Movie Night in Canada: Actor Kevan Ohtsji picks Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner

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      When we decided to start asking Canadian film people what Canadians films they would recommend for people to watch, we didn't know what kind of response we'd get. In particular, we were looking for films that might have flown under the radar for most people.

      The response, we're happy to say, has been encouraging.

      Our first post was by screenwriter Peggy Thompson speaking about the 1987 drama Loyalties.

      Vancouver actor Kevan Ohtsji

      The second person to respond to us was Vancouver actor Kevan Ohtsji.

      Ohtsji has appeared in films such as the 2014 Godzilla remake, The Butterfly Effect, and Crying Freeman, and has had recurring roles on TV series such as Andromeda and Stargate SG-1.   

      Ohtsji said his top pick is the 2001 film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, directed by Zacharias Kunuk.

      While this celebrated film may have garnered a lot of attention during its release, it's one that may have since dropped off many peoples' radars but certainly deserves continued attention. (Vancouver International Film Festival programming director Alan Franey also floated it as a possible choice when we asked him the same question, so it's clearly a good choice.)

      This dramatic feature adapts an ancient Inuit tale, passed down through centuries through oral tradition, for the big screen and revolves around the universal themes of love, betrayal, and revenge. It's shot with all dialogue in Inukitut.

      Set in Igloolik around the time of the first millennium, the film stars Natar Ungalaaq as Atanarjuat and Pakak Innuksuk as Amaqjuaq, brothers who incur the wrath of Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq), the son of the tribe leader, when Atanarjuat marries Oki's promised bride (Sylvia Ivalu).

      When Oki attempts to kill the pair, Atanarjuat escapes but eventually returns to face his brother's murderer. 

      Here's what Ohtsji had to say about it:

      The story is set in the Arctic in the far flung past, it could be two hundred or two thousand years ago. And it doesn’t matter. This story is performed entirely in the native tongue of the Inuit and takes you deep inside what life could’ve have been like many years ago in the icy villages of the north where people live a fragile existence of survival. It had the feel of a master documentary whereby you are transposed to a different era and culture. This film really drew me into the protagonist’s inner life, and to me was a film of humanity. The performances were authentic, heroic, and spectacular. It's a true gem of a film, and embodies primal human drives and aspirations that cross any barriers culturally and internationally.

      The film marked a pivotal shift in Canadian cinema, as it was an Inuit film made by Inuit filmmakers, rather than non-Inuit people for a non-Inuit market. Yet it reached far beyond an Inuit audience as Ohtsji pointed out (incidentally, Ohtsji does not have any First Nations or Inuit heritage).

      What's more it sparked the creation of a number of films from the north.

      Ungalaaq also starred in the Quebec film The Necessities of Life (Ce qu'il faut pour vivre) and both Ungalaaq and Innuksuk starred in The Journals of Knud Rasmussen.

      Madeline Ivalu, who starred in both Atanarjuat and The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, as well as Before Tomorrow, also directed Uvanga.

      The power of the film's storytelling captivated audiences around the world, even capturing the prestigious Camera D'Or for best first feature in 2001. And who can forget the striking image of a man running for his life, naked and in bare feet, across snow, ice, and water?

      Confirming its significance, it bumped longstanding favourite Mon Oncle Antoine as the number one Canadian film of all time in April in a survey conducted by the Toronto International Film Festival for the fourth edition of Canada's All-Time Top Ten List.

      Stay turned, true northerners, as there are plenty more Canadian cinematic recommendations (and trivia) to come...