Cold Comfort

Since late last summer, The Fast Runner, the first feature-length movie made almost wholly by the aboriginal people of the Arctic, has been playing to packed houses. Released on DVD earlier this month, the film tells the story of an ancient Inuit legend and unsentimentally portrays the hard, grimy life of some of the region's native residents. Audiences weren't the only ones to embrace the film: Expressing an enthusiasm that characterized many reviews of the movie, The Washington Post's Desson Howe wrote that the film was "as close to authentic myth as cinema has ever gotten." In fact, nothing could be further from the truth: During the more than six months since the film's release, it seems to have gone almost completely unnoticed -- by reviewers and audiences alike -- that at the film's core is a crucial lie.

To be sure, The Fast Runner, deserved the accolades it received. It skillfully avoids caricature or stereotype, and depicts the Inuit not as noble savages but rather as a people as capable of nobility and savagery as any other. Yet when I watched the film, one particular scene -- crucial to the Inuit myth on which the story is based -- struck me as oddly misleading.

Following his return home from involuntary exile -- after barely escaping an attempt on his life -- the film's protagonist, Atanarjuat, has the opportunity to avenge the murder of his brother and the rape of his wife. He cunningly sets up the three culpable men so that they are utterly at his mercy. After knocking down his nemesis -- the group's ringleader who is both a murderer and rapist -- Atanarjuat raises a bone club and strikes. Except instead of the evil man's skull, he smashes the ice just next to it. Atanarjuat exclaims, "The killing stops now!" -- proving that he could have taken revenge but chose not to do so. Thus we are meant to believe that a 1,000-year-old Inuit myth of lust, betrayal and violence climaxes with a surprisingly pacifistic turn.

I just didn't buy it. Knowing some basic world myths, I was expecting vengeance akin to Odysseus' bow-and-arrow heroics during his homecoming. Moreover, in a society such as the Inuit's -- one without laws, police or prisons -- violent retribution would have not only been highly likely, it also might have been justified.

And my hunch was right. I discovered that the original legend ends -- to use the words of Norman Cohn, one of the film's producers -- "with everybody's brains all over the floor." I asked Zacharias Kunuk, the film's director, whether the movie alters the Inuit myth. "The only thing that we changed was the ending," he said. "In the actual story Atanarjuat smashes [the villains'] heads." Explaining the decision, he said, "Every generation has their version. It was a message more fitting for our times. Killing people doesn't solve anything."

Apparently only two publications -- The Toronto Sun and RES Magazine -- noted the change. Given that one is a tabloid with only the fourth-largest circulation in Toronto and the other is an obscure magazine devoted to digital filmmaking, it should come as no surprise that this crucial plot change has gone unnoticed by most members of the public. Even the film's otherwise detailed press kit does not mention the alteration.

Why does this change matter? After all, screenwriters routinely take great liberties in their adaptations, and most moviegoers realize that nondocumentary films rarely adhere to literal truths. But there are reasons to think that this change is particularly problematic. For one thing, the film was intended as an indelible document to preserve an oral tradition -- and as such, it presents itself as painstakingly authentic. The press kit boasts, "Elders commented on every stage of the scriptwriting process for cultural accuracy, sharpening language and explaining relations and motivations not immediately apparent in today's more modernized culture." Indeed, one of the filmmakers' motivations for producing The Fast Runner was to remedy false depictions of the Inuit in prior films. And yet the altered climax is an inaccurate portrayal of Inuit culture: The original ending of the legend precisely matches what anthropologists report about premodern Inuit -- that murder always required blood vengeance.

I asked Kunuk whether he was concerned that the ending would create misconceptions about the Inuit. "No, not really," he replied. "Other people could do the same, could film their own version of the myth." Yet for most viewers, The Fast Runner is likely to represent their lone exposure to the legend -- and perhaps to all of Inuit culture. It would be as if a student spent only one day learning about Norse mythology and was told that the gods and giants peacefully resolved their differences instead of mutually destroying each other.

Let's give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt and acknowledge that their decision to change the ending was likely motivated by good intentions. "Our film warns against extreme chauvinism," Cohn told The San Francisco Examiner. "It articulates as clearly as possible the price of embracing vengeance. The logical conclusion of vengeance is that we're all going to die." But could it be that the filmmakers weren't consciously aware of all the reasons for the changes they made? That the villains are not only spared in the movie but are actually forgiven by the mother of the rape victim suggested to me the influence of Christianity, which missionaries brought to the formerly shamanist Inuit. In fact, noting that shamanism has been "a very touchy subject" since the introduction of Christianity, Kunuk told me that the Inuit community had qualms about depicting its former religion on screen: "Everybody wants to go to heaven," he said. "Everyone now knows there is hell." Asked whether the altered ending -- and specifically its emphasis on forgiveness -- represented the influence of a Christian worldview, Kunuk paused briefly. "Probably, probably," he replied.

But though the film's uplifting message might appeal to modern-day Inuit -- and to us -- it is profoundly misleading to imply that forgiveness had any role in the original myth. It is of course the artistic prerogative of any filmmaker to whitewash a historical myth with the veneer of contemporary morality, and Hollywood screenwriters do it all the time. But the producers of The Fast Runner sold their work as wholly authentic. And most moviegoers were never the wiser.

Justin Shubow is a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Michigan.