When Atanarjuat won the best first film award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2001, Canadians were overjoyed. The success of Zacharias Kunuk's film was a welcome marker of Canada's burgeoning re-evaluation and celebration of the country's indigenous cultures. It came seven years after an official report condemned the forced relocation of Inuit families to the remote Ellesmere Island in the 1950s as 'one of the worst human rights violations' in Canadian history, and just two years after the official establishment of the federal territory of Nunavut.
For the Inuit people, the film also marked the first time their culture had been represented from their own perspective rather than that of an outsider - as seen in films such as Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North, the 'documentary' in which certain scenes were staged so as to make the proceedings more lyrical and engaging to Western tastes.
Born and raised in the town of Igloolik, Kunuk produced the film by leaving his job at the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation to establish a company with three fellow Inuit filmmakers: Paul Apak Angilirq, Pauloosie Qulitalik and Norman Cohn. Kunuk formed the cast and crew nearly entirely from his own community. The film itself is an adaptation of a local myth driven by intra-tribal rivalry and romance, in which the titular character (whose name means 'The Fast Runner') wins a duel against his evil adversary Oki, who later fails in an attempt to kill him. Atanarjuat escapes, recovers and then returns to avenge all those whom Oki murdered on his way to attaining power in the tribe.
The result of Kunuk's labours is a three-hour epic which mixes genuine depiction of Inuit life and rituals with a narrative which unfolds like the best of a contemporary saga. With Atanarjuat, he showed the world how Inuit culture has been in place for millennia, well before the self-aggrandising European missionaries set foot on their lands. It's a theme which drives his follow-up, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (2006), a Danish-Canadian co-production about the interaction between Inuits and a team of Danish explorers. It remains to be seen whether Kunuk could do even better with his latest project - a collaboration with Neil Diamond, the Cree director who has also forged a career with independent projects about his own culture.
Atanarjuat, Aug 26, 7.30pm, tonight, 8pm, Hong Kong Arts Centre