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February 6 - 7, 2004

A Tribute to Zacharias Kunuk

The Harvard Film Archive is proud to honor filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk with the first Sun Hill Award for Excellence in Native American Filmmaking. Zacharias Kunuk’s feature film The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat) garnered the prestigious Cannes Camera d’Or for best first film, six Canadian Genie Awards (including Best Picture), and went on to receive international acclaim after its release in 2001. The first feature in the Inuktitut language, directed by an Inuit, The Fast Runner brought to life a one thousand year old legend of clan warfare and romantic conflict, which the Village Voice hailed as heralding “a rebirth of cinema.”

Zacharias Kunuk grew up in Igloolik, an Inuit town of some 1200 people in Northern Canada. In order to see his favorite films every week as a boy—for twenty-five cents at the local theater—he began carving and selling walrus tusks. Eventually he graduated to selling his artwork in the galleries of Montreal and with the proceeds purchased his first video camera. Frustrated by the way he saw Inuit culture portrayed in Canadian media, he created Igloolik Isuma Productions in the mid-1980s and began producing documentaries and dramas on Inuit history, culture, and ritual.

The Sun Hill Award for Excellence in Native American Filmmaking is an annual award to honor an individual who has made a significant contribution as a director, actor, or producer to the legacy of Native American film. The Harvard Film Archive would like to thank Jennifer Malloy Combs for her invaluable support.

This program is co-presented with the SHARE/Consulate of Switzerland in Boston and the Goethe Institut, Boston. Special thanks to SwissFilms, Newmarket Films, and New Yorker Films.


February 6 (Friday) 7 pm - Director Zacharias Kunuk in Person

The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat)

Directed by Zacharias Kunuk
Canada, 2001, color, 172 min.
With Natar Ungalaaq, Sylvia Uvalu, Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq
Inuktitut with English subtitles

Compared by critics to the work of Homer and Shakespeare, The Fast Runner combines the immediacy of documentary with the power of myth. Two Inuit clans feud over the ill-fated love affair of Atanarjuat and his chosen bride, Atuat. When the protagonist takes a second wife, the action accelerates to a stunning chase scene on the ice. Described by some critics as one of the greatest action scenes ever filmed, the sequence portrays Atanarjuat, naked and pursued by killers, as he runs across the frozen tundra in order to escape his rivals. Filmed by Kunuk’s longtime collaborator and cinematographer, Norman Cohn, The Fast Runner’s striking visuals are unforgettable. Zacharias Kunuk’s seamless direction and the natural performances he evokes from his actors draw the viewer into an elemental world where time seems irrelevant and the daily rituals of the Inuit prior to European contact are brought to life.

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February 7 (Saturday) 7 pm

An Evening with Zacharias Kunuk

Tonight’s program offers a rare chance to meet Zacharias Kunuk in person as he screens and discusses the range of work that he and his colleagues have created over the past two decades. The program includes not only his most recent documentary film but also an example of animated work by his sister, Mary Kunuk, and the opening episode from his celebrated television series Nunavut (Our Land).

Nunavut, Episode 1: Dogteam (Qimuksiq)

Directed by Zacharias Kunuk
Canada, 1995, color, 30 min.

An award-winning television series produced by the creative team from The Fast Runner, Nunavut brought to life the story of the Inuit people living in the Igloolik region of the Canadian Arctic in the 1940s. The series dramatized true stories of contemporary Elders, whose memories of early days growing up just before government and settlement life began were captured in weekly thirty-minute sequences. The opening episode is set in Igloolik in the spring of 1945 and focuses on a family traveling in the immense and beautiful arctic spring. Inuaraq teaches his young son how to survive in the old way: driving the dogs, building the igloo, catching seals on the open water, and running down caribou to feed the family.

Stories (Unikausiq)

Directed by Mary Kunuk
Canada, 1996, color, 6 min.

Mary Kunuk is the sister of director Zacharias Kunuk. In this animated work, she explores stories of songs recalled from her own childhood. As she has said, “Recording them on video is my way of keeping them alive.”

Shaman Stories (Angakkuiit)

Directed by Zacharias Kunuk
Canada, 2003, color, 48 min
German with English subtitles

In his most recent documentary, Kunuk explores Inuit memories and experiences of shamanism as he documents oral histories about the last shamans practicing in the region of Igloolik, Nunavut. Elders discuss how shamanistic practice was influenced by Catholic and Anglican missionaries who came to the north and incorporated Christian figures into the Inuit pantheon, like the evil spirit “Satanasi.” Interviewees range from young people to elders and politicians, all of whom share a belief that “things happen” and that shamanism remains a living religion.

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