Zacharias Kunuk tends to notice things. Born in a sod house on Baffin Island, he grew up surrounded by ice and tundra, and learned to see the world with the clarity of arctic light and epic horizons. It’s hard to imagine a world further removed from the madness of the Cannes International Film Festival. But last week, dressed in a silk tuxedo and silver tie, Kunuk stood on a Cannes street corner and quietly surveyed the after-midnight throng that sprawled into the street from the Petit Majestic bar. “I wish I had my video camera,” he sighed as he watched buskers with an accordion, bass and clarinet work the crowd. “The one time you leave it at
the hotel is when you want it.” Kunuk has come to Cannes as director of Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner), the first Inuit-language feature in history—and a sleeper hit at the festival. On the night of its premiere, as photographers shot him climbing the red carpet steps, the 43-yearold filmmaker was shooting right back with his video camera. During the day, he roamed the streets, documenting whatever struck his eye in the small, small world of Europe: small streets, small cars, small coffees, small dogs. He was fascinated by the dogs, the miniature kind the French are so fond of, and kept saying he wants to buy a Chihuahua to keep his husky company at home in Igloolik, on the tiny Nunavut is-
land of the same name. Kunuk’s publicist suggested he get two, one for each pocket, and use them as hand warmers.
In this year of subdued Canadian presence in Cannes, the icy Atanarjuat became a worthy torchbearer. With no new titles from the usual pantheon—David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, Denys Arcand—there was no Canadian filmmaker in official competition. Atanarjuat was shown in a sidebar called Un Certain Regard, and just about everyone agreed that it deserved to be in the main program. At the French Riviera’s world summit of foreign film, no film was more foreign than A tanarjuat. And the critics raved. Le Momie called it “a rare pleasure, one of total freshness,” adding that its story, based on a 4,000-year-old legend, revives codes and rituals that have been dead for so long among us that it’s like discovering a new world.” Variety predicted it “would find a warm welcome worldwide.” The other Canadian surprise in Cannes was a 25-year-old Afghani refugee from Ottawa named Nelofer Pazira, who inadvertently became the star of Kandahar, by Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. One of the most acclaimed tides in the competition, Kandahar is about an Afghani journalist from Ottawa trying to rescue a sister in Afghanistan who has threatened to commit suicide before the last eclipse of the 20th century. The story is Paziras own. In trying to track down a suicidal friend in Afghanistan, she asked Makhmalbaf—the only filmmaker to have made movies about Afghanistan—to help her enter the country and document her trip. Instead, Makhmalbaf cast her at the centre of a drama shot on the Iran side of the Afghani border, with all the characters playing themselves. Pazira never found her real-life friend.
There are striking parallels between Atanarjuat and Kandahar, aside from the
Sylvia Ivalu and her child play roles in Atanarjuat and, below, Nat ar Ungalaaq and Pakak Innnkshuk play the brothers in an epic tale of love, jealousy, murder and revenge
SET CANADA’S NORTH m THE FIRST INUITLANGUAGE MOVIE IN HISTORY—HAS BEEN A BRACING HIT AT CANNES
Canadian connection. Both follow quests of nomadic people in desert landscapes, ice in one case and sand in the other. Both employ non-professional actors and authentic locations to open a documentary window on an exotic world—while conjuring surreal, operatic images of horror and beauty. And at a festival where so many American and European filmmakers seemed trapped in a vortex of self-referential style, these two I hinterland odysseys of! fer hope for the future I of cinema.
Capturing the extraordinary light and sweep of the Arctic, the movie was shot on digital video by cinematographer Norm Cohn, who also coproduced and co-wrote it.
The story is confusing at first—its difficult not to get characters mixed up, but that becomes part of the snow-blind intrigue. And although the movies three-hour length is commercially unwieldy, that conveys a world of expanded time and space—a realm of visible silence. “We didn’t intend it to be that long,” says Cohn. “We wrote a 100-page script and expected it to be 110 minutes. But this is a culture that does not talk much. Our film is about a part
Nelofer Pazira, an Afghani refugee from Ottawa, stars in Kandahar, which veers from whimsy to harrowing realism in a world beyond imagination
of the world where people are very attuned to watching. So we ended up writing a much longer film than we realized.” Cohn, 54, is the one non-Inuit in the collective called Igloolik Isuma Productions, Canada’s first Inuit-owned film and TV production company. The former Montreal video artist has been living in Igloolik and working with Kunuk for 15 years. Kunuk was a successful carver who bought his first video camera two decades ago by selling three sculptures. Atanarjuat, which cost $2 million, was made with the help of the National Film Board, and involved a five-year struggle. The producers initially had trouble persuading Telefilm Canada to allow an aboriginal-language drama access to serious national funding. But now Cohn and Kunuk are planning their next movie—an epic about shamans and Christian missionaries. “It will be more commercial,” predicts Cohn, “and less exotic. And who knows, we may have people flying like in Crouching Tiger.” Nelofer Pazira, meanwhile, has no plans to extend her career as an actress after Kandahar. Having fled Afghanistan with her family at 15, she later obtained a journalism degree from Ottawa’s Carleton University, and is now intent on making documentaries and helping refugee women from Afghanistan.
Veering between whimsy and harrow-
ing realism, Kandahar ventures into a world beyond imagination. As Paziras character pays a kid hustler to lead her across the desert, she comes across hordes of land-mine amputees, and an Afghani doctor with a fake beard—actually a black American who came to Iran 20 years earlier looking for God. There is an amazing scene of amputees on crutches racing after dozens of artificial legs being dropped by parachute from a Red Cross helicopter. This is the movie’s one symbolic invention—fake legs float down to the desert, disembodied. And like Atanarjuat vision of a bleeding man running naked across the ice, it’s not easily forgotten.
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