O Canada Blogathon 2018 – Atanarjuat: Continuing Oral Traditions

Introduction

When I watched the documentary Reel Injun – which is a fascinating attempt at an all-inclusive retrospective of the history of Native American characters and narratives on North American, mainly Hollywood, screens – I was somewhat surprised to see the inclusion of Atarnarjuat: The Fast Runner in it. However, it made sense for two reasons: it’s a tale of  the First Nations (Canadian vernacular for indigenous tribes) and because of its universal appeal. This appeal is perhaps most brilliantly demonstrated by the reactions of Native Americans to this film. It was a consensus: the movie is something special and “an inside job.” This term is left vague but you can tell what it means it’s a story born in a tribe, that’s lived with it, and now found a home on film shaped my Inuit filmmakers. However, this thought echoed through my mind even more when I thought to write about Atanarjuat. I had seen it the third film a loose trilogy (The Fast Runner Trilogy concluding in Before Tomorrow) and knew it was a thematic rather than chronological, but when I discovered there was an illustrated screenplay and started reading it, and its additional materials, I knew that the term “inside job” was not only fitting (which I assumed), not only a great compliment (which I knew), but also a testament to the level of work taken on by all involved, in this film and in Isuma Productions’ ongoing mission.

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The Wonders the Pages Contain

On the equivalent of a blurb page the significance of the Atanarjuat in film history is made apparent: “the first film written, directed, and acted by Inuit in the ancient oral language of Inukitut…” then the accolades like the Camera d’Or at Cannes, Genie Awards and the like. But the review by A.O. Scott really gets you going if you don’t know what you’re in for:

The Fast Runner is not merely an interesting document from a far-off place; it is a masterpiece. It is, by any standard, an extraordinary film a work of narrative sweep and visual beauty that honors the history of the art form even as it extends its perspective.”

Then came the first awe-inspiring, chill-inducing moment that came only in this book, which is a timeline of the Igloolik area, where the story is set and shot, starting at 7,500 years ago with the emergence of the island to the period between 1995 to 2002 when writing the film began and after the festival runs and worldwide release.

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With education being one of Isuma’s goals aside from preserving oral traditions (Isuma is the Inuit word for ‘to think’), there are quite a few enthnographic supplements to the screenplay the first being a letter from Claude Lévi-Strauss of the Académie Française to Bernard Saladin D’Anglure, professor at Laval University and Head of the Institute for Traditional Inuit Life, reacting to the film but also hoping for added information, and intimating that a deep link between the cinematic construct and cultural traditions, which do seem to permeate the film.

Yet this is only dipping your toes in the water. Then you get Zacharias Kunuk, one of the writers and director of the film, telling the story of how he first heard the legend of Atanarjuat as a child. And reading that brief missive just made me appreciate the weight not just of the story decisions he had to make within the given narrative but also the project selection. This was to be the first project of its kind and this was the story and he was the one not only trying to keep this legend alive for future generations but also dealing with modern filmmaking headaches like raising capital.

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This hurdle, and the added difficulties of it are underscored in the interview with Paul Apak Angilirq, a co-screenwriter, not only did they confer with a group of elders on behavioral differences, and cultural differences in pre-colonial times, and the old oral version of Inukitut, and pick between the minor variations that exist in any legend passed down by oral tradition, but also they had to translate the script into English as it was being written in hopes to try to secure grants and other funding.

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These two versions of the script are put to full use in the illustrated screenplay, aside from behind the scenes photos, production stills, inset boxes with more pertinent cultural information as appropriate; and most notably and poetically parallel text syllabic Old Inukitut on the left, English on the right.

Since two screenplays are crammed in the pages the spacing is condensed to accommodate the photos. Despite this the movement of the story is evident, and even some details in the script that aren’t strictly speaking visual details, are conveyed in the film.

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After the screenplay there is an extended ethnographic commentary from the aforementioned Bernard Saladin d’Anglure that covers the Legend of Atanarjuat, the Inuit people in general, and shamanism. In discussing the Inuit he goes from pre-colonial times, and mentions Knud Rasmussen whose Thule expeditions and journals form the basis of the hard-to-find second film in the series up to and including the end of the last holdouts against radio, television, and formalized permanent settlements, creation of the syllabic alphabet and contextualization of the formation of Nunavut. It’s a testament to the non-fiction writing and insights offered that I gladly read the front and back matter without much hesitation.

