Nanook of the North (1922)

“The film is not technically sophisticated; how could it be, with one camera, no lights, freezing cold, and everyone equally at the mercy of nature? But it has an authenticity that prevails over any complaints that some of the sequences were staged. If you stage a walrus hunt, it still involves hunting a walrus, and the walrus hasn’t seen the script. What shines through is the humanity and optimism of the Inuit. One of the film’s titles describes them as “happy-go-lucky,” and although this seems almost cruel, given the harsh terms of their survival, they do indeed seem absorbed by their lives and content in them, which is more than many of us can say.”

‘Nanook of the North’, directed by Robert J. Flaherty in 1922, is an American documentary following the life of an Inuk family in the Canadian Arctic. Nanook, the title character, is a father who, with his wife Nyla and children hunt for food in the snow, build an igloo and visit a trading post. One of the first things that reading about the making of the film has told me is that Nanook didn’t exist. Flaherty’s film is an early example of a fictionalised documentary: the director initially took hours of footage of the inhospitable life in the arctic, but then lost it in a fire. Following this, he decided instead to reshoot, but this time focus on a representative ‘family’ to illustrate the way of life. Rather than finding this family, the director elected to create on and then employ them to stage activities such as walrus hunting and igloo building that were already old fashioned when the film was made. It’s a genuinely absorbing film and even though the events are staged, the tension of hunt and the strain of the life are apparent throughout. Its biggest failure is in how Flaherty controls the fictionalisation of the subjects, creating a myth of the ‘noble savage’ which, even given the age of the film and the pioneering location shooting, is disappointing. To modern eyes, this film has a sheen of fabrication which almost invalidates it, but it is rescued by the intimate details of Flaherty’s fictional artic life: the mini igloo for the dogs, the shots of the characters warming each other up and the (entirely staged) look of wonder Nanook shows as he encounters a gramophone for the first time.

Would I recommend it? It’s an exceptional and almost miraculous documentary. The technical achievement of filming such a  remote location with the cameras of the time far outweigh the politically compromised depiction of the Inuk people.

 

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