It’s one of the most famous documentaries of all time, familiar to folks around the globe. Most people at least know the title, even if they haven’t seen a frame of the film. And for those who have seen it, the story of “Nanook” and his family remains as charming and fascinating as it was back in 1922.
The story behind why it was filmed is interesting, too. Filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty, the son of an Irish prospector, became a prospector himself in the Hudson Bay area of Canada. During expeditions in the 1900s and 1910s he became fascinated by the the local Itivimuit people and started bringing a movie camera to document their traditional way of life. This grew into the ambitious, feature-length documentary that we know today, with the full title of Nanook of the North: A Story of Life and Love in the Actual Arctic.
In the film we follow the day-to-day life of Nanook (in real life named Allakariallak–maybe we can forgive Flaherty for picking a name easier to pronounce!) and his wife and children (actually locals who photographed well, not his actual family). We see glimpses of their daily lives, simple but full of hard work–keeping warm by burning moss, travelling miles to hunt seal and walrus, and taking shelter from the winter winds by building an igloo, complete with a “glass” window made from a thick piece of ice.
Flaherty captured the Arctic snowscape in all its bleak majesty, human figures often appearing small against broad plains where the snow is blown about like sand, and the shoreline of the sea shown piled with drifted blocks of ice. To me, it’s doubly impressive that Flaherty managed to capture so much beautiful footage under such conditions, with cumbersome cameras in tow and brittle film that could shatter in subzero weather. (As a Minnesotan, I can confirm that face-freezing temps, constant crusts of ice and bitter winds are no joke.)
But the spotlight is very much on Nanook and his family, whom Flaherty captures with affection and admiration. From the funny, lengthy shot in the beginning where we discover that Nanook’s little kayak somehow contains his entire family to touching scenes like the wife Nyla giving her baby a bath, these snippets of their lives are fascinating, sometimes humorous, and always endearing.
Nanook himself is one of the famous figures from cinema history, whose frequent smile became famous world-wide when Flaherty’s film was released. So beloved was this skilled hunter that when the real-life Allakariallak passed away two years later (apparently from tuberculosis, although it was reported as starvation) it made headlines around the globe.
Today, when Nanook is reviewed or otherwise discussed, much of the analysis of cinematography, drama, editing, etc. tends to be skimmed through so the writers can gleefully jump on the fact that much of this “documentary” was staged, y’all! Look at what happens when you type “first feature length documentary” into Google:
But since so many writers devote space to criticizing this film, allow me to devote space to defending it. It’s absolutely true that much of it was staged (Flaherty didn’t even deny it). The scene with the gramophone was pure acting (Allakariallak was already familiar with gramophones), and the sequence where he catches a seal was apparently faked (the seal is real, most obviously, but was likely already dead). Since traditional igloos were too small to fit the tall movie camera, a half igloo was constructed without a top for the scenes of the family getting up in the morning–as Flaherty nonchalantly recounts in his 1924 book My Eskimo Friends (probably without dreaming that dozens of film reviewers would be jumping on him for that very thing decades later).
It also seems likely that Flaherty instructed Nanook and the others where to walk and stand for his well-composed shots. Filmmakers in the silent era, with their bulky cameras fastened to wood-and-brass tripods, certainly weren’t walking around taking shaky-cam footage–that technology didn’t exist yet.
One of the most frequent criticisms is that while the Inuit are shown using traditional hunting methods and such, in reality they had started incorporating modern conveniences into their lives thanks to contact with traders and explorers. Dean W. Duncan, in his Criterion Collection essay on the film, explains: “This integration was in fact quite general: igloos were giving way to southern building materials, many harpoons had been replaced by rifles, many kayak paddles by motors.”
But maybe we aren’t being technical enough here. I’ll point out that “many harpoons and kayak paddles had been replaced” doesn’t mean “all” had been replaced by the early 1920s–and the subjects of Nanook of the North clearly know how to use traditional tools. Whether they used them much in their actual lives doesn’t make the demonstrations on camera carry any less historical value, since a specific way of life was still being captured, as shown by the folks who knew the most about it.
At any rate, excessive criticism of Nanook of the North may be a little displaced to begin with since there wasn’t a clear “documentary” genre in 1922–use of that term didn’t even exist until 1926. There had been countless “actuality” films since the 1890s, of course–footage showing bustling city streets or factory workers and such–and there were many travelogues (“scenics”) too. Nanook wasn’t even the first feature-length “actuality” (The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight, 1897, could be considered one). But the unstaged documentary as we know it today wasn’t the rule yet. Flaherty likely didn’t think twice about casting his film and blending in some romanticism.
What can’t be denied is that the film does capture the harshness of life in the Arctic, and the resourcefulness of the people who live there. Nanook and his family face real, frigid landscapes, build real igloos, and hunt real, wild animals–we even see how they butcher a seal and eat some of the raw meat right before our eyes. All cries of “staging” aside, as Roger Ebert pointed out: “If you stage a walrus hunt, it still involves hunting a walrus, and the walrus hasn’t seen the script.”
I would say that Nanook of the North has stood the test of time remarkably well. I had the pleasure of seeing it for the very first time on the big screen with live music at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival–the best setting possible. And I recently enjoyed rewatching it on my laptop while cuddled under a blanket on my couch on a subzero winter night. It’s valuable as an endearing portrait of real people, a historical record of a traditional culture–and yes, as a drama.
This post is part of my friend Silver Screening’s popular annual O Canada! Blogathon. Make sure to check out all the great posts being contributed this weekend! I also want to extend a warm welcome to all new readers–feel free to make yourselves at home!