Nanook of the North (1922) Director: Robert Flaherty
Nanook is a dazzling and beautiful film, despite its many inaccuracies. It is a top-caliber picture, one of the most unique and memorable from the silent era. Despite knowing its record of inaccuracies and half-truths, I enjoyed watching Nanook. It raises some worthwhile questions regarding the nature of documentary film-making: to what extent are all documentaries a certain form of farce or propaganda?
Nanook of the North paints the picture of a harsh landscape, located along the Canadian Hudson region, populated by warm and friendly Eskimos. The plot primarily follows the hunting chief, Nanook. At the time of filming (1920) the Eskimos were sadly 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 movie between 1914-1915 but he accidentally dropped a cigarette onto the negative reel and destroyed all of his original footage. It was a grave tragedy for such an ambitious project. He spent years raising funds for his continued venture until he finally secured enough capital to re-shoot the picture. During filming, he used members of the Inuit tribe as his film crew and they learned the ins and outs of his equipment, in some cases far better than Flaherty.
The landscapes are beautifully captured, and the titles are subtly conveyed, with images of ice and wilderness in the background. But Nanook is not a technologically sophisticated film, having only one camera which captured the lives of the Eskimos from a distance.
Nevertheless Nanook was a wildly successful film in its day, but Flaherty has faced more recent criticism for staging much of the story and scenes –for example Nanook’s wives in the film are fake, as are his children, and the notable seal hunt is revealed to have been entirely staged, in which the seal is thought to have been shot prior to being pulled out of its ice-hole in the water. Nanook was not even the main character’s real name, and he was encouraged not to hunt with a gun during filming to appear to more authentic or palatable to cinematic audiences, though he typically did hunt with a gun when the cameras were turned off. Additionally the scene concerning the construction of an igloo was also apparently staged, along with a scene in which Nanook comically encounters a white man and his newfangled technology called a gramophone. There is also a famous scene of a walrus hunt, perhaps the most gripping scene in the movie, that bears all the trappings of a dramatized reconstruction. Tragically, two years after the release of the film, Nanook died. Flaherty spread the rumor that he got lost in a snowstorm and died of starvation, however in all likelihood Nanook died at his home. The film was financed by a French Fur Trading company which allowed Flaherty to continue creating the film but put immense pressures to produce a financial success. Flaherty went on to make several other documentaries, including Tabu in 1931, a joint and uneasy venture with F.W. Murnau focusing on the peoples of the south seas. It was a difficult film as the two directors rarely saw eye-to-eye and eventually parted ways.