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This was not the first book indigenous legends with parallel text I read but it much more readable in part because while the goals are similar (imparting knowledge and preserving traditions) the audience for all parts of this book is fairly wide, and there isn’t a section that reads like it’s mostly for specialists (e.g. linguists or anthropologists).

Even if you never heard of the term ethnography before, if you know and like the film I’d recommend you seek out the illustrated screenplay. If you want to look this screenplay up, I’d say find the film first and all of the book will have that much more impact on you.

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A Cinematic Trip Around Canada

As I knew Canada Day was coming up, I wanted to write a post wherein I took a trip cinematically around Canada; considering the fact that I know the geography of Canada better than most countries I have never lived in. As I started trying to pick films by province or territory, I quickly realized there were some complications afoot.

The first complication being British Columbia, specifically Vancouver. Vancouver and its vicinity are a host to myriad productions, but due to the areas diverse geography it’s usually doubling as another city. Then there are the maritime provinces and northern territories, which are less frequently featured. It very quickly became clear that this post would first highlight some of the Canadian cinema I have seen and enjoyed, but would also serve an exploratory purpose and cause me to seek out new titles. Therefore, in conjunction with this post I will also create a Letterboxd list.

Essentially, the ideal is to have the film both set in and produced in the Canadian province mentioned. Co-productions will be valid for this list, but ideally I will be seeking Canadian productions.

I can’t exactly pinpoint where my fascination with all things Canadian began. Yes, I’ve always been obsessed with hockey, but this burgeoning affection during my childhood also coincided with many of my entertainment staples being either vaguely or blatantly made in Canada such as You Can’t Do That on Television, The Kids in the Hall, Are You Afraid of the Dark? and to an extent SCTV. Regardless, the affinity has always been there and since thanks both to the internet and internationally distributed calendars I’ve come to learn of Canada Day, and decided to compile at least the beginnings of a list.

All-Around Canada

To start with, I’ll include some films that traverse much of the nation in order to attempt to compensate for some of the areas wherein I’ve had difficulty finding selections.

In the vaguest sense of the word the recent NBC Sports Net documentary Cold War on Ice is an all-encompassing Canadian tale inasmuch as it deals with the 1972 Summit Series that pitted Canada’s best NHL talent versus the Soviet team. If you scripted a 8-game series the way this one unfolded it’d be hard to believe, but it actually happened.

If you trust the IMDb’s filming location info, and you can’t always, Canadian Bacon doesn’t traipse through nearly as much of Canada as it could. However, I do recall this film being quite funny and underrated in my mind. It’s a great collection of many of Canada’s finest and funniest, that does a tremendous deal of US-themed satire also, as it’s directed by none other than Michael Moore.

Now, in compiling these suggestions I realized that many areas in the country were a bit underpopulated in terms of films I have already seen. Therefore, I turned to my Twitter friends north of the border and received many suggestions, which I’ll include throughout all sections of the post starting now:

One international production suggested to me by was The 49th Parallel, a film I’ve meant to see but have not yet, it chronicles a U-Boat stranded in northern Canada during World War II.

One Week was also suggested to me by quite a few people and it’s one that upon being reminded of it I realize that I was interested in it when it had just come out. The film is about a man seeking meaning in his life on a cross-country motorcycle trip.

Quebec

I go to Quebec next because, while Canada is a predominantly Anglophonic nation, it is also a Francophonic nation and due to that fact Canada has regularly submitted a Best Foreign Language Film nominee since 1971. In that time five Canadian films have been nominated: Jesus of Montreal, The Decline of the American Empire, The Barbarian Invasions (Won), Days of Darkness and Incendies.

The Quebecois cinema does have its own mark of originality as it can at times produce perfectly distilled hybrids of European and North American sensibilities, having at the same times an always unique voice on the world cinema stage.

Some other films from Quebec I’ve seen and enjoyed greatly are: The Red Violin, while this is a globe-trotting, time-traveling tale with a star-filled cast, the present day action does occur in Montreal. It’s writer-director is French-Canadian, Francois Giraud, and it’s a film I’ve seen many times over that I enjoy tremendously.

A completely French-Canadian film (were my revisionist BAM Awards still legitimate would’ve won many awards) called Leolo. It’s a poetic, bizarre and unique tale of a young boy’s adolescence in 1970s Montreal. Sadly, this was the last vision Jean-Claude Lauzon brought to fruition as he tragically died in a plane crash in 1997.

