Nanook of the North

Nanook of the North (1922) Director: Robert Flaherty


Nanook is a dazzling and beautiful film, despite its many inaccuracies. It is a top caliber film, one of the most unique and memorable from the silent era. Despite knowing its many inaccuracies and half-truths, I enjoyed watching Nanook. It raises some worthwhile questions regarding the nature of documentary movies: to what extent are all documentaries a certain form of farce?

Nanook of the North is the early, silent predecessor to the documentary film genre. It paints the picture of a harsh landscape, located along the Canadian Hudson region, that is populated by warm and friendly Eskimos. The plot primarily follows the hunting chief, Nanook. At the time of filming (1920) the Eskimos were an already dying group. Flaherty followed Nanook for several weeks of his life but filming was ongoing through the 1910s and 1920s. Flaherty initially filmed the documentary during 1914 and 1915 but accidentally dropped a cigarette on the negative reel and destroyed all of his original footage. He spent years raising funds for his continued venture. During filming, he used members of the Inuit tribe as his film crew -they learned the ins and outs of his equipment, in some cases better than he had.

The landscapes are beautifully captured, and the tile scenes are subtly conveyed, with images of ice and wilderness in the background. But it is not a technologically sophisticated film, having only one camera which captured the lives of the Eskimos at a distance.

It was a wildly successful film in its day, but it has faced criticism for staging much of the story and scenes, such as – Nanook’s wives in the film are fake, as are his children, and the notable seal hunt, in which the seal is thought to have been shot prior to being pulled out of its ice-hole in the water. It certainly appears to be dead. Nanook was not even the main character’s real name, and he was encouraged not to hunt with a gun during the filming, though he typically did when the cameras were not around. Additionally the scene concerning the construction of an igloo was entirely staged, along with the scene in which Nanook comically encounters a white man and his gramophone. There is also a famous scene of a walrus hunt, perhaps the most gripping scene in the movie, that has certain dramatized elements. Tragically, two years after the release of the film, Nanook died – Flaherty spread the rumor that he was lost in a snowstorm and died of starvation, however in all likelihood he died at home. The film was financed by a French Fur Trading company. Flaherty went on to make several other documentaries, including Tabu in 1931, a joint and uneasy venture with F.W. Murnau focusing on the south seas peoples. It was a difficult film as the two directors did not see eye-to-eye on production.

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