Zacharias Kunuk, OC, is a filmmaker, sculptor and visual artist who lives in Iglulik (Igloolik), NU. Kunuk has redefined filmmaking in Canada and has been at the forefront of innovative use of broadcast technology in the North . He is perhaps best known for his debut feature film Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) from 2001, the first Canadian feature film produced entirely in Inuktitut. It won six Genie Awards and was ranked the No. 1 Canadian film of all time in a 2015 poll conducted by the Toronto International Film Festival . He is the co-founder of Isuma Productions, the first independent Inuit-led film production company in Canada.
After building a reputation as a soapstone carver, Kunuk bought his first video camera in 1981. He worked as an independent filmmaker in Iglulik, documenting hunting methods and other features of Inuit life . He used this tool to articulate to the wider world of media the importance and right of Inuit to make films in an Inuit voice and from their own perspective . Kunuk also worked in broadcasting, joining the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation (IBC) in 1982. In 1988 he teamed up with Norman Cohn and Pauloosie Qulitalik to found an independent production company called Igloolik Isuma Productions, based in Iglulik . This is where Kunuk’s style began to form; Isuma produced videos that created detailed recreations of traditional life using local people as actors and shot in a style that melded documentary and fiction . The intention of creating this company was to preserve and represent Inuit culture and language and to draw from talent in Iglulik and the region .
Kunuk’s preference for making videos and films about Nunavut’s past can be seen as a method of preserving traditions and oral history as well as a way to connect present Inuit to the past. The filmmaking approach that Kunuk uses means he works closely within his own community with community actors whose own sense of history and story infuse with the filmmaker. In 1998, The film Atanarjuat employed Inuit costumers, writers, actors and producers in a true community collaboration . It premiered to universal acclaim at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival and became the first Canadian film to win the coveted Camera d’or for best first feature film . Kunuk continues to produce and direct films, shorts and documentaries. More recently, he also directed the documentary Bowhead Whale Hunting With My Ancestors with Carol Kunnuk in 2018, which documents a modern bowhead whale hunt. It debuted at the ImagineNATIVE Film Festival in 2018 to much acclaim.
Kunuk has had many achievements over his film career, beginning with Atanarjuat, which received 19 awards worldwide, including Best Canadian Feature Film at the Toronto International Film Festival . He received an Indspire award in 2001 and in 2002 he was inducted as an Officer into the Order of Canada for his work developing and encouraging Inuit storytelling and promoting Inuit film production. In 2012 he received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubliee Award for community service, and in 2017 he received the Toronto Film Critics Association’s Technicolor Clyde Gilmour Award, which recognizes “a Canadian industry figure who has made a substantial and outstanding contribution to the advancement and/or history of Canadian cinema” . In July 2017, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences invited Kunuk to become a member. In 2019 he was honoured with the Order of Nunavut, Nunavut’s most prestigious award. He is also the winner of the National Arts Award and the National Aboriginal Achievement Award .