February 28, 2003


Cold Comfort: The misrepresentation at the center of The Fast Runner (Justin Shubow, 2.28.03, American Prospect)
Since late last summer, The Fast Runner, the first feature-length movie made almost wholly by the aboriginal people of the Arctic, has been playing to packed houses. Released on DVD earlier this month, the film tells the story of an ancient Inuit legend and unsentimentally portrays the hard, grimy life of some of the region's native residents. Audiences weren't the only ones to embrace the film: Expressing an enthusiasm that characterized many reviews of the movie, The Washington Post's Desson Howe wrote that the film was "as close to authentic myth as cinema has ever gotten." In fact, nothing could be further from the truth: During the more than six months since the film's release, it seems to have gone almost completely unnoticed -- by reviewers and audiences alike -- that at the film's core is a crucial lie. [...]

Following his return home from involuntary exile -- after barely escaping an attempt on his life -- the film's protagonist, Atanarjuat, has the opportunity to avenge the murder of his brother and the rape of his wife. He cunningly sets up the three culpable men so that they are utterly at his mercy. After knocking down his nemesis -- the group's ringleader who is both a murderer and rapist -- Atanarjuat raises a bone club and strikes. Except instead of the evil man's skull, he smashes the ice just next to it. Atanarjuat exclaims, "The killing stops now!" -- proving that he could have taken revenge but chose not to do so. Thus we are meant to believe that a 1,000-year-old Inuit myth of lust, betrayal and violence climaxes with a surprisingly pacifistic turn.

I just didn't buy it. Knowing some basic world myths, I was expecting vengeance akin to Odysseus' bow-and-arrow heroics during his homecoming. Moreover, in a society such as the Inuit's -- one without laws, police or prisons -- violent retribution would have not only been highly likely, it also might have been justified.

And my hunch was right. I discovered that the original legend ends -- to use the words of Norman Cohn, one of the film's producers -- "with everybody's brains all over the floor." I asked Zacharias Kunuk, the film's director, whether the movie alters the Inuit myth. "The only thing that we changed was the ending," he said. "In the actual story Atanarjuat smashes [the villains'] heads." Explaining the decision, he said, "Every generation has their version. It was a message more fitting for our times. Killing people doesn't solve anything."

Tried watching it the other night and it was painful, but we've addressed the noble savage myth elsewhere. Posted by Orrin Judd at February 28, 2003 7:32 PM

When you say it's "painful", do you mean you didn't like the film?

I have not seen it, I admit. But the thought that a 'myth' might be

'sanitised' in this way is not nessarily bad, or even immoral. The

quoted piece highlights, after all, perhaps a 'higher' form of

humanity, one that refused violence and bloodshed, if it can be


This is not something at all alien from the Christian faith after all.

Retribution, vengeance or revenge. The though that someone might reach

their own personal rubicon but draw back, need not be condemned.

Please do not take these comments as reflecting, in any way, my

thoughts on the current Iraq issue however. And whether his makes a

good film, or mythic story is a separate matter.



Posted by: Alastair at February 28, 2003 8:01 PM

Shortly after Pocahontas
came out, I was sitting in McDonalds near a girl who must have been about six. She was playing with her Happy Meal Pocahontas doll and explaining to her little brother that Indians weren't like people; they could talk to animals and trees. It struck me as par for the politically correct course.

Posted by: David Cohen at February 28, 2003 8:29 PM


It's excrutiatingly slow.

Posted by: oj at February 28, 2003 8:58 PM

The Thule Eskimo have the highest murder rate

in the world -- by about an order of magnitude.

It would be true to say that violence is as

Inuit as cherry pie, but they don't have cherries.

Posted by: Harry at March 1, 2003 4:25 AM

I have always thought the "Pocahontas" and "The Last of the Mohicans" would make a great double bill....

Posted by: Barry Meislin at March 2, 2003 3:46 AM