Great White myths

The Arctic, both legendary and real, from the Inuit point of view.

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A mythic Inuit neorealist film, Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) is the first feature-length drama in the Inuit Inuktitut language. It may be emblematic of Igloolik Isuma Productions’ marriage of Inuit culture and the exceptionally honest filmmaking of one of its founders, director Zacharias Kunuk.

Explorer and amateur filmmaker Robert Flaherty first brought the cold, white glaciers of the Canadian Arctic — and a man who knew those frigid lands as his home — to Americans 80 years ago in the documentary Nanook of the North. Flaherty called Nanook, his wives (Nyla and Cunayou) and his children (Allee and Allegoo) “Eskimos,” a name erroneously maintained, which means “eaters of raw meat.” The staple of the family’s diet was raw meat and fish — not for a lack of fire, but to preserve the full nutritive value of the food that could mean the difference between life or death during the region’s unforgiving winters. But the First Nations people or Native Canadians of the North who call themselves Inuits consider “Eskimo” derogatory — a white man’s name as mistaken as Columbus’ “Indian” label for the people of the more southerly nations.

In the years between Nanook and Atanarjuat, Inuit roles and actors may have been scarce, but haven’t completely vanished. Both Map of the Human Heart (1992) and Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1997) featured characters of Inuit descent. But where Flaherty presented Nanook as the resourceful noble savage, these films suggest the dark side of the native stereotype: the dirty Injun, backward and drowning in alcohol, who may only find salvation in whiteness.

Map of the Human Heart is essentially a Romeo-and-Juliet tragedy between two “half-breeds,” Avik (Jason Scott Lee) and Albertine (Anne Parillaud, the titular La Femme Nikita), where culture and race are the Capulets and Montagues.

When a young Inuit boy refuses to leave the doorway of half-Inuit Smilla’s (Julia Ormond) apartment, reluctant to return to his drunken, raving mother below, Smilla relents and lets him in. “You’re a real little Nanook of the North,” she comments before she mentions, “You smell bad ... you stink.” As Avik finds in Map, the young Inuit must be bathed before he’s fit company. While aboriginal actors play this unfortunate boy (his death kicks off Smilla’s story) and his alcoholic mother, Hawaiian-born Lee has made a career of playing Asians and natives from Chinese to aboriginal Chileans. And both Parillaud and Ormond are French.

Atanarjuat flips the script of these films. First, the cast and crew of Atanarjuat aren’t exploring Inuit culture — as Inuits, they’re living it. Flaherty made a documentary with feature-film techniques that included directing his subjects to re-enact scenes from their daily lives. Nanook, throughout its course, slides between an anthropological study and an exotic travelogue, both of which are narrative approaches undertaken by outsiders in order to bring a foreign experience home. But Kunuk has made a feature film that uses documentary techniques sparingly and with such subtlety and aptness that they’re mostly transparent and never detract from the plot.

Those familiar with Flaherty’s film may notice how Natar Ungalaaq’s Atanarjuat glazes the runners of his sledge and works with the same quick skill as Nanook, that mason of Arctic snow, when he builds an igloo. The women in both films do the same work in the same time-honored ways. But Atanarjuat isn’t a study or a curiosity; that would imply an external objectivity. Instead the subjectivity of some shots becomes as explicit as the point of view of Kunuk’s camera, which involves us in the emotions and actions of the plot. It pulls us beyond the screen, space and time into the home and heart of the Inuit, rather than vice versa.

Mythic Inuit neorealism? This genre coinage seems too facile. But mythic? Yes. The legend of Atanarjuat, whose name means “the fast runner,” burns as brightly now as it did a thousand years ago, passed from storyteller to storyteller through the eight current Inuit elders, who in turn passed it to late screenwriter Paul Apak Angilirq. It’s an archetypical myth that has love and hate, sin and sacrifice, alienation and redemption all recalling the holy books of the world’s major religions.

And neorealism? Kunuk uses some nonprofessional actors and achieves remarkable authenticity. But the craft of Angilirq’s plot and the dialogue that ranges from the profane to the profound go beyond the tenets of Italian neorealism exemplified by De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1948). Like that film, Atanarjuat may be read as social protest: In today’s political context of savage national revenge, its message of reconciliation is radically noble.

Opens Friday exclusively at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, W of Telegraph). Call 248-542-0180.

James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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