Sitting in my to be watched pile is the Criterion Collection edition of Mon Oncle Antoine. Films I was suggested for Quebec include: Ma vie en CinemaScope, C.R.A.Z.Y., Le Chat dans le Sac, L’eau Chaude L’Eau Frette, Gerry, Going the Distance (1979) and Bon Cop, Bad Cop.

British Columbia

British Columbia is one of the trickiest as mentioned above. For the time being, I’ll have to stick with suggestions kindly provided me by a friend. In the meantime, rest assured that if you’ve seen enough movies you’ve likely seen British Columbia in disguise and didn’t realize it.

The suggestions were The Grey Fox, about a gentleman bandit who heads north after years in jail to ply his trade in Canada and My American Cousin, which tells a tale of a mysterious visit from a family member and the intrigue it introduces to a Canadian family’s life.

And also a suggestion was Everything’s Gone Green about a man who’s tries to work a money laundering scheme while working at a lottery magazine.

Nova Scotia

This is perhaps the best and most rewarding part of this post to me. The reward is that again thanks to those who responded to my Twitter inquiries I now have more Nova Scotia-based tales to seek out Margaret’s Museum and New Waterford Girl.

It was, however, one of the places I had a ready suggestion for but just the one. Pit Pony is one of those properties that you come across by chance. I first became familiar with it due to the television series that expanded upon the story, which bounced around several different US broadcasters. It’s one of the few shows I’ve seen in their entirety on multiple occasions. It reaffirms my belief that, although rarely implemented, the half-hour drama, especially when shot single-camera, is the most effective TV format. You have in this series palpable drama, romance, all in a turn of the century mining town so there’s a Dickensian struggle to is also.

Eventually, the TV show lead me to seek out the novel upon which it was based, and also the feature film that kickstarted the series. The film is essentially very faithful to the book and the series picks up from there spinning out new tales. In some ways the film isn’t as cinematic as the show is at its best. However, the emotional truth is there owing mostly to the fact that is shares many of the same actors. The various incarnations of the story but mainly the series is why Nova Scotia is near the top of my list of places to go; those vistas need to be seen in person.

Newfoundland and Labrador

Here is another part of the country wherein I was very glad to have a helping hand. I’ve honestly not seen anything set or produced in this province as of yet. However, with The Shipping News, which was suggested by a few people, and Rowdyman that should be quickly remedied.

Ontario

Ontario, Toronto specifically is another city, which while not as renowned as Vancouver, is a chameleon. Yet there are some very clear examples of films made there where the setting is either clearly Ontario or is vague thus makes it somewhat Canadian in my mind all the same.

If you haven’t seen Pontypool remedy that. I do want to revisit it, and while I’m not currently crazy about the third act, it is truly effective stuff.

It’s likely a film I should’ve included on my Embarrassed to Say list but I saw Videodrome for the first time not too long ago and it wouldn’t be what it is if not made by Cronenberg and Cronenberg wouldn’t be Cronenberg without being Canadian. Both he and Atom Egoyan made many a film in Canada, though perhaps not specifically set there. However, Egoyan’s earlier works all seem to be and are well worth seeing.

I have said previously how underrated and amazing I think The Kids in The Hall: Brain Candy is. While it too falls into the vague category and does make a lot of commentary apropos of 90s America, it’s still The Kids in the Hall, in my head (where it’s 72 degrees all the time) this movie is in Canada.

Suggested to me: Nobody Waved Goodbye and Breakfast with Scot.

Northwest Territories and Nunavut

There are two reasons I had to combine these two territories: First, since Nunavut came into being in 1999 a boundary may have shifted moving a previously made film from the Northwest Territory to Nunavut. Second, specific information is hard to find on productions that shoot that far north so to play it safe I’ll discuss both rather than being incorrect.

One film that was suggested to me was Atanarjuat: Fast Runner, which I recall seeing during its initial US Theatrical release at the Angelika in New York I believe.

That film was the first installment of a loose trilogy, I have yet to see the middle film, but the third Before Tomorrow was one of my favorite films in 2009 and won a BAM for its cinematography. I believe the only location cited in the filming is northern Quebec and I don’t recall if it was supposed to be doubling for the even further north Nunavut isles or if it was supposed to be a literal setting.

