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First Inuit language movie takes big prize at Cannes festival

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CANNES, France - Up in Cicely, Alaska, a fictitious Ed Chigliak must be beaming. The Native youth in the TV series "Northern Exposure" always wanted to be a world-class movie director. Now a team of Inuuk filmmakers realized that dream.

"Atanarjuat," the first feature film ever written, produced, directed and shot by Inuit in their native language Inuktitut, won the prestigious Camera d'Or at the just-ended world-famous Cannes International Film Festival. The prize, translated as the Golden Camera, honors the best first feature.

Things looked good for the Canadian film when the audience at its screening gave it a standing ovation. But its success is a testament to the persistence of filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk and his Igloolik Isuma Productions, the country's first independent Inuit film company.

The originator of the project and screenwriter Paul Apak died in December 1998 without knowing if the film would ever be finished. Production had been shut down months earlier when Telefilm Canada refused to invest.

But by April of 1999, Kunuk persuaded the National Film Board to join as co-producer and mustered wide national support. With a budget of less than $2 million (Canadian) and digital equipment, he shot the film for five months around the far northern town of Igloolik in the Inuit-governed province of Nunavut. His props, costumes, crew and entire cast came from the area.

The film is described in The New York Times as a "lyrical, fablelike" retelling of an ancient Inuit story.

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"Atanarjuat is a story that we heard a long time ago, and we kept hearing it," Kunuk said.

He described it as "a historic legend of power, intrigue, love, jealousy, murder and revenge told entirely from the Inuit point of view."

He said he insisted on a meticulous recreation of old-time Inuit life, asking Igloolik residents to sew costumes and offer advice.

The Igloolik Isuma team were called the "darlings" of the Cannes festival, doing eight to 10 interviews a day with journalists from all over, but they treated the attention with skepticism bred by their hard struggle to make the film.

"I don't take it any more seriously that they love us than I did when I thought they were ignoring us," cinematographer Norman Cohn told the Nunatsiaq News.

"But its a lot easier when people are happier to hear from us than when they're going out of their way to try and marginalize whatever it is that we have to say."