INTERVIEW: The Nimble Duo Behind "The Fast Runner": Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn
by Brandon Judell
(indieWIRE/ 06.05.02) — By the time you read this, the first all-Inuit directed, acted, and written feature might just be called “F.R.” The smart folks at Lot 47 realized that no matter how fine a film you have to distribute, Americans seldom buy tickets for what they can’t pronounce, let alone remember. So that’s why “Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner” is now simply entitled “The Fast Runner.” Maybe those folks in Idaho will think it’s yet another film about that sprinter who helped start Nike.
Well, all’s fair in love and the dissemination of culture, and Zacharias Kunuk‘s “The Fast Runner” is as about a good a slice of entertaining culture you’re going to trek across this year. Visually enthralling, dramatically ensnaring, and just plain commanding cinema, the film is based on legend.
Hundreds of years ago, an evil shaman enters a community and sows evil. Two brothers, Amaqjuaq, the Strong One, and Atanarjuat, the Fast One, seemingly are recipients of the curse. Atanarjuat happens to fall in love with a young woman promised to another. She returns his affections, and all hell breaks lose. Expect to be blown away by the icy winds of adultery, murder, head punching, mouth pulling, tummy touching, nude racing in the snow, and more curiosities played out amidst the frozen tundras of the Far North.
indieWIRE recently caught up with the two main forces behind this prize-winning film in the offices of Lot 47: director/co-producer/co-writer/co-editor Kunuk and his business partner, American-turned- Canadian Norm Cohn, who among other chores served as the movie’s director of photography and production manager.
indieWIRE: Are you surprised at the reception “The Fast Runner” is receiving around the world, including six Genie Awards? Relatively few films leave their own shores, let alone receive so much acclaim.
Norm Cohn: We have two completely different answers to that question. So Zach can answer.
Zacharias Kunuk: (in a slow and measured pace) Especially since we made it for an Inuit audience. I never expected the outside countries would be so interested. It never even crossed my mind.
iW: Do the rave reviews make you feel more talented then you thought you were?
iW: Oh, you knew you were gifted!
Kunuk: No, it’s the actors who are talented that make the film great.
iW: But you can hire a great cast and still wind up with a lousy film. I’ve seen that time and again.
Cohn: I have a different take on that question. I tell people we planned this because seven years ago when we first set out to do this, when we first started researching the story, and Apak (the late Paul Apak Angilirq) first started writing the script, I knew that certain things could happen if things came out the way we intended.
We had enormous experience as experimental videomakers, part of the industry that was totally invisible for 30 years, a part that was really rushing like a freight train towards having a tremendous impact on the industry. So the digital filmmaking moment that we’re in right now, we come to the digital filmmaking moment from the digital side. Lars von Trier makes his first digital film the first time he ever touches a video camera. We’re making a digital film with a combined 70 years of video making experience.
So video, it’s a different medium. It’s a different way of thinking. It’s a different way of representing reality. It’s a different form of narrative story telling. All this video experience has been invisible except in the art world and in remote regions where it’s been an empowering tool for self-representation by getting inside-out points of view instead of the kind of authoritarian outside-in points of view. So this whole concept is a marriage of what was really a very experimental art form, video, with the richness of Inuit oral tradition.
I knew if they’d come together in a moment when the technology matures, we’d end up with a film that would look unlike anyone else’s movies. We’d have a film that would have a completely different look and that would take the power of an oral tradition for the first time and get it on a big screen in front of large audiences in a really compelling way.
So all of that depended on execution. We had to be good enough. We had to be able to end up with a really great script. We had to be able to find terrific actors. And then we had to be sort of lucky that the technology would evolve. But I could preview all of those possibilities, and think that, well, if this went right, that went right, and that went right, we could win a big prize at the Cannes Film Festival. That’s what happened. So we planned this.
iW: I wish you’d plan my life.
Cohn: Of course, I could tell you 50 other things that I planned that didn’t work.
iW: Oh, don’t tell me that. I wanted to think you’re omniscient.
Cohn: (Laughs) But this one worked.
iW: (to Kunuk) Someone studying in the States or Europe has the traditions of say Bunuel, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, and von Stroheim to build upon. Were you exposed to any of these Western directors or did you come to film by yourself and mold your art by yourself?
Kunuk: The first time I ever buy a camera in 1981, I did not even know how to set the color balance right. I just learned it.
iW: Why did you buy that camera in the first place?
