Zacharias Kunuk, director of Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner), an all-Inuit feature film which has won numerous awards world-wide, will speak on The Art of Inuit Storytelling in the Digital Age at 7:30 p.m. May 7 in the Price Center Theatre at the University of California, San Diego. A screening of Atanarjuat will precede his talk at 7 p.m. May 6, also in the Price Center Theatre. Both events are free and open to the public.
The writer/director/filmmaker’s visit to UCSD is sponsored by the Council of Provosts and is the third in a series of annual campus convocations. UCSD’s Sixth College is chairing the presentation this year.
Atanarjuat, written, produced, directed and acted by Inuit, tells an ancient Inuit epic story. It won the Camera d’Or at the 2001 Cannes International Film Festival; six 2002 Genie Awards, including best picture, best director and best screenplay; the Best Canadian Feature Film at the 2001 Toronto International Film Festival, and was chosen as Canada’s official selection at the 2001 Academy Awards.
It also was selected Best Feature Film at the 2002 San Diego International Film Festival and Best Feature Film at the 2002 American Indian Film Festival – and these are just a few of its awards.
Native to the Inuit culture of Canada, where storytelling is one of the oldest living art forms, the self-taught Kunuk went from trading his soap stone carvings in 1981 for a video camera, VCR and 26-inch television to directing films. He was named 2002 Man of the Year in the Arts by The Globe and Mail (Toronto), won best director and best new director awards in international film festivals, and was appointed an officer of the Order of Canada by the Canadian Governor General.
Yet for all this glory, Kunuk’s goal is basic: to preserve the art of Inuit storytelling, and in keeping with changing times, to preserve it for generations to come via film screened in theaters and on television.
“Kunuk’s work brings alive Sixth College’s theme, Culture, Art and Technology,” says Sixth College Provost Gabriele Wienhausen. “Kunuk has used a modern day technology to allow his people to tell their own story in their own way and his work allows all of us to learn about another culture, the Inuit culture.”
Wienhausen calls Kunuk “one of the most, if not the most, prominent Native American filmmakers.” In addition to accomplishing his own goals, Wienhausen says “Kunuk and his work have inspired and influenced indigenous communities all over the world. He has become a model and lightening rod for communities such as the American Indians on Southern California reservations in their efforts to preserve and celebrate their own specific culture and traditions.”
Kunuk says “people in Igloolik learned through storytelling who we were and where we came from for 4000 years without a written language.” He learned the power of TV when children gathered outside his window in 1981 to watch the home videos he made of his father and hunting buddies tell stories when they came home from the hunt.
These 1981 home videos were two years before television was approved in Igloolik. Kunuk’s hometown is a community of 1,200 located on a small island in the north Baffin region of the Canadian Arctic. Its residents had twice voted against TV in the 1970s because they saw nothing in the Inuktitut language.
When Kunuk co-founded Igloolik Isuma Productions Inc., Canada’s first Inuit-owned independent production company, in 1990, he and his partners vowed to change all that.
“Our name, Isuma, means ‘to think,’ as in Thinking Productions,” says Kunuk. “Our building in the center of Igloolik has a big sign on the front that says Isuma. Think. Young and old work together to keep our ancestors’ knowledge alive. We create traditional artifacts, digital multimedia and desperately needed jobs in the same activity. Our productions give an artist’s view for all to see where we came from: what Inuit were able to do then and what we are able to do now.”
Though it has produced a number of documentaries and shorter films, Atanarjuat is Isuma Productions’ coup to date. In keeping with Kunuk’s and Isuma Productions’ story-telling preservation mission, Atanarjuat is based on an ancient Inuit legend, a story all Inuit heard as children, set in the Arctic at the dawn of the first millennium and filmed on the sea-ice, sprawling tundra and rocky flatlands around Igloolik. It tells of a small nomadic community of Inuit divided by evil and two brothers who emerge to challenge the evil order. The stage is set when one is killed in his sleep by the envious son of the evil camp leader, and the other, Atanarjuat, the fast runner who woos the same fair maiden as the envious son, escapes death via his speed and is able and ever more eager to return to challenge.
Not only an Inuit story, says Kunuk, this is “a universal story with emotions people all over the world can understand: love, jealousy, murder, revenge, forgiveness.”
When asked the moment he liked best about creating his premier accomplishment, Atanarjuat, Kunuk recalls: “When we have a camp, and it’s all set up; all the cameras, all the sound systems are checked – the moment I call the actors to come on set, and they start coming over the hill in their costumes and I’m just imagining ‘That’s how it must have looked!’ That was my greatest moment.
“Our film is one way of bringing back lost traditions.”
Kunuk says, even when traveling “My head is still back home. I want to get on my sled and go hunting and just ride the land. That’s where my head is all the time. It hasn’t changed.”
For further information on the
screening of Atanarjuat or Kunuk’s lecture, call (858)
822-5950 or visit http://convocation.ucsd.edu/.
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