeal for forgiveness, which is only begrudgingly accepted by Atanarjuat on the account of Atuat and Uluriaq’s insistence that Puja is family. Family and tribe are, rightfully, quite important out in the bleak and barren lands where they live. It all seems like a great idea, but Puja arranges for the other wives to go out egg hunting while the brothers nap in their tent, and leaves a signal for Oki and his two friends to bring on an ambush. Through the tent they kill Amaqjuat with their spears, but Atanarjuat escapes and is forced to flee them over the ice, stark naked.
Atanarjuat escapes them, because, duh! he’s the fast runner. What did they think was going to happen? He finally collapses in the wilderness and is found and taken in by an old man, the very brother we saw depart at the beginning of the film. This old man hides Atanarjuat when Oki and his friends finally arrive in search of him and helps nurse the exhausted man back to health.
Meanwhile, Atuat and Uluriaq are forced to return to the tribe, as winter is setting in. Atuat is brutally raped by Oki in one scene, but there is simply nothing she can do about it. She can’t just hop the next bus to Denver and make a new life for herself. She’s out in the middle of nowhere in a land that is covered by ice more than half the year where the only source of food is whatever the men can manage to hunt down. She would have only one possible escape, and that is death. It was about this time that for me, the moral of the story became crystal clear. In a society like the Inuits’, there is an incredible level of interdependence. They straddle the brink of freezing and starvation for their entire lives. Since the mistreated have no option but to allow themselves to be mistreated (well, that or death), there must be strong societal taboo against mistreatment of others, against the scourge of blind ambition and misanthropy. Oki merely personifies this.
Anyhow, thwarted by his father, chief Sauri (remember him) in his attempts to gain Atuat as a wife, chip-off-the-old-block Oki resorts to killing his own father and then pretending he had fallen on his knife. Oki, of course, is awarded the walrus-tooth necklace of leadership, after which he practically disowns Atuat. (You marry her, I’m bitter!)
In a completely tangential note, check out the awesome sunglasses the Inuit wear. In the promoti0nal poster for the movie, Oki’s shades actually look like they are made of polished metal:
See? Totally looks like metal with glare coming off of the front and the sides shielded by the parka. Well, it was nice to realize that they were actually carved out of bone or tusk or some such, because the whole metallurgy thing didn’t seem very plausible.
At any rate, Atanarjuat returns with the help of the old man, and feigning friendship (and with the help of a magic rabbit – note to self: do not eat the magic rabbit of forgetfulness) corners Oki and his gang in an igloo where, having the upper hand, he beats them but refuses to kill them. After their deeds are brought out in the open, Oki, Puja, and their two friends are exiled, and the tribe lives happily ever after with Atanarjuat reunited with Atuat and wearing the walrus-tooth necklace of leadership. I understand that the legend itself is a bit adapted for the film, and the legend ends in revenge killing, not exile, but I suppose it doesn’t matter.
The best part of this movie is the way that it sweeps you in to a completely foreign culture – by the end of the movie you feel like you know what it is like, in some small sense, to be an Inuit. With its in-depth portrayal of the Inuit lifestyle, you get a feeling for what it is like to live from day to day in the frozen north, what it’s like to rely on a tribe for survival. It’s a film that quite effectively makes you realize how trivial your problems usually are.
Radical vegetarians rate this film 0 stars out of 5.