Nanook of the North (1922) Review

Nanook of the North (1922) Director: Robert Flaherty


In 1910, Robert Flaherty was employed as a railroad prospector to explore the East Hudson Bay where he got the idea to capture a film about the people and the region. The result was Nanook of the North, cinema’s first feature-length documentary which introduced the idea of the “passive camera” as it guided audiences toward what we might call “news” or “facts.” However, Flaherty used this notion of the “passive camera” and blended it with stylized or staged dramatic sequences in order to create a compelling narrative. Despite being notorious for fraudulence, Nanook of the North is a top-caliber picture, a faux documentary, and one of a kind in the silent era. Even with a record of inaccuracies and half-truths, I thought Nanook was a powerful examination of narrative documentary film-making. It raises some worthwhile questions about the nature of documentary films as fictionalized bits of entertainment: to what extent are all documentaries a certain form of farce or propaganda?

Seated along the Canadian Hudson region, Nanook of the North paints the picture of a harsh tundra populated by warm and friendly Eskimos. There is a contrast between the warmth and the cold. The plot follows an Eskimo hunting chief named Nanook as we pretend to be a fly on the wall of his life for several weeks as he hunts and fishes and even encounters white men with their newfangled technology. However, what we are given is not a true picture of events. 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 a seal is was likely shot prior to being pulled out of the ice), and “Nanook” was not even the main character’s real name. He typically hunted with a gun but was encouraged not to during filming so the “documentary” would appear more authentic or palatable to cinematic audiences. Additionally a 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 gramophone. There is also a famous scene of a walrus hunt, perhaps the most gripping scene in the whole movie, which bears all the trappings of another dramatized reconstruction.

Flaherty initially shot the movie between 1914-1915 but he accidentally dropped a cigarette onto the original negative reel and destroyed the entirety of his footage. It was a grave tragedy for such an ambitious project. He spent years raising new funds for the venture until he finally secured enough capital from a French Fur Trading company to re-shoot the picture. Apparently, the company was quite demanding that the film turn a profit. To save money during filming, Flaherty employed members of the local Inuit tribe as his film crew where they learned the ins and outs of his equipment, in some cases far better than Flaherty. At the time of filming (1920) the Eskimos were sadly an already dying group.

Tragically, two years after the release of the film, the main character who played “Nanook” died. Flaherty spread the rumor that he was lost in a snowstorm and died of starvation, however in all likelihood, Nanook died at his home. Flaherty went on to make several more dramatized documentaries, including Tabu in 1931, a joint and unpleasant venture with F.W. Murnau focused principally on the peoples of the south seas.

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