(1922) Directed by Robert J. Flaherty; Starring: Allakariallak, Nyla, Allee and Cunayou; Available on DVD
“The secret of Nanook is, I believe, is in those two words: being themselves. Not acting, but being.” – Frances Flaherty (co-editor and wife of Robert J. Flaherty)
I’m proud to participate in the Classic Movie HistoryProject blogathon, hosted by the incomparable Ruth of Silver Screenings, Fritzi of Movies Silently, and Aurora of Once Upon a Screen. Thanks for the opportunity to discuss a pioneering, captivating and controversial film.
While it wasn’t the first feature documentary, Nanook of the North is one of the most popular early examples of the genre. Its director, Robert J. Flaherty probably would have contested the “documentary” label, however, since the film was intended for the masses, not stuffy academics (Hey, not that there’s anything wrong with documentaries. Heck, I devoted an entire month to them!). On the title card, the film is described as “A story of life and love in the actual arctic.” As such, Flaherty’s film exists in a gray area that skirts the line between telling a story and retaining integrity for its subject matter.* The film’s prologue informs us that it was filmed on location in Hopewell Sound,** a desolate region of northern Ontario, Canada described as “…a little kingdom in size – nearly as large as England, yet occupied by less than three hundred souls.” The frozen landscape lends veracity to the simple tale of family life and survival.
* In an interview, Flaherty’s widow Frances commented that he was an explorer first, and “a filmmaker a long way after.” (From interview with Robert Gardner for the television program, Flaherty and Film)
** According to the 2002 article “Nanook and the Kirwinians: Deception, Authenticity, and the Birth of Modern Ethnographic Representation,” much of the film was actually shot in Inukjuak in Quebec (Burton and Thompson).
In the prologue, Flaherty describes the Inuit (which he commonly refers to under the more generic term “Eskimo”) denizens as “the most cheerful people in all the world,” despite living in conditions that would be inhospitable to most of us. He goes on to describe Nanook (meaning “The Bear”) and his cohorts as “happy go lucky,” which, given their travails, seems rather condescending. Despite some tinkering with the events depicted, the film succeeds because of its unblinking, earnest portrayal of a culture that is alien to most of us. Flaherty’s lens reveals a part of the world that even today few of us have ever seen.
Some of the film’s scenes, depicting the harsh reality of arctic life, are difficult to watch, especially for animal lovers. We learn that Nanook and his brethren have to subsist almost entirely off the animals they catch. This includes fur trading (we see a huge rack of fox pelts, and witness Nanook as he catches a fox in a trap). An inordinate amount of Nanook’s existence is devoted to the search for food. His family’s diet consists largely of salmon, seals, and the occasional walrus. In one scene, Nanook risks life and limb, hunting a walrus in the frigid surf with a spear. While this existence on the precipice of life and death can be harsh and unforgiving, it can be beautiful as well. We’re treated to scenes of ice floes and the family taking time to cavort in the snow. We also see cute scenes with husky pups, but it’s hard to shake the nagging concern about what became of them when things got rough.
It’s no secret that Flaherty played fast and loose with the facts, in service of his story.* The scene with Nanook’s wife Nyla rubbing noses with her child helped perpetuate the myth about the “Eskimo kiss.” One of the most notorious sequences, in which Nanook constructs an igloo, was staged for the benefit of Flaherty and crew. In the opening scene, Nanook and his family emerge from a small kayak. Through a series of edits, they appear to emerge one by one from the impossibly small boat. Unless the kayak has the interior volume of a TARDIS, this would appear suspect, but it’s played for laughs rather than realism.
* One of the more bones of contention with historians is that many of the hunting scenes were staged. While spears added to the dramatic impact, rifles were the weapon of choice for Inuits of the day. (ibid)
So what is Nanook of the North? Is it a documentary or a work of fiction? We’re still asking the same questions about some modern documentaries and so-called “reality” television. It’s a little bit of both, best viewed as fabrication augmented with fact. What we see isn’t always what we get, thanks to editing tricks, omissions and behind the scenes finagling. Although the film was a big international success, its greatest irony was that the title character never lived to learn about it (he died two years after filming, due to starvation). While Flaherty fudged with many details for the camera, this sobering fact reminds us the daily life or death struggle for Nanook and his family wasn’t make believe. For all of its faults, Nanook of the North is a remarkable cinematic accomplishment. Flaherty intended to address the harsh realities of life on the frozen wastelands of northern Canada, but also wanted to tell a story that could speak to us on a universal level about love, hope and survival.