Sign up for our free newsletter
Before beginning an interview about their film, Zacharias Kunuk orders a latte and Norman Cohn requests a cappuccino. Those are hardly unusual requests from filmmakers who have exhibited their The Fast Runner at international festivals from Cannes, Edinburgh, and Rotterdam to Filmfest DC. But a taste for gourmet coffee will be hard to satisfy when the pair return home. There is no Starbucks—or, Cohn laments, even a pizza parlor—in Igloolik, a town of 1,200 on an island in the Baffin region of the Canadian Arctic.
Cohn is a New York native who since 1985 has split his time between Montreal and Igloolik. He served as cinematographer and co-editor on the digital-video epic known outside the United States as Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, after its Inuit hero. On the interview circuit, however, Cohn plays a more prominent role. The Inuit have a “nonexplaining culture,” he says, an assertion that Kunuk, the film’s director, endorses by saying relatively little during an hourlong interview at a Dupont Circle hotel. Cohn, who likes to talk, unabashedly speaks of Igloolik as “our community” and of the Inuit and himself as “we.”
“By ‘we,’ I mean particularly him and me,” Cohn specifies, looking at Kunuk. “We’ve known each other for 17 years. That’s the period I’ve been living or working in and out of Igloolik.”
Cohn first encountered Baffin the same way thousands of astonished filmgoers have since The Fast Runner began making the rounds: on video. “I was one of the first generation of people who discovered video as this democratically empowering medium, really different from film,” he recalls. Ten years later, Kunuk and Paul Apak Angilirq (the film’s scripter, who died of cancer in 1998), the director recalls, “kind of went through the same process….I was down in what we call ‘South,’ which is everywhere. Yellowknife [in the Northwest Territories] is the South. I was an itinerant, independent videomaker, and these guys were doing similar work within their own community. I saw some work that they did, and it made me think that the people who made this video must be thinking about the same kinds of things that I am. That was unusual at that time.”
Cohn eventually learned that what he likes about video—that it values “watching and listening rather than explaining”—matches what he calls “traditional Inuit cultural values.” “To Inuit,” he says, “the polite way is not to try to convince people of something, but to let them figure it out for themselves. Conventional film and television is so authoritarian in its structures. Films are constructed to give us this packaged experience: Every member of the audience is supposed to feel exactly the same way. Video seemed to be a medium that was more open. You didn’t have this tradition of the auteur, the filmmaker who’s brilliant because he gets into your head and jerks you around. Those are really antisocial values to Inuit.”
At first, Kunuk and Angilirq made documentaries about their people’s history. “I videotaped people talking about the old days,” says Kunuk. “But there was no footage. There was never any footage. So we started re-creation back in 1988.”
Disdained by cinema verite filmmakers, simulated events are rarely used in contemporary documentaries. According to Cohn, however, “the distinction between fiction and documentary doesn’t apply to Inuit storytelling.” “How could a nonexplaining culture deal with the concept of the documentary?” he asks. “If you have no libraries with sections for biology, geology, mythology, and natural sciences, but it’s all in the same story, you don’t really think about dividing experience like that.”
Thus, The Fast Runner is, in a sense, a documentary. The saga of Atanarjuat, a wronged man who flees his attackers by running naked across ice floes but returns one day to put things right, supposedly took place a millennium ago. But it remains current in Inuit lore. “We all grew up with this story,” Kunuk says. “Everybody knew the story.”
“Everybody believes it happened,” Cohn notes. “When the story’s being told, it’s important not just to tell the mythological side, but that it happened in this place, and they were buried in the seaweed here. By hearing the story, you’re also getting a lot of factual information. That’s the way an oral tradition works. It’s just that the world is not used to having films made by people who come from a completely nonliterary tradition. Our film, which is definitely a film—you go into a movie theater, sit down, and watch it with popcorn—is based on two un-film history sources: Inuit storytelling that goes back 4,000 years, one of the world’s oldest continuous art forms, and video, which is 30 years old and in that time has changed more dramatically than film.”
Inuit life isn’t so different than in Atanarjuat’s time, Kunuk declares. “We dress differently, and we drive snowmobiles instead of dogs. But the structure is still the same.”
“Everything people do in the film, people can still do now, or else they couldn’t have done it in the film,” Cohn adds. “The culture is not very far away. Zacharias was born into that life. He’s 44 years old. So he’s one generation away from people living more or less like that.”
One thing is different around Baffin Island these days, however: religion. Mid-20th-century Christian missionaries discouraged the Inuit’s shamanistic traditions, so people were alarmed when Kunuk asked them to perform now-taboo rituals for The Fast Runner. “When we were filming, even adults were a little bit scared to do it,” he says. “They’d been preached and preached that they’re going to hell if they practice the old ways. Before Christianity, there was no hell. There were just two worlds, and everybody someday went to the other one.
“Before Christianity came, we were all one big family,” he continues. “Then Christianity came and split the family into Catholics and Anglicans. Coming off the land, getting educated, having Christianity come—all in the last 50 years. Should we take 4,000 years of culture and throw it all away? I don’t think so.”
Even some older Inuit were shocked by the re-creations of shamanistic rituals, Cohn says. “It’s really the first time that people have seen anything like this. Zach’s parents’ generation is the generation that really got missionaried, so they’re the most religious generation. All our actors are quite religious. They…were doing something that, they had been told, they’d go right to hell just for talking about.”
“Everywhere we go, elders were very excited by this film,” says Kunuk. “They really wanted to talk about it. They were thanking us. All this time they hadn’t talked about it, and now they can see it.”
The threat of damnation wasn’t the only barrier that Canadians of European heritage placed in The Fast Runner’s path. Kunuk and his collaborators also battled to get the movie’s modest $1.2 million budget from the various government agencies that fund Canadian TV and film production. “We wanted to make a film that was outside the category we were put in,” the director says. “So we had to fight the system. Just to have the right to make this film.”
Nearing the finished version in a Montreal editing suite two years ago, Cohn began to suspect that The Fast Runner would be an international success. He imagined a series of film-fest triumphs much like the ones that actually occurred, leading to commercial releases in Canada, several European countries, and now the United States. But in Igloolik, Kunuk remembers, he was contemplating nothing of the sort.
“We’d seen our culture made into films by Southern filmmakers,” he says. “We’d notice mistakes here, mistakes there. It wasn’t us. We’d gone to movies and we wanted to make movies. So we trained ourselves how to use cameras and work with actors and finally work with a script.
“We wanted to make our film, and once we made it, I thought that was it. We didn’t know about going to festivals, traveling around the world, competing with other films. Why should we try to win something? In our culture, we work as we hunt. If we go hunting and somebody gets a seal, it’s everybody’s. So I didn’t expect ever to be in Washington, D.C., at a film festival.”
As they completed the film, however, Kunuk and Cohn realized that they did have the power to confound people’s expectations by putting Tuvan throat singers, Bulgarian women’s choruses, and Australian didgeridoo players on the soundtrack. “We knew that anybody going to this film is going to expect that it’s just going to have traditional Inuit music,” Cohn says. “And so we thought, Well, we’re filmmakers—we can use any music we want. We can use Joe Satriani. Atanarjuat could have run to Joe Satriani. So we set out to expand the horizons of possible music.”
It’s suggested that the Tuvans were probably a better choice than Satriani, who didn’t make the final cut. “Well,” Cohn giggles, “we were pretty stoned when we had that idea.” —Mark Jenkins