“More men than there are stones around the shore of Nanook’s home have looked upon Nanook, the kindly, brave, simple Eskimo.”
Nanook of the North is an interesting case, one in which the story behind the film is more fascinating to me than the product itself. Frequently labeled the first feature-length documentary, I’ve seen critics give praise to this movie for laying the groundwork of what the documentary film would come to look like. The caveat which brings heaps of controversy to this film is that it was heavily staged, with director Robert Flaherty positioning his subjects to his liking as opposed to an honest depiction of their lives as the film seems to promise. This is actually still a problem with documentaries to this day, and it’s certainly a topic worth looking at. Should we dismiss the film as a dishonest sham, or can we herald it anyway for what it achieves on a cinematic level?
To lay the groundwork for such a discussion, I should say that Nanook of the North tells the story of an Inuk Eskimo, Nanook, and his life braving the elements with his family in the Canadian Arctic. Flaherty opens the film with some textual narration about his experience with the Inuit, which spanned several years in an attempt to capture their story through film. The footage covers daily tasks, often very dangerous, such as hunting a walrus and building an igloo for shelter. Exploration into the film’s production will reveal that most of these scenes were staged or dishonest in some way. For example, Flaherty asks his star actor Allakariallak (no, he’s not even named Nanook) to hunt with a spear instead of a rifle, which had become the weapon of choice with the Inuit tribe by this time. In his most famous act of deception, Flaherty constructs the set of the interior of an igloo in order to gain better lighting and access for his camera. He frames a dramatic story around the life of Nanook: a kind, humble man who provides for his family and represents Inuit culture with his bravery, and the narrative progression does not actually follow chronological events.
Flaherty has come out defending his work, claiming that “a filmmaker must often distort a thing to catch its true spirit.” This is an interesting position, and I’m inclined to believe there’s some merit here. For example, Flaherty prompted Allakariallak to switch his rifle for a hunting spear in order to depict what life was like before the European interference with Eskimo life. With the case of the igloo, it was also a matter of production. Flaherty wanted the shot of the igloo’s interior because it was pivotal to his story, and it simply couldn’t be done without building a set. The story he tells isn’t untrue; rather, the footage we’re led to believe is genuine has been fabricated in order to tell a truer story. I also think Flaherty deserves considerable credit for the directorial choices he makes. The textual interludes are informative, dramatic, and interesting in true documentary fashion, and he captures some captivating footage of Inuit life, however falsely it is presented.
I think the defining factors with a case like this are the director’s intent and what they promise their audience. Nanook of the North isn’t a documentary; it’s just close to being one. For 1922, Flaherty still does amazing work just by capturing informative footage of Inuit life in the Canadian Arctic. By today’s standards, presenting this film as a documentary would receive incredible backlash for his false practices. If it were presented as a dramatic film, however, shot on location with the indigenous people, I’m sure somebody would slap an award on it. I think a lot of the heat this film receives has been handed down retroactively because people are uncomfortable giving it the “documentary” label in 2016. I don’t think the director deserves much criticism, because I wouldn’t say he was claiming to create a documentary that we’ve come to expect. Footage was fabricated for dramatic effect because this is how he wanted to present his film. There really wasn’t a feature-length documentary in 1922, so to criticize him for meeting nonexistent standards would be an unfair evaluation of the film. I would simply advise against going into this film expecting a genuine documentary, and you’ll be thoroughly impressed by how much footage is actually authentic and captivating as opposed to criticizing the parts which needed to be staged.
If you want my honest opinion about the film, it’s alright. A silent “documentary” from 1922 about Eskimos isn’t exactly a popcorn thriller, but Flaherty still does admirable work presenting his subjects in an exciting fashion. The walrus-hunting made for a fun scene, and there are some genuine moments of humor from the lead actors that help you relate with them in a heartwarming way. You could criticize the production of the film if you wanted, but I think the direction is pretty spot on. It’s not something I’d want to watch again soon, but the story behind Nanook of the North makes for a fascinating discussion on the work of documentarians, and there’s enough innovation in Flaherty’s vision that I would still call it a highly significant work in the history of cinema.
Films Left to Watch: 939