Nanook of the North (1922)

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  • directed by Robert J. Flaherty
  • Following the lives of an Inuit, Nanook, and his family as they travel, search for food, and trade in northern Canada.

In one reality, Nanook of the North is still celebrated today as the first feature-length documentary predating even the term documentary. And in another where the naysayers and nitpickers reside, it is at best a piece controlled fiction with some documentary principles in its heart, and at worst needlessly manipulative in its efforts to romanticize its subjects.

Robert J. Flaherty was plenty familiar with the ways of the Inuit people by the time Nanook began filming in the early ‘20s. He’d been exploring and recording the lives and land of the Hudson Bay area of Canada for a decade, culminating in a completed film on the subject, which was then accidentally destroyed by cigarette in 1916. This is all to say that by the time the concepts behind his second effort, Nanook of the North, started forming he had a good idea of what he wanted to capture and probably at some point realized that the reality wouldn’t quite accommodate the true vision.

So he proceeded to trade the Inuits hunting weapons, which by 1920 were already guns, with the spears and harpoons of their forefathers. He also staged a scene that contrasted the central character Nanook, a man actually named Allakariallak, with the comparatively sophisticated white man at the head of a trading post. There are many other instances of director interference in the seemingly natural story of Nanook and his family. Flaherty, an explorer and prospector who eventually acquired a camera, not a filmmaker at first, had stumbled on an endlessly fascinating subject, one that the majority of the world very much wanted to be educated on, but for whatever reason that wasn’t enough and he wanted the added bonus of turning the clock on the Inuits back to the practices of past generations.

Allakariallak, for his part, was completely game and his welcoming screen presence, along with his seasoned efforts in retro hunting and igloo building were enough to overshadow any matters of authenticity. In the introduction, Flaherty wrote that not only was Nanook a chief and widely famous throughout Ungava, but that he died of starvation shortly after the film was made. None of that was exactly true, but the beauty and pure entertainment value of the film lies not in the amplified lore of Nanook but in the steady expressions and wide smile of Allakariallak, as well as his command over nature.

The far-reaching, expansive landscapes were also something that made the film, and yet as harsh and threatening as the environment must have been, I was never given the sense, surprisingly, that Flaherty or his crew were ever sharing the same temperatures, storms, or scarcity in sustenance. This was a perfectly still and serene capturing of a few of the three hundred residents of this particular area of the Canadian Arctic. Nanook and family further contributed to the calming tone making Herculean tasks look almost spiritual in their effortlessness and barely wiping the smiles off their faces for the duration. For most people, it would be near-impossible to survive under such conditions but the featured cast’s sense of family, responsibility, and resourcefulness gave them ample strength to get through very rough conditions. As if the entire feel of the film was on the verge of becoming a little too neat, Flaherty leaves it up to the animals—the mournful howling of a wolf, visibly starving dogs, dying prey–to illustrate the desperation of the Far North.

I am an avid non-hunter. Even a scene as natural as a hyena and zebra chase on National Geographic will shake me to the core for at least an hour or so. Yet even I was mesmerized by the two exhilarating hunting sequences in Nanook. One featured three men sitting on the shore, waiting out the death of a two-ton walrus they’ve harpooned, a scene that also benefited from me pondering the logistics of how exactly they’d transport it back to camp (answer: eat a good chunk of it raw before bringing the rest in pieces). And then there was the main event, the moment Allakariallak no doubt had been waiting to show off to Flaherty and the rest of the world; spearing a seal through a one-inch breathing hole in the ice and wrestling with the unseen creature until it was ready to be dug and dragged up.

I find myself not caring in the least about Nanook of the North’s legitimacy as a true documentary. The Inuits on screen were real, though their names and relationships may not have been, and the landscapes and survival skills on display were culturally accurate. As Roger Ebert said of the film “if you stage a walrus hunt, it still involves hunting a walrus, and the walrus hasn’t seen the script.”

As one of the prominent hunters in the area, Allakariallak’s actual lifestyle during a time when modern influences and goods were making their way into even the farthest reaches of the globe would have been entertaining and educational enough for a straight documentary treatment. But it’s just as worthwhile and quite possibly even more of an original idea that he and his subjects instead chose to put a little Hollywood into Ungava.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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