#126 Nanook Of The North
(1922, Robert J. Flaherty)
For today’s review, I’m going way back into cinema history, all the way back to the silent era to take a look at the film that is often credited as being the first documentary.
In the early 20th century, director Robert J. Flaherty spent a significant amount of time up in the far reaches of Canada, spending time with the Inuit people up there, learning about their customs. An interest in the budding film industry gave him the idea of documenting their lives, providing a record for those back home. He chose to focus on an Inuit named Nanook and his family as they went hunting, built igloos and united together against the fierce cold, providing a 90-minute glimpse into life up north.
Of course, there are reports that the movie may not be entirely factual. Nanook was actually called Allakariallak, the Inuit no longer hunted with spears, Nanook already knew about record players and was not as amazed by them as the film suggests, and the igloo scene was faked. Needless to say, watching it knowing some of these things, it does look immensely staged, which begs the question; how can this be a documentary then?
Well, it works as a documentary since there are logical reasons behind many of these changes. Flaherty was interested in the traditional Inuit lifestyle so lugging a camera up to Canada only to film a family who weren’t massively different to the life he’d left behind didn’t seem too appealing. None of the Inuit hunting techniques were made up, they were simply not used all that often, and “Nanook” (calling him that because it’s a million times easier) did seem somewhat proficient in them.
As for the faked igloo scene, the igloo was built by Nanook himself, but was built specifically because the regular igloo was either too small to fit a camera in or too dark to film anything (remember, this was way before our fancy modern HD Handycams).
If anything, it was a dramatization of reality, and that’s probably the best that could have been created at the time. As a historical piece of cinema, it holds up, and is massively influential at kick-starting an entire genre.
Watching Nanook today naturally does feel awkward, since film has come a long way, but it still has its charm. Nanook himself is certainly a likeable chap, and it’s clear he had some say in guiding the content of the movie and enjoyed making it. Flaherty does work hard at making the audience smile and identify with these strange “foreigners”, presenting them respectfully and in a balanced manner. He shows the pleasantness of the simple Inuit life, but also the hardships it brings, especially in the closing scenes during the height of winter.
The pacing’s a little off though, and certainly the structure feels uncomfortable. Flaherty announces that Nanook died in the opening scroll (in direct contrast to modern docs that place the “after” information appropriately at the end), and then ends the movie on a bleak note that contrasts horribly with the early happier scenes.
There’s also little direction to the movie. Even documentaries need some kind of effective narrative, and Nanook lacks this. Based on what’s in the film, a documentary of the hardships of Inuit life in the bleak winter months would have worked nicely, bookended with happy scenes from the autumn and spring providing a much more natural contrast.
Of course, this was one of the first films of its kind, so issues like these are somewhat forgivable issues that got improved and built upon by later film-makers, so I can’t criticise too much. It’s still a fairly watchable movie, but probably of little interest to people uninterested in film history.
Starring Allakariallak & Nyla
Produced by Robert J. Flaherty
Music by Stanley Silverman
Cinematography by Robert J. Flaherty
Edited by Robert J. Flaherty & Charles Gelb
Favourite Scene: