'Atanarjuat' heads for commercial release in N.Y.


NEW YORK ? "Atanarjuat," the first full-length film in the Inuit language, has stirred tremendous word-of-mouth interest since it won the prestigious Cam?ra d'Or prize at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival. Now audiences in the United States may actually get to see it.

The folk-tale-based film, whose title means "Fast Runner," opens in New York June 7 at the Lincoln Plaza and Landmark Sunshine Cinemas, on the first stop toward national distribution by Lot 47 Films.

A number of movie festivals, most recently the Museum of Modern Arts (MoMA) New Directors/New Films series, have shown the work, the feature directorial debut of Inuit filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk. A series of Kunuk's earlier short documentaries also recently played in lower Manhattan at the George Gustav Heye Center of the Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of the American Indian.

The film has been shown in France and England. It is playing commercially in Canada and doing "really well," says Lot 47 publicist Susan Norget. But the upcoming release is its first full-scale commercial distribution in the U. S., an all-too-rare event for native films.

Norget of Lot 47, a Manhattan-based distributor of independent films, said it plans a "platform release" on up to 60 screens. That term, she said, is industry jargon for a gradual release, in which the film moves from city to city. It will be showing through the summer and possibly longer, she said.

"You never know," Norget said. "If it ends up a hit, it stays longer."

Kunuk, a nomad himself until the age of nine, shot "The Fast Runner" in digital video in northern Nunavut, the self-governing Inuit province of northern Canada. All the cast and most of the technical crew were Inuit, often from near-by Igloolik. Local people hand-sewed the costumes in traditional style. The script by Kunuk is the first shot entirely in Inuktitut, the Inuit language.

Kunuk has been producing documentaries for years as part of the Inuit collective Igloolik Isuma Productions, but he has long wanted to tell this story, part of the millennia-old oral tradition of his people.

According to a synopsis provided by Lot 47, "'Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner', finds himself in love with the lovely Atuat. While she loves him in return, unfortunately, she has been promised to Oki, the boastful and bullying son of the camp leader. When Atanarjuat forces the issue, he violates the carefully observed customs of the community. In a timeless story, Oki sets out to gain revenge.

"For countless generations Igloolik elders have kept the legend of Atanarjuat alive to teach young Inuit the dangers of setting personal desire above the needs of the group. It carries lessons for all of us."

Set amid "the immense natural beauty of the Arctic, capturing the vast expanse of sky, unique arctic light and the sprawling sea ice, tundra and rocky flatlands with austere, evocative beauty," the work has been praised for its "dream-like" quality.

In addition to winning the Cannes Cam?ra d'Or for Best First Film, Kunuk also received the Guardian Award for First Directors at the 2001 Edinburgh International Film Festival and the Toronto-City Award for Best Canadian Feature Film at the 2001 Toronto International Film Festival. The film also captured six Genie Awards, the Canadian Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director.

In connection with the release, Lot 47 Films and Landmark Sunshine Cinemas are sponsoring an exhibit of Inuit art inspired by the film and many of the artifacts used in the production. The exhibit features sculptures by director Zacharias Kunuk, lead actor Natar Ungalaaq and art director James Ungalaaq. Each sculpture represents a scene from the film. The materials, all featured in the film, include a qulliq (small seal oil lamp) made of stone, a small stone cooking pot, two caribou goggles/sunglasses (made of caribou antler), one ulu (curved woman's knife) made of stone, a caribou bone game and a carved caribou knife.

Lot 47 President Jeff Lipsky said about the exhibit, "Although the talented and prolific Igloolik artistic community is already the vanguard leader of the digital video revolution, it also boasts a variety of brilliant craftspeople and sculptors. Lot 47 Films is proud to be given the first opportunity in the United States to showcase its work." The exhibit runs through July 31 at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema at 143 East Houston Street.