‘Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner’: An Inuit folktale

‘Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner’ is an epic film made by and about the Inuit peoples of the Canadian arctic, telling a story of a crime that ruptures the trust within a closely knit group, and how justice is achieved and healing begins. Director Zacharias Kunuk and his writer, Paul Apak Angilin, collected oral versions of an Inuit legend from several elders, collated them into a story, submitted the story to the elders for suggestions and then filmed it as a collaborative expression.

Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner really succeeds at thrusting the audience into the world of these First Nations in multiple ways. Visually, the experience is a kind of geographic time travel adventure.

Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner is one of the most acclaimed Canadian films ever made and one of best movies about First Nations. This is the first picture in the history to be written, directed and acted entirely in the Inuktitut language, which is one of the principal Inuit languages of Canada. Inuktitut is spoken in multiple provinces in the northern part of the country. Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2001 where it fascinated the jury and the audience. The movie won the Golden Camera Award.

The picture tells a folk tale. The story is set in an Inuk community in the northern Canada, at an unspecified time but prior to contact with Europeans. It is a legend that contains multiple themes related to Inuk culture and beliefs. The main character is Atanarjuat, who is special and talented. Along with his brother Atuat, they both have the responsibility to break a curse they have been carrying from their ancestors. However, Atanarjuat has a rival in the community, namely Oki. His ancestors had had a confrontation with Atanarjuat’s relatives, a conflict linked to the curse.

While they are young adults, Atanarjuat wins a duel against Oki, he conquers the woman who becomes his wife. Atanarjuat also attracts his sister Puja, with whom he has a relationship. All these “victories” increase Oki’s hatred towards him, making their confrontation more urgent and intense. The movie provides a mystical conclusion, congruent with the concept of the story.

Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner really succeeds at thrusting the audience into the world of these First Nations in multiple ways. Visually, the experience is a kind of geographic time travel adventure. The outdoor scenes are so vast that make the viewers to feel small and sedentary. On the other hand, the indoor scenes are claustrophobic and cause an immediate need for “fresh air”. The acting is amazingly natural, the ‘actors’ are real Inuit people who are active members in their community nowadays. Sometimes it seems like we are watching a documentary. Very likely, a movie like this was an influence on other great films like Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto (2006) and El abrazo de la serpiente (2015). The storytelling is culturally significant, it portrays the aboriginal oral storytelling tradition, their moral and social values, all influenced by their relationship with nature and the supernatural. This movie is a breathtaking, entertaining way to introduce oneself to the Inuit environment.

Original title: Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner
Release date: 2001
Directed by: Zacharias Kunuk
Written by: Zacharias Kunuk
Starring: Natar Ungalaaq, Sylvia Ivalu, Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq, Lucy Tulugarjuk


Xphilo Liranzo
Journalist, freelance writer. Born in the Dominican Republic, lives in Toronto since 2016 and previously lived in Montréal for two years. Film analyst, novelist, author of two novels in process of editing. He writes reviews of movies, books, and music albums. He is also interested in psychology, sociology, neuroscience, history, sports, health, and well-being. He has some experience in filmmaking (directing and as a screenwriter). Passionate about languages, he is fluent in English, French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. He is also able to read and speak German (intermediate level) and Mandarin (Basic level). You can find most of his articles and reviews on his website: