Nanook of the North
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When Robert Flaherty trudged up to the sub-Arctic eastern shore of Canada's Hudson Bay to film his landmark Nanook of the North (1922), he not only put documentary films on the map, but launched the still-unresolved debate over what a documentary is, and should be. The word didn't even exist until the form's other great pioneer, Scotsman John Grierson, coined it in writing of Flaherty's second documentary, Moana (1926), about Samoa. When Flaherty left, he wrote that the hunter Nanook wondered why he went to all the fuss and bother. As Nanook saw it, everyone knew the Eskimo, and could anything be more common than dogs and sledges and snow houses? Yet cinema and the world were never the same after Flaherty unveiled his film about a year in the life of an Inuit family.
Even after all these years, Nanook retains its freshness and power, partly because it conveys a sense of film discovering itself, learning what it could do and be. Mostly, though, the impact of Nanook stems from the fact that Flaherty (1884-1951) spent years working railroad and mining jobs in Canada, charting the icy vastness of a region the size of England, populated by less than 300 people. A veteran of four mineralogical surveys in the Hudson Bay area, Flaherty was an explorer before he became a filmmaker in his 30s (Canada named the largest of the Belcher Islands - which he charted - after him). More important, in terms of the life in the film, we sense the depth of his bond to the resourceful Inuits, and theirs to him. No outsider focusing on exotic strangeness, Flaherty literally knew the territory, had a genuine respect for Inuit survival skills, and filmed Nanook from the inside out.
He was upfront about the fact that he hired a dozen Inuits to play Nanook and his family, and help as part of the production crew including wiping the iced-over condensation on the various lenses each night. He also was candid about the fact that his film was a mix of cinema verite, stagings and simulations. The scene most people remember - the walrus hunt - is staged, but "real" enough, as Inuits led by Nanook converge on a big old tusker slow rejoining his mates as they scramble back from beach on a walrus island to water, where their two-ton weight and sharp tusks make them much more formidable. Nanook harpoons the walrus, and the Inuits frantically work to drag its huge dead weight up from the water's edge as the walrus's mate locks tusks with it and tries to drag it back into the water. The Inuits prevail, butcher the walrus on the spot, gorge themselves, and carry what's left back to their families.
Although not the first scene in the film, it was the first Flaherty filmed. In 1920-21, when he filmed, most Inuits had transitioned from harpoons to rifles. But they were no strangers to the harpoon. So the scene was staged, in the sense that the Inuits spotted the walruses and assured Flaherty that they would come away empty-handed rather than impede his film. The net result was still one dead walrus in a land where there's seldom enough food or warmth, and life is an almost daily struggle to get more of both. Elsewhere, in summer, we see Nanook bending over a stream, jiggling a bit of ivory on a string, and using a trident to spear a salmon that takes the bait.
Flaherty and Nanook - actually an Inuit named Allakariallak - had wanted to include a bear hunt. But they couldn't find a bear. So they substituted a seal. We see Nanook - whose keen attunement to his environment is one of the film's subjects - search the ice for a hole through which the seal must surface every 20 minutes to breathe. When he finds such a hole, he waits, then strikes. We see a struggle as the line draws tight. Nanook and his hunting party hang on to the line until the seal drowns and they can cut a bigger hole in the ice and drag it up. There is more on the spot butchering, following a feeding frenzy that includes the ever-hungry sled dogs. How much does it matter in the end that the seal in the scene was already dead? We may not see the actual killing, yet seal hunts were an indispensable part of Inuit life and what we see in the film was the way they did it.
Grim as their struggle-filled days sound, Nanook and his little family remain upbeat and mutually nurturing. Flaherty's wife wrote of how the Inuits loved being photographed, which may explain Nanook's frequent smiles. Yet it's easy to believe that he's proud to have fitted himself so expertly to his environment and that he's genuinely at ease with Flaherty - as are they all. And this in an environment we know plays for keeps.
