The convergence of video and cinema is something you keep hearing about, but now you can see it in The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat), the kind of grand, majestic, soaring masterpiece, drawn from centuries-old myth, that should make most filmmakers shiver with respect and awe. (Or in the case of George Lucas, to give up the Joseph Campbell mold for good.)
Is it that good? Zacharias Kunuk's widescreen Arctic epic, shot in gorgeous light few of us will ever see, is drawn from an ancient Inuit legend, filled with the kind of archetypes and conflicts that also comprise the worst of potboilers: two brothers battle an evil, invisible shaman for decades; vengeance is everywhere. There is a scene, an escape by a naked man across seemingly limitless tundra, that is only the highlight of so many moments that seem to capture the most primal of fears and fables.
It's a thousand or more years ago. In Igloolik, a settlement near the Arctic Circle, warring shamans cause trouble within the nomadic Inuit tribe. The images are so much more important than plot, which essentially consists of this: The sons of Tulimaq -- Amaqjuaq the Strong One and Atanarjuat the Fast Runner -- fight with a jealous man named Oki, who's stolen the love of Atanarjuat's childhood sweetheart, Atuat. Oki plots to get rid of his rivals, with bloody results. Just as important as the particulars of this fable of good versus evil and how it affects the close community is Kunuk's attention to daily life, showing how food is caught and prepared, how clothing and igloos are made.
I was scheduled to interview Kunuk, but he took time out for a smoke, leaving me with non-Inuit co-producer, cinematographer, co-writer, co-editor, production manager Norman Cohn. Cohn was one of the first generation of "video freaks," who believed that social change could come from guerrilla video. With the introduction of the bulky black-and-white video Porta-pak in the 1970s, anything seemed possible.
"Film and television tools were accessible to everyone now, to yippies, poor people living in slums. There was the promise of public access channels. Every step offered a promise of a social change," Cohn says. But that never materialized, despite the efforts of groups like Global Village, Ant Farm and TVTV. Cohn tried to make a living in the 1970s as a freelance video maker and find out what the medium was capable of. "And to go out and change the world if we could. Ten years later, Zach went through the same thing," Cohn says. "They [Kunuk and other Inuit filmmakers] were a Third World culture living at the end of the world, applying video to the way they saw they world in many of the same ways I was 5,000 miles away."
Both Kunuk and Cohn attended a conference in Canada, not knowing that each was hoping to meet the other. "That point in my life had come to an end, what art could do for the world. I was lonely and isolated, it was the 1980s, Ronald Reagan, Michael Milken, social change disappeared as a concept, much less as a way of making a living. I scammed my way North," Cohn says. "The filmmakers who were ordinarily hired to build a video-making culture were retired TV guys who make straight, imitation TV. It's the same reasons missionaries got to Igloolik last. Whalers never got there. It's a dead-end spot right at the top of the world." Cohn compares the Inuit work, patient and mysterious, to most movies made on this continent: "You turn off the sound, and most movies are incomprehensible."
In 1983, he says, he was stuck making "narcissistic, intellectual, self-referential conceptual video art." But then he saw work by Kunuk and his peers, "two Inuit guys at the North Pole doing the same kind of work I wanted to make." What kind of work is that? "Very visual and sensual worlds, not conveyed in words." Cohn describes the style of Inuit storytelling and teaching as one that is "always a non-didactic, non-interventionist way of doing a thing, as storytellers, as parents and children, as elders teaching youngsters.
"Children are taught what they can handle. The children are told what they're about to experience. It's a form of respect," he continues. "You assume you'll know how to do a thing watching and listening. Video is not audio with pictures." There was also "a sense of using video as a way of translating the values of the Inuit way.
"To be nonjudgmental is a very Inuit value," Cohn says. "People don't explain themselves. I've been in Inuit houses when someone gets up, visits, leaves, doesn't say hello, good-bye. They visit silently, there's no, 'What's bothering them?' "
How is this reflected in the work? "It's a matter of witnessing. Witnessing the world in order to understand its function." Cohn explains the patience of the culture this way: "You can't rush animals or weather. You don't want to be anxious: 'When's this blizzard going to end? When's it going to end?!' It's an amazingly sensible and humane culture. It's no accident they're still functioning."