NANOOK OF THE NORTH was the first feature-length documentary to achieve international popular success and critical acclaim. By virtue of its timeless setting and straightforward approach to its subject, this portrait of the daily lives of an Eskimo man and his family is probably the least
dated of any silent film extant.
Nanook is a beloved and respected member of the Itivimuit populace, a group of fewer than 300 people who spend their lives crossing and re-crossing an immense and utterly desolate area of northern Canada in search of game and fish. In the summer, Nanook, his wife, and their children row down-river
to the trading post, where he is seen gleefully responding to the music of a gramophone. Next, he braves ice floats to catch fish and later harpoons a walrus.
Winter arrives and Nanook embarks on a hunting party with his family. While his children are playing in the snow, Nanook constructs a large igloo in which they will spend the night. After ice fishing for seal, the family pushes onward through a blizzard, until they encounter an abandoned igloo
which provides them with lodgings for the night.
In 1910, a young man named Robert J. Flaherty set out on the first of five expeditions to Canada's Hudson Bay region. While he was there, he developed an enormous admiration and affection for the area's Eskimo inhabitants. He came to feel that "these people, with less resources than any other
people on the earth, are the happiest people I have ever known." In 1920, Revillon Freres, a French fur company, commissioned Flaherty to film a documentary of Eskimo life. Flaherty arrived up north with not only the requisite cold-resistant cameras and lighting gear but also full equipment for
developing, printing, and projecting his footage. Throughout the greater part of 1920-21, he shot Nanook and his family cheerfully going about their daily business: staying alive in one of the world's least inhabitable regions. Less than two years after Flaherty finished shooting, Nanook died of
starvation while hunting deer.
NANOOK OF THE NORTH was not a big box-office hit in the US, but it flourished in England and France. Gradually, the film developed a formidable reputation and ultimately became the most prestigious documentary of all time.
Along the way, the movie has received its share of criticism from purists. Flaherty never denied that most of his footage was "staged." Although the on-screen Nanook is indistinguishable from the real-life Nanook, and what he is shown doing is what he has always done and always will do, nothing in
NANOOK is accidental. For example, Flaherty procured Inuit clothing for his subjects when he determined that their standard garb looked insufficiently authentic. Also, the scene in which Nanook builds an igloo had to be shot several times before he got it right. Furthermore, in order to
accommodate interior shooting, he had to make it much larger than he ordinarily would, with a removable roof to admit adequate sunlight. "So what," said critic Basil Wright. "If you take a camera crew into somebody's house and live with them, you're cutting one of the walls away in a sense, aren't
you?" Flaherty put it this way: "Sometimes you have to lie. One often has to distort a thing to catch its true spirit."
Although NANOOK has been criticized as inappropriately rosy in its overall outlook, Flaherty's film is not blind to the harshness and hardship of Eskimo life. He depicted the people he filmed as essentially happy because apparently they were happy. If he avoided episodes of extreme pain or misery
(and there is no evidence that he encountered any), it was because he was a positive person, and if his vision was not always "true to life" (whatever that means), he was true to himself.
NANOOK OF THE NORTH remains invaluable for its depiction of the various procedures and stations of a workaday life (something that the cinema does well), for capturing the stark beauty of the sub-Arctic landscape (something black-and-white cinematography does well), and for its occasional flashes
of poetry (e.g., the disturbing recurrent images of the shivering sled dogs in the film's final scene). But "in the end," as Flaherty said, "it is all a question of human relationships." And that is why the images one is most likely to retain from the movie are: the Nanook clan emerging from the
under-section of their kayak like a brigade of clowns from a Volkswagen; the children enjoying sledding in the snow; Nanook warming the hands of one of them on his cheek, etc. For the record, Eskimos do express affection by rubbing noses--but they don't eat blubber. (Nudity.)
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