From a film history perspective Nanook of the North is an early groundbreaking documentary even though the titles offer a clearly biased (at times racist), dated interpretation of the footage it’s still an interesting film, but an American one.

Manitoba

When I think of Manitoba cinematically one name jumps immediately to the fore: Guy Maddin. I was suggested The Saddest Music in the World but would submit My Winnipeg a wonderfully personal, bizarre and artful portrait of a man and his strange relationship with his hometown. The narration, which is plentiful and great has been published as a book and would make a great companion to the film if you can track it down on DVD.

Seeing as how two National Film Board animated shorts were nominated for the Oscars this year I spotlighted a great Canadian short in a Short Film Saturday post: The Cat Came Back is one of my single favorite animated shorts ever.

The Nature of Nicholas, which is a tremendously creative, well-crafted, surreal fable about a boy struggling with his feelings for his best friend.

Alberta

This proved to be a tough one for me to figure also. I know the Canadian rockies and plains have been used as substitutes but to find a film shot and set there was a challenge. I didn’t want to cheat here with something like King’s Ransom, the ESPN Films doc about the Wayne Gretzky trade. However, answers did find me…

The first was via a tremendous suggestion by one of those I asked for input and a response I got was Passchendaele, which is a tale of a veteran his girlfriend, a nurse and a naive child during World War I, which sounds like a film well worth seeking out.

Then I was reminded of my second favorite Oscar nominated animated short from this year: Wild Life. You can read my thoughts on it here.

Lastly, like a bolt of lightning it struck me to search out information on perhaps the most successful lampoon for the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 gang: The Final Sacrifice. Now, typically I will go on laughing jags in good MST3K episodes. However, never before in one of these episodes was I fighting against asphyxiation so hard, never did my face hurt so from laughing, nor did cry from laughing so hard; as when I first watched this film. Like a typical selection by the show, it’s not quality cinema but this is one of those bad movies that really goes for it, which makes it enjoyable in its own right. It’s not one of those limp, plotless trudges it gives them a lot to play off of. This film tries hard, it creates a mythology and perhaps the greatest character name ever, and I’d argue a decent anti-hero; Zap Rowsdower. So after struggling, I did find some Alberta product that is rather intriguing in one way or another.

Saskatchewan

Saskatchewan was another one I had a tough time with. When I first really started to watch and follow Canadian football I was drawn to the Saskatchewan Roughriders in part because that’s the professional team there. I subsequently learned a bit more about the region but I don’t believe I’ve seen a film made in and set in the province, I could be wrong but it’s not coming to mind at the moment.

Here is where a suggestion came in handy, again this one was Brendan Meyer’s: Why Shoot The Teacher? which tells the tale of a young man who just graduated college in the east and the only job offer he receives is in a one-room school house in the prairies. There’s a clear clash and fish-out-of-water element but eventually he does connect to the place and the people and they to him. It’s one of the more intriguing suggestions I received.

Yukon

I had to go and search the IMDb because my inquiries did not yield results for the Yukon, though there are some interesting ones at least in terms of locations.

The recent film The Big Year had scenes there though I suspect doubling. A recent horror film entitled Whisper used the Yukon to double for New England. Therefore, the most recent film that was both shot in and set in the Yukon, I believe, is the 1983 Disney film Never Cry Wolf.

Its an area with a fascinating history and great scenic locations, which could be utilized more.

Prince Edward Island

Part of what I really enjoy about expansive posts like this one is that I invariably learn things. Now, clearly I found many films worth pursuing but where I learned most was here. I got no suggestions for PEI and it nearly slipped my mind. However, the IMDb didn’t offer much in the way of film productions set there. I did discover that there is quite a bit of legacy on Prince Edward Island in the person of Lucy Maud Montgomery whose novels about Emily of New Moon and Anne of Green Gables that are renowned the world over. Television productions, be they series or TV movies of the books, were filmed there but apparently no feature film adaptation was shot there. It is quite impressive that two such well-known series not only came from the same author but round out this post nicely.

Conclusion

I already knew Canada offered diverse film selections but approaching it this way I came away with myriad titles to seek out and discover, along with some others I was aware of but didn’t include here. If you’re interested in assembling your own tour there are several resources you can check out, you’ll find two below:

The National Film Board

You can also visit and search via provincial or territorial film boards.

Canuxploitation