Two decades after presenting his film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner to the world, Inuit director Zacharias Kunuk has another film that won accolades.
Angakusajaujuq: The Shaman’s Apprentice, Kunuk’s adaptation of a traditional Inuit story, was named best Canadian short at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), which ended September 18 in Toronto.
International film journalists who are members of the International Federation of the Cinematographic Press (FIPRESCI) previously awarded Kunuk’s latest film the FIRPRESCI Prize when it was presented at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival in France in July.
TIFF’s latest recognition, however, means Angakusajaujuq: The Shaman’s Apprentice automatically qualifies for an Oscar nomination.
Kunuk took the world by storm in 2001 when Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner made its world premiere at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.
The film, which won the Golden Camera Award at Cannes, was the first Canadian feature drama written, directed and performed entirely in the Inuktitut language.
The film, which has won awards at numerous festivals around the world, tells of an Inuit legend passed down through the centuries.
Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner was due to have its North American premiere at TIFF in 2001. But this screening was postponed following the September 11 attacks in the United States.
Many years later, in 2015, Kunuk’s film was chosen as the greatest Canadian film of all time in a survey of filmmakers and critics at TIFF.
As for Angakusajaujuq: The Shaman’s Apprentice, just like Kunuk’s groundbreaking film, it is a traditional Inuit story.
The film focuses on a young woman who is training to be a shaman and is about to face her first test, taking a trip on the subway to visit Kannaaluk, The One Below. The trip takes place to determine why a member of the community fell ill.
The shaman-in-training discovers that she must believe in the teachings of her grandmother and mentor and control her fears while encountering challenges and dark spirits.
Kunuk was born in Kapuiviit, which was part of the Northwest Territories, but is now part of Nunavut.
He said that Angakusajaujuq: The Shaman’s Apprentice is based on a story he heard from an elder in 1980. He was told how shamans would venture into the underworld to try and find answers on a taboo that had been broken or how to heal those who were sick.
âIn our traditional beliefs, unexplained illnesses often stemmed from broken taboos, when a person ate a piece of meat that they were not allowed to eat, disrespected an animal or a person, or violated a social rule, âKunuk said. âThis incredible story of the underworld journey has stuck in my mind ever since. ”
The TIFF Award jury members who named Kunuk’s work as the best Canadian short film at this year’s event released the following statement:
“Angakusajaujuq â The Shaman’s Apprentice by Zacharias Kunuk is a captivating stop-motion that encapsulates an array of textures, sounds and nuanced expressions that collectively invite you on the apprentice’s journey in learning traditional knowledge and taking in charge of the community while facing your own fears. You can’t help but think that the questions posed to the apprentice are for all of us to consider: who are you? What have you learned?”
Kunuk said shamanism provided both guidance and structure to Inuit living in difficult conditions.
âWe have survived sustainably in this environment by passing our traditions and knowledge down through thousands of years of oral tradition,â he said. âBut when Christianity arrived a hundred years ago, followed by the forced colonization, residential schools and the colonial school system we have now, so many of these oral teachings ceased to be told.
âIt was illegal to drum or sing our songs. Our priests told us that shamanism was the work of Satan, so we stopped talking about it. A lot of people still feel uncomfortable talking about it, but I think now things are starting to change. The world changes.”
Kunuk said traditional Inuit beliefs state that spirits are always present.
âThey are all around us, but most just cannot perceive them,â he said. “Every object or life form has a spirit and you must respect them because they are as alive as we are and can harm you if you don’t.”
Kunuk also said he believes animation is the perfect medium for Angakusajaujuq: The Shaman’s Apprentice, a 20-minute film.
âThe freedom of animation opens up so many possibilities for telling these kinds of stories in the future because we have so many amazing stories waiting to be told,â he said.
âI see this short film simply as a tool to start talking about shamanism again, to invite Inuit, especially children and younger generations, to be proud of our rich spiritual traditions and to feel comfortable exploring and ask questions about shamanism. â