Kunuk: Because at that time I was interested in still photography, and I was trying to document hunting scenes and events but just still. But moving picture camera? When I heard of it, I wanted it.
iW: Pardon my ignorance, but was there a local movie theater where you lived? Because even in parts of New York State, I know of people who have to drive 50 to 100 miles to see a movie.
Kunuk: When I was dragged from the land at the age of 9, I came to this community, Igloolik, where I was supposed to learn English and go to school. This community, they had a 16mm movie projector, and they played movies on the weekend. So I saw some. Cowboys and Indians.
iW: What do you mean you were dragged away to learn English?
Kunuk: I was born in a sodhouse like my ancestors. When I was just getting to the age of 9, I was just learning how these people hunt by dog team and just learning how they call their dogs, each dog would have names, and how they turned them right and left and stop and go. My job was every time they stopped, I would have to tug on the dog ropes. I was just getting into this world when …
iW: Who pulled you away?
Kunuk: The government.
iW: Your family too?
Kunuk: No, they remained on the land for two years before they came and lived with me.
iW: It took you a long time to recover.
Kunuk: That was the saddest day of my lifetime.
iW: So you still haven’t recovered. You have a wound.
Kunuk: (Remains silent)
iW: A few years ago there was a multi-segment TV documentary on American Indians that detailed how Christians came and destroyed Indian society. Removing children from their homes and worse. Yet the descendants of these Indians embraced Christianity fiercely just as much as they were trying to hold onto their culture. It didn’t make sense.
Kunuk: We see it everyday. People sit down to eat and pray. Even in restaurants up north, I’ve seen that happen.
Cohn: It’s generational. Zach’s parents’ generation was really the first Christianized generation. So it’s all very compressed. There’s sort of one principle generation that was converted substantially through fear. I mean there was a lot of fear. They became very devout.
They’re the first set of children, who are Zach’s generation, who were sort of born into the old life and then came into the new life, all in one lifetime. They sort of grew up with their parents very religious and then became very modern people at the same time. So a lot of those people were in a religious household when they were young, but now that they are adults, they have left the religion behind.
Kunuk: When I was a growing up, I was not on the Catholic side. My cousins were, and we used throw rocks at each other because of religion. “Look at your cross!” “Look at my cross.” “Our God went to heaven and yours is still on the cross.” It was that kind of world. When we just got a little bit older, we realized it doesn’t make sense. On a nice Sunday, which is a nice day to go fishing, now we have to sit in the house and make it holy.
iW: So if right now I said something nasty to you and you speared me, you wouldn’t worry about going to hell? But if your cousins killed me, they would worry?
Kunuk: (with an expression that indicates he just heard a stupid question) No.
iW: That’s good. I’m not worried about going to hell either.
Cohn: I’m going to try to give you a serious answer. I think right now you would find in Inuit communities, a really very interesting mix of people who have all of these different views, either simultaneous or conflicting feelings about religion. Part of it is the compression. A lot of these things happened over periods of generations.
American Indians changed from Crazy Horse to the year 2002 over 140 years.
Inuit changed over 40 years. So what other people took five generations to change through, Inuit went through in one generation. So you have the very first missionary generation who are still around: people’s parents who are just dying off right now.
The next generation is the first modern generation right off the bat. So these are people who grew up on Madonna and Michael Jackson and video. They have the same kind of skepticism that anybody else would have born now. So you have people who have very conflicted feelings. You have people who are taken to residential schools and sexually abused by priests. So you have all of these conflicts also that the city of Boston is going through. The terrible anguish.
They’re realizing what does it mean when you’re abused by a priest? It’s even worse than by a teacher or even worse than by a neighbor. I mean the priest comes to you with the word of God. So Inuit went through that because they were sent to residential schools. So some have this sort of abuse history. This abuse psychology that they’re trying to get rid of. It was just by accident which kid got sent to the residential school and which didn’t.
iW: What is your company producing now? Can you see your company making any genre films? Westerns? Comedies?
Cohn: Well, we just made a genre film. “The Fast Runner” is an epic. A historical epic. The Japanese made those. “Gone with the Wind” was a historical epic. It’s a genre film. The next film which is about shamanism and Christianity is a western.
iW: Oh, really
Cohn: Well, sure. It’s a showdown. A “Gunfight at the OK Corral.” Shamans and missionaries duke it out with supernatural powers. We can make a comedy. We have a children’s film we want to make. We’re just filmmakers.