Brooklyn to Baffin Bay with DP Norman Cohn

Since winning the Caméra d'Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2001, The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat) has gone on to garner more awards at the Edinburgh and Toronto Film Festivals, sweep the Genies (Canada's equivalent to the Oscars), and screen to great acclaim in the 2002 New Directors/New Film series, prompting The New York Times to proclaim it "a masterpiece." Not bad for a three-hour digital-video Inuit-language movie, shot above the Arctic Circle for the bargain price of $1.3 million.

Drawn from a 1,000-year-old Inuit legend, The Fast Runner not only holds the distinction of being the first feature film in the language; its cast and crew are almost entirely drawn from the native community of Igloolik, which is located on a small island in the north Baffin region of the Canadian Arctic. Director Zacharias Kunuk, who also produced, co-wrote, and co-edited the film, was born in a sod house on the tundra, and settled in Igloolik at age nine. Screenwriter Paul Apak Angilirq, who died in 1998, was a co-founder with Kunuk of Igloolik Isuma Productions, Canada's first independent Inuit production company. Another co-founder of the collective is actor Paul Qulitalik, who appears in The Fast Runner. The fourth is producer, co-writer, co-editor, production manager, and director of photography Norman Cohn--the only non-Inuit on the team.

Scriptwriter Paul Apak Angilirq with director Zacharias Kunuk.

"I was born and grew up in Washington Heights," says Cohn, who now mostly commutes between Igloolik and the company's southern headquarters in Montreal. His journey from New York to the far North is tied up with his allegiance to video, and specifically to video's role as an alternative medium. "I was one of the first generation of video makers in the early 70s, when it was very politicized, and very much about community empowerment because it was cheap; people living in poor communities could actually get access to the equipment and make some version of a motion picture." Cohn set up a video center in the New Haven area, and then moved to Canada, partly to participate in an experimental National Film Board program that eventually ran aground. By the 1980s, he says, "the only way you could keep making a living as a video maker was in the art world." Arts grants, museum exhibitions, and festivals became Cohn's bread and butter.

DP Norman Cohn

Kunuk and his partners, meanwhile, had taught themselves to use video equipment, and had started making short pieces that perfectly matched Cohn's community empowerment model. "I was struck immediately by how much what they were doing looked like what I was doing," says the DP. "It didn't look like film, it didn't look like television, and it didn't look like video art." In 1985, Cohn moved to Igloolik, helped Kunuk get the first Canada Council for the Arts video grant given to an Inuit person, and joined in forming the Isuma collective. Short dramas like Qaggiq (Gathering Place), the TV series Nunavut (Our Land), and documentaries followed, and in 1998, the video makers decided the time had come for their first feature.

If The Fast Runner, which is both epic in scope and painstakingly detailed about Inuit nomadic life, seems like an ambitious choice, it was also a natural one. "In the Igloolik area, everybody for hundreds of years has heard this story as a kid," Cohn says. "Setting out to film it didn't seem that ambitious to us. We had already developed certain dramatic techniques working with a large number of local people, so we knew we had people with the ability to act; we certainly knew that we had the ability to create a kind of authenticity that no Arctic film had ever had; and we were very experienced in our medium, which was video--certainly as experienced as most mature filmmakers are in theirs."

Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq) in the run for his life across the Arctic sea ice.

The legend and film tells of a community split by an evil shaman's influence. The title character, Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq), incurs the wrath of camp leader Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq) when he wins the hand of Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu). Oki kills Atanarjuat's brother (Pakkak Innukshuk), but the mythic, and naked, Fast Runner is able to escape across the ice. There is much more to the story, including adultery, enactment of sacred ritual, and cleaning of sealskins. All of it looks breathtaking.

The Fast Runner was shot in 1998-99 with Sony's DVW-700WS camera, the first widescreen digital Betacam. "It was a tremendous jump from Betacam SP, and it was the first video camera of any kind that allowed you to do a 16x9 frame," says Cohn. "We thought it was a breakthrough camera, in that it allowed us to finally master the nuances of our extreme lighting environment. Also, the 16x9 frame was perfect for transfer to film." The DP also used a Canon 6-48mm zoom lens, "which allows you to penetrate to what you could call sweat-gland distance, and still be sharp and undistorted."

Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu) upon her reunion with the husband she thought was dead.

Using this camera and lens meant the production could nearly dispense with exterior lighting. Interiors--which came in two varieties, igloos and stone houses--were another matter. "The indoor environments that Inuit used to live in have a very special lighting quality," says Cohn. "They were lit by seal-oil lamps, which have an off-the-scale color temperature--extremely warm, almost yellow-golden light. It also has the quality that if you're sitting next to the lamp you're warm and bright, but when you're not sitting next to it you're cold and dark. It's little glowing bubbles of light, reflecting off the woman who's tending it."

Obviously, he continues, igloos can't take too much lighting--"If we used a couple of 350W lights, we'd melt the roof." Fortunately, the digital Betacam is sensitive enough that augmenting the seal-oil lamps with 100W and 200W LTM Peppers achieved a suitable light level. "We either handheld them or planted them just out of the frame, as close as possible to the oil lamps themselves, and put them on a flicker box," says Cohn, who has built up a substantial lighting package over the years, and rents whatever else he needs from William F. White and other companies in Montreal and Toronto. "This essentially doubled the luminance of the lamp. Sometimes in the stone house we would have a 350 bouncing off the roof behind the camera to take the whole level subtly up. But in the igloo during daylight you'd have a blue light coming through the walls, and this golden lamplight, and you'd end up with some extremely unusual lighted interiors that looked quite beautiful, and completely authentic."

Outside, the Arctic's natural light can be both plentiful and challenging. "But there's an industry way of looking at problems, and there's an Inuit way," says Cohn. "The industry way is to spend millions to control everything. Inuits bend with the problem, and adapt it until it's not a problem anymore. Light is our secret weapon--it's learning to use it without a generator. A lot of our film was shot in June and July, when it's sunny in the middle of the night outdoors. Some of the qualities of light that we have--those very long shadows--are unique to that environment. It's a very dynamic light, and it makes you try to be spontaneous. When you get the light you want, you've got to be ready and say, 'Let's shoot this now.'"

Cohn transferred The Fast Runner at Vancouver's Digital Film Group, which specializes in NTSC-format-to-35mm output. He says Isuma's next project may very well be done on 24p HD cameras, which were not available at the time of Fast Runner's production. But, he adds, "The idea of finding a video camera that so perfectly replicates a 35mm camera is not interesting to us. We approach shooting a digital film differently from all the people who've never liked video because of the look, and who have only gotten interested in digital filmmaking because they're being told it's going to look just like film. We come from the place where, when it looks like video, that's good.

"Video hums out at you in a way that film, for all its photographic beauty, doesn't do; its impact is more visceral," he continues. "People have been floored by how authentic our film looks, which is partly because of the props and the costumes and the actors. But it also looks authentic because extremely experienced video makers are drawing on 30 years of the spectator's belief in the being-there quality of the medium."