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The Fast Runner

CBC Radio Dispatches in January 2005

I’m on a high speed train, skimming over a rumpled blanket of fields in southern Germany.


The man next to me is reading a book with the title ‘Picasso’s Hair-Do’.  On the cover is a photograph of Picasso from the nose up. Picasso has no hair. Nor does the man next to me.


In a few hours, I will give a lecture on the history of film-making in Canada, a lecture I have yet to write.


I do this occasionally at the invitation of the Canadian Embassy in Berlin: give an introduction to a Canadian film in the name of what Foreign Affairs calls ‘public diplomacy’.  The public tends to respond well, at least to the free sandwiches.


Sometimes I’m introduced as a representative of the embassy, sometimes as a journalist, sometimes as a filmmaker. There is some truth to all and complete truth to none.


The most dangerous introduction, but perhaps the most accurate, is as anthropologist.


It was in this capacity that I recently presented the film ‘Atanarjuat’ in Marburg, a town in the middle of Germany.


300 people sat in the cinema.


I explained that, contrary to many reviews in the German press, the film was not a documentary but rather an enactment of an ancient Inuit legend.


In it, a shaman places a curse on a nomadic community. Soon thereafter, their leader is murdered and his evil rival Oki takes over.


Our hero Atanarjuat and his brother vow get rid of Oki. Then the lovely Atuat, who has been promised in marriage to Oki, chooses instead to marry Atanarjuat. Oki, enraged, sends his sister into the enemy camp to seduce Atanarjuat. She succeeds, becoming his second wife and then goes on to seduce Atanarjuat’s brother, an act which does not go unnoticed, taking place as it does in the family tent where everyone snuggles together.


Atanarjuat escapes Oki’s spear by running buck naked over several thousand kilometres of ice. Finally, he collapses in a puddle, which seems like a plausible end to the tale – the film having reached the 2 hour mark.


But, this being an epic, Atanarjuat is nursed back to health, is joyfully reunited with Atuat, calls Wife Number Two a slut, and escapes yet another murderous plot.


Then, a wizened old woman banishes Oki, pronounces Atanarjuat chief and we are left to assume that they all live happily ever after.


The credits roll, the lights come on.


To my astonishment, nobody has left the room.


I am ushered into a car and driven through Marburg to its medieval centre for a further discussion of the film.  


Next to the St. Elisabeth Church, the first of the German High Gothic I am told, is a stone building: the Hall of the Order of German Knights.


The cellar of the Hall has blackened walls and a huge vaulted ceiling. Here, in the Dark Ages, beasts were roasted and slop was brewed to feed hungry pilgrims to the church.


Today its being used by the Marburg Geographic Society.


The head of the Society introduces me … as an anthropologist.


Someone places a bottle of wine before me.


A bearded man in a dark corner introduces himself as a professor of comparative literature. He asks me if women were the traditional dispensers of justice among the Inuit.


I launch into my well-rehearsed explanation of the difference between Anthropology as it is understood in Germany and Canada.  


In Germany, Anthropology is still generally thought to be the study of jungle dwellers, totem-worshippers and cannibals.  In Canada, at least at the university where I studied, we deconstructed the photographs in National Geographic, slammed Flaubert for climbing to the top of the Pyramids to look down, and talked a lot about occularcentrism, liminality and hegemonic discourse. When the novelty of all that wore off, we went on strike against the university administration.


But the bearded man is not satisfied. He wants me to talk about the social structures among the Inuit.


‘Was it a sin,’ he asks, ‘for the two brothers to share one woman?  Who is to blame in this case: the man or the woman?’


As a rule, I think to myself, the woman is to blame.


‘After all, it was dark. These things happen.’


His tribe sounds interesting, I think.


The professor continues pontificating, the others take deep gulps of their wine.


The man next to me introduces himself as a theologian who has devoted his studies to the question of redemption.


‘I hope you weren’t offended by him,’ he says. ‘He’s a staunch Catholic.’


The theologian tells me about Marburg’s renowned university, founded in 1526 by Philipp, Earl of Hessen.


‘His name - Philipp der Grossmütig – is often misunderstood.    Today we think of Grossmut as something like courage.  At the time, I believe it referred more to his...’


‘Magnanimous,’ says the Geographer sitting next to him, not looking up from his beer stein. ‘The English translation is magnanimous.’


‘Philipp took a second wife,’ the theologian continues. ‘This was his downfall. It led to a regional war between the houses of the two women, between Saale and Saxony.’


The theologian pauses.  


‘I believe he was quite… well grossmütig. Potent.’


The Geographer nods to himself.


‘He is said to have had three… testicles.’


‘Balls,’ says the Geographer, fixing me with a meaningful look.


We all drink.


This is European history.


Atanarjuat is Inuit legend.  


The train is pulling into a town where I will give my lecture. The page before me remains blank. The man beside me is asleep. Picasso lies on the floor. He still has no hair.


This time, I vow to introduce myself as a representative of the Canadian Embassy. After the film, I know I’ll be questioned about immigration requirements.  

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