We forget too often that There is Here.
The following meditation on Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner appears in City of Words, Alberto Manguel’s Massey Lecture of 2007, broadcast on CBC Radio in five parts, and published by House of Anansi Press.
Eighty-five years after Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, another film on the identity of the Inuit was hailed as a masterpiece around the world. This time, the director was himself an Inuit, Zacharias Kunuk, and his film told an Inuit story, Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. Something new, something that demanded a different receptive method for a different voice, was being shown, and, in the process, the audience was taught another way of seeing, a viewpoint from within the other culture itself. If Flaherty’s film was an exquisite realization of something that he had convinced himself was out there on the infinite ice, while remaining nevertheless oblivious to the nature of that something, Kunuk’s film, in a sense, corrected the focus, directing it beyond what Rudyard Kipling, in a poem in defence of the Inuit, had ironically called “the white man’s ken.” In The Fast Runner, Nanook’s story has been taken back and translated into its original, forcing the audience to effect a cultural transmigration. The Fast Runner makes us watch not from the other side of the camera, but from the other side of the ice itself.
The Fast Runner tells the story of a nomad Inuit community that, in the distant past, is visited by an unknown shaman who brings discord to its inhabitants. A long time later, the curse finds its resolution in the confiict between Oki, the son of the group’s leader, and two brothers, Amaqjuaq “the Strong One” and Atanarjuat “the Fast Runner.” Atanarjuat wins the lovely Atuat from Oki; Oki seeks revenge by ambushing the brothers and killing Amaqjuaq. Atanarjuat tries to escape, running naked across the ice. But in the end, individual action alone cannot exorcise the curse. This can only be achieved through a remembering and understanding of the story and a recognition of its part in reality. Then, through the intervention of another shaman, without anger or thirst for revenge, by means of a simple edict of exclusion, the society is healed. That which was brought in through the telling is rejected also through the telling. The Fast Runner is a film about story.
The Fast Runner is set at the beginning of the first millennium; for the viewer; this is comparable to “no time” or to the “once upon a time” of Western story- telling. Western convention dates time from a divinely decreed moment, whether the birth and death of a god or the travels of a prophet; for the Inuit, the narrative progression from before to after carries no such revelatory implications. Time, like space, is an area through which we move but in which our traces are effaced by that very movement. Progress (as Kafka believed as well) is a meaningless concept; we advance along a cyclical path in which events and the stage of these events appear and reappear as both cause and effect of any given happening. Perhaps for that reason, among the Inuit, space and time are not regarded as individual or even social properties, but as given areas in which we assume certain individual and social responsibilities, to ourselves and to the “social other,” to the animals with whom the world is shared. Land and sky, sea and ice, days and nights, are individual beings, and belong to no one. Cairns are erected not to domesticate the landscape but to signal an ancient path that may serve as marker for a present-day migration. The poet Yves Bonnefoy, writing on Inuit mythology, noted that “in anthropomorphizing the natural environment and in establishing divisions between that environment and the social milieu, [this mythology] reflects and serves as the foundation for social order and customs.” Here “connection counts for more than explanation,” and The Fast Runner weaves all kinds of implied connections. No event, no act stands alone, nor does any individual or social element. The whole natural world is populated by a complex, dense story into which everyone and everything is woven, teller and listener included. Only for an outsider, this world of ice appears empty, since there are no obvious signalizations here. It is the blank space on a map, the terra incognita that only imagination can fill. A legend has it that the name “Canada” was given to the country when the first Spanish explorers landed in British Columbia and exclaimed: “¡Acá nada!” ( “Here’s nothing!”) A dumping ground of the Western psyche, a place of absolute exile, the great frozen spaces are the destination of Western society’s rejects, from Frankenstein’s persecuted Monster to Jules Verne’s adventurous Captain Hatteras. “The north focuses our anxieties,” Margaret Atwood once said. “Turning to face north, we enter our own unconscious. Always, in retrospect, the journey north has the quality of a dream.” This quality is not, however, opposed to wakefulness in the Inuit imagination: it is felt as complementary. For the Inuit, the ancient, universal metaphor of death as sleep (one of whose earliest appearances is in the Epic of Gilgamesh) is perfectly true: sleep is death, death is sleep, and the dead inhabit our dreams in order to share with us their rightful territory. It is not by chance that one of the brothers, Amaqjuaq “the Strong One,” must die; in this way, he and his brother, Atanarjuat “the Fast Runner,” the living, may inhabit a world rendered complete.
Among the Inuit, the territories of wakefulness and of dreams are the only geography; landscape, instead, has no imaginative presence. It has been observed many times that the notion of landscape is an urban construct and that those who live outside city walls do not differentiate between an all-encompassing nature and a backdrop for human action. Shifting ground of breaking ice and falling snow, a horizon that melts and blends into the light or darkness above, the absence of constant features that give defining permanence to the lived-in world: all this dissolves for an outsider the acquired notion of space, as dreamspace dissolves the space of woken time. For Canadians, the greater part of the country, the frozen north, is, as Atwood suggested, mainly north in the metaphorical sense, the place within our borders toward which the country imaginatively heads in order to find itself. (Without our borders is another question.) Northrop Frye famously wrote that the Canadian problem of identity was primarily connected to place, “less a matter of ‘Who am I?’ than of ‘Where is here?’” Frye tells the now well-known story of a doctor friend who, travelling on the Arctic tundra with an Inuit guide, was caught in a blizzard. In the icy cold, in the impenetrable night, feeling abandoned by the civilized world, the doctor cried out: “We are lost!” His Inuit guide looked at him thoughtfully and answered: “We are not lost. We are here.” This is something that, from the outside, we forget too often. There is here.
In The Fast Runner, “here” is identified with community, the grouping of people. Here is where men and women gather to eat, sleep, make love, and talk, the central point from which stories are told, the incipit—except that these stories belong to an ongoing narrative, constant in its unfolding and beginning again at every telling. Like other communal tasks, storytelling has the function of lending expression and context to private experiences, so that, under recognition by the whole of society, individual perceptions (of space and time, for instance) can acquire a common, shared meaning on which to build learning. Inuit history, says Bonnefoy, is one “in which many developments are merely implied or simply defined by their absence in accounts which apparently say nothing about them.” The elusive notions of space and time, always implicitly present, when captured in a story, are granted, under a narrative shape, a particular identity that can be possessed by a group or individual. “A good line belongs to no one or to literature,” Jorge Luis Borges noted, arguing, from a Western perspective, in favour of a worldwide anonymous literary creation. For the Inuit it is otherwise: the “good line,” the “good story” is assimilated to the individual and social identity, and it belongs to them as much as (in Western terms) the land on which a house is built belongs to its dweller or the time allotted to work or leisure to each citizen. The story of The Fast Runner was therefore the property of the groups that had preserved it. In order to write the script, Kunuk and his Inuit crew interviewed eight elders from these groups who agreed to “give” him their version of the story, which was then recast by a mixed Inuit and Anglo-Canadian team. This permitted the story to be told both in cinematic language and in the language of Inuit narrative. By this means, story— allusive and nonlinear, visual and clipped into framed scenes—became The Fast Runner’s shared currency.