Nanook Of The North Essays
We have become so accustomed to television documentaries in which someone famous travels to a distant part of the world to view its inhabitants in their natural state that we have quite forgotten where it all originated. One of the fountainheads was Robert Flaherty, an American from Michigan who was as much the great Victorian romantic as any Englishman born in the late-19th century.
Flaherty was a pioneer of the documentary, and one of those whose work sparked many of the continuing arguments about truth and falsehood within the genre. His style is now often patronised as naïve and schematic. But if you look at Nanook of the North you can see where so much else has come from.
The filming of an Eskimo community took place over almost two years on the eastern shore of Hudson Bay, and Flaherty's goal was complete authenticity. He wielded his gyroscope camera himself, carrying into his harsh surroundings enough equipment to process and develop the film and show it to the Eskimos. Nanook and his family were real, but the film is not a straightforward recording of their everyday life: they amiably enacted some of it for Flaherty's cameras. But so honest and instinctive was their playing that it was undoubtedly truth of a sort.
The background comes to the fore, photographed in black and white with consummate dramatic skill. Though the film has no conventional plot, it tells a coherent story through its extraordinary images. It hints at that old cliche about the noble savage being pushed towards a civilisation that will destroy him. But it does so with a rare feeling for a timeless landscape and a way of life that had remained unchanged for centuries.
The building of the igloo is perhaps the most famous and fascinating episode. It is taken step by step, without the explanation that might render it more mundane today, though the way translucent blocks of ice are used as windows could hardly seem humdrum in any hands. But again Flaherty "cheated", since he had an igloo constructed to twice the normal size, with half of it cut away to provide more light for his camera.
When the film was released, it got rave reviews and no one called it a documentary. It simply seemed to be in a class by itself. It still is. Flaherty was never again to achieve such lack of self-consciousness and purity of style, though films like Moana, about the Samoan lifestyle, Man of Aran and Louisiana Story contained extraordinary sequences.
Flaherty had what was once called "an innocent eye", which tried to discover "the elemental truths that all men share". He was patrician, eccentric, obdurate and had the eye of a painter - the attributes of many good film-makers. He believed that if Eskimos could tame nature, then the rest of us could tame our more advanced civilisation. Perversely, Nanook of the North was made for a fur-trading firm. Perversely also, it was Nanook rather than the film-maker who became an instant celebrity.
Review: Nanook of the North: A Story Of Life and Love In the Actual Arctic (1922)
Posted by Brandy Dean February 12, 2013 1 Comment 15858 views
It’s really difficult to categorize Robert J. Flaherty’s 1922 masterpiece Nanook of the North: A Story of Love and Life in the Actual Arctic(now more commonly known as Nanook of the North). It is routinely named and considered to be the first feature-length documentary, and genre of filmmaking which did not actually exist in 1922. It is just as often decried for being staged, the exact opposite of what we currently mean by “documentary film.” The truth about that particular aspect of Nanook of the North lies somewhere between those two poles. What is certain is that it’s powerful, moving, and definitely unique among all other movies made in 1922.
Nanook of the North details the life on Inuit hunter Nanook (Allakariallak) as he struggles to survive and feed his family, wives Nyla and Cunayou and his two children Allee and Rainbow, in the Canadian Arctic. It’s a harsh environment to be sure, but Nanook and his family seem fairly content, even while locked in a constant and life-and-death battle with their surrounding. This is Inuit life in 1922, though it was about to disappear. Robert Flaherty indeed dragged a camera to the Arctic, the actual one as the subtitle of the film takes great pains to note, and struggled right along with Nanook and the family for the duration of filming. That’s pretty harsh too, and there is a subtle meta-narrative about the making of the film reflected in the struggles of this Inuit family.
The “factual” problems with Nanook of the North are well documented. Flaherty himself was quite candid about which parts were staged. Nanook is Allakariallak, a real Inuit man famed for his hunting prowess with a family feed. The wives we see on screen, however, not his actual wives. The most exciting part of the movie involve typical Inuit hardships like constructing an igloo or hunting a seal, but Flaherty admitted that these scenes were staged. So, let’s cut our pioneering documentarian, a wee bit of slack. It’s not like Flaherty was running around the Arctic with a steadicam and a union film crew. The actual fact of the matter is that he journey to the end of the earth and filmed the inhabitants in very genuine situations, even if they had to be fudged for his camera in the moment of filming.
As Roger Ebert notes in his excellent essay on Nanook of the North, just because you “stage” a walrus hunt, you’re still hunting a walrus and the walrus probably didn’t get the script. Truer words never spoken. The Walrus plays his part, as well as the seals and the weather and Nanook himself in this film, and the result is one of raw, staggering beauty. Flaherty would go to produce other more sophisticated, polished films, notably Tabu, a Story of the South Seas (1931), an ill-fated collaboration with F.W. Murnau and my personal favorite Man of Aran, a 1934 doc about life on the Aran Islands off the western coast of Ireland. But for sheer magnificence, sheer raw power, and sheer illustration about the human struggle to survive, viewed through the prism of Nanook’s and Flaherty’s own to make this movie, you just can’t beat Nanook of the North.
How to see Nanook of the North
Nanook screens pretty regularly so keep an eye on your local theatres. There is also a magnificent Criterion edition of the movie and it’s well worth owning. Or, you can scroll right down to the bottom of this post and watch the complete movie online.
Gallery of Images from Nanook of the North
Watch Nanook of the North Online
documentaryRobert J. Flahertysilent documentarysilent film