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Centuries ago, in what would become the Canadian Arctic, Atuat is promised to the malevolent Oki, son of the leader of their tribe. But Atuat loves the good-natured Atanarjuat, who ultimately finds a way to marry her. Oki's sister, Puja also fancies Atanarjuat, and when she causes strife between him and his brother Amaqjuaq, Oki seizes the opportunity to wreak a terrible revenge on Atanarjuat. Written by
Shannon Patrick Sullivan <email@example.com>
A remarkable film that dramatizes an Inuit legend with Inuit actors, in Inuktitut with English subtitles.
Perhaps the word that best describes this film is 'remarkable'. It is remarkable that it was made at all, by an Inuit film company, remarkable that it was shot on location in the High Arctic in conditions of winter and summer, remarkable for its absolute authenticity, for its faithfulness both to its subject and to the Inuit culture, which transcends remarkable.
I have been to the High Artic more than once. I have sat in the great silence of the north on the late summer tundra when it turns purple and the winds begin to blow across the ground and make the cotton grass sing. I have heard the snow squeak at thirty-five below zero, as it did in this film; filming in such conditions must have been a nightmare. Metal does strange things at those temperatures; cameras freeze and film becomes brittle and breaks into pieces. Actors get cold and those just standing around get colder. There are no local power sources. And everything must be flown in by transport plane, including everything needed for the film crew to live and eat. There are no hotels and no restaurants, no pub of an evening and the daylight hours for filiming in February or March are very short. And in the summer, there are the flies.
The use of Inuktitut, which is still a living language, preserves that essential atmosphere of complete authenticity; the building of igloos, the darkness inside the communal dwelling with only seal oil lamps, the use of bone and driftwood and dried seaweed for tools and fuel are absolutely authentic. And yet not once did I have the impression of watching a documentary. These were real people, living real lives, using real tools, wearing real clothing, relying on the hunt, on luck and on each other for survival.
The story is set a thousand years ago. It is a legend, but one easily sees that it was a real story, passed down through time in the oral tradition. As it plays itself out - in the slow pace of Inuit time, not the frantic, high-pressure pace of our everyday existence - the rules of survival become clear, family alliances, taboos, social practices. Where survival in a lethal environment is moment to moment, social rules broken have immediate consequences not only for individuals but for the whole community, which usually consisted of no more than a dozen or so related individuals. Jealousy, murder, theft could not be tolerated. The story must not, therefore, be judged by our standards. The only way to see this film is with complete openness; not only must you let the characters tell you the events of their drama, you must let them show you why those events were so destructive and why their way of dealing with it was right for them.
This is about survival in a way that someone living in a city with a supermarket down the street, medical care and central heating can probably never fully grasp. It is not for the small-minded, not for anyone who cannot see past his own prejudices or narrow moral concepts and it is not for the squeamish. Survival is messy; it involves animal guts and blood and pain, it involves you in your own continued existence in a way that we can no longer experience in all our plenty and our ease. This film is also about fierce love, blinding jealousy, hatred, courage and abiding patience - all things we share in our common humanity. But the filmmakers did not present the characters as 'noble savages'. Life was about food, about having it or not having it, about hunting it, gathering it, bringing it home, preparing it, preserving it, eating it and then doing it all over again. All the time. The Inuit are in no way 'primitive' people, whatever that truly means; this is how they survived. We couldn't do it - and perhaps that makes us the primitives.
I was fascinated. It takes a short while to become used to the unfamiliar, the setting, the names, the culture shock. After that, it is compelling, and very, very real. The events unfold tragically and inevitably in a distressingly familiar, a frighteningly human way. And you care deeply about the characters, about what happens to them, about whether they win out - because it is made very clear that they have every chance of not surviving for any number of reasons.
And it is gorgeous. The Artic is immensely photogenic but the cinematography was up to the challenge. The sounds are a whole new experience for those who have never been there - the wind, the squeak and crunch of the snow, the dogs, the singing, the drumming, the rattling of bones, the sounds of the ice.
This film is an experience; if the Arctic has ever intrigued you, this must not be missed.
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