Nanook's igloo-building skills are pressed into service in another staged scene so that he and his family can be sheltered before a storm overtakes them. The narration assures us that the igloo is built in an hour, complete with a slab of clear ice used as a window, including a mini-igloo inside so the puppies - who would be eaten if left outside with the grown sled dogs - survive, too. Even though the actual igloo was twice the usual size to accommodate the cameras, Nanook's skills are the real thing - as is the need to sometimes press them into service quickly.
The point is that although this or that scene may be staged, it depicts real-life Inuit survival skills. Nanook is right to look pleased as often as he does. He has, after all, gotten himself and his family through another day - and, incidentally, while rendering extra services to Flaherty that included keeping the film cans warm between his own body and his insulating furs. The film otherwise was rendered brittle by the cold and shattered. Flaherty - who was his own producer, cameraman, editor and writer - soldiered on as doggedly as his fictional -- yet not that fictional -- Inuits. That the dangers were real enough was underlined by the fact that the real Nanook, Allakriallak, died of starvation while on a fruitless hunting expedition two years later.
We don't know whether to laugh or cringe at Flaherty's description of the Inuit on a title card as "happy-go-lucky." On the other hand, they are upbeat, even in a scene of deadpan humor as Nanook's kayak pulls up to a trading post with his catch of furs. First he emerges, to be followed by his two wives and two kids, like circus clowns climbing out of a tiny car. Furs, by the way, play more than a casual role in the story of the film. Flaherty secured the $55,000 financing for it from the French furriers Revillon Freres, looking for a public relations coup in their ongoing competition with the much bigger Hudson Bay Company. A few years later, when the film actually showed a profit, there is no record of who was more surprised.
Today Nanook of the North stands as a record of the intrepid kind of late 19th century explorer who somewhat romantically but never sentimentally came to love the place he explored. Its people, too. We can forgive him his choice of the harpoon as arising from an impulse to preserve a record of a culture fast vanishing even as he was photographing it. Flaherty had an eye, and often said, as only a man who has traversed it can say, that the Canadian landscape is itself a powerful character. Trail-blazing and, if not ethnographically pure, profoundly human in its ability to empathetically bring us into Inuit life, Nanook of the North remains an amazing film.
Producer: Robert J. Flaherty
Director: Robert J. Flaherty
Screenplay: Robert J. Flaherty (screenplay); Frances H. Flaherty (idea)
Cinematography: Robert J. Flaherty
Music: Rudolf Schramm (1947 version); Stanley Silverman (1976 version)
Film Editing: Robert J. Flaherty, Charles Gelb; Herbert Edwards (1947 version)
Cast: Allakariallak (Nanook), Nyla (Herself, Nanook's wife, the smiling one), Cunayou (Herself, Nanook's wife), Allee (Himself, Nanook's son), Allegoo (Himself, Nanook's son), Berry Kroeger (Narrator (1939 re-release) (uncredited).
by Jay Carr
Review, New York Times, June 16, 1922
Review, Variety, June 12, 1922
Robert J. Flaherty and Frances Hubbard Flaherty: My Eskimo Friends, Doubleday, 1924
Richard Griffith: The World of Robert Flaherty, Duell, Sloane & Pearce, 1953
Frances Hubbard Flaherty: The Odyssey of a Film-Maker: Robert Flaherty's Story, Arno Press (reissue), 1972
Arthur Calder-Marshall, The Innocent Eye: The Life of Robert J. Flaherty, Harcourt-Brace-World, 1963
Paul Rotha and Jay Ruby: Robert J. Flaherty: A Biography, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984
Richard Barsam, The Vision of Robert J. Flaherty: The Artist as Myth and Filmmaker, Indiana University Press, 1988
Forsyth Hardy: Grierson on Documentary, Collins, 1946
Forsyth Hardy: John Grierson: A Documentary Biography, Faber, 1979
Alan Rosenthal: The Documentary Conscience: A Casebook in Filmmaking, University of California Press, 1980
Cinema Quarterly, Volume 1, Number 1, London, August, 1932