Atanarjuat is the first feature-length film to be written by, directed, and star Inuit people (1911's The Way of the Eskimo, which was written by and starred Inuit, is a lost film, but had a running time of only about ten minutes). It was literally years in the making, as director Zacharias Kunuk of Igloolik and co-writer Pauloosie Qulitalik sought to develop the idea. Backing was hard to find, as was a cast talented enough and experienced enough to make the film he'd dreamed of. Filming got underway at last in 1999, only to have the man cast in the lead role quit the film (apparently he didn't fancy running naked for miles over the ice, which is the film's most dramatic scene). Happily, Natar Ungalaaq, who replaced him, was both a more capable and a more handsome leading man, and the magnetism between his character and Atuat (a brilliant performance by Sylvia Ivalu) is palpable.
The story is based on an old legend from the Igloolik area (though similar tales are recorded in other Inuit groups), and has all the basic elements of romance and epic. Two brothers, whose father has never had much success in hunting, grow to adulthood and become great hunters. One of them is known as a fast runner; he can catch up with a dogsled going full tilt. This is Atanarjuat, and he loves Atuat, despite the fact that she's been pledged by her father, a powerful shaman, to his own son Oki. Atanarjuat and Oki engage in ritual combat, taunting each other with drum-dance songs and exchanging blows to the head. Atanarjuat triumphs, but Oki, not one to take defeat lightly, plans revenge. Peter-Henry Arnatsuaq, who plays Oki, has the perfect braggart's swagger, as well as a mouthful of villainous teeth; it's hard to take your eyes off him, even when you want to. The drama that unfolds would be compelling in any world, but in the treeless wilderness of snow and ice, where the dead as well as the living may be waiting for you at the end of your journey, it's especially stark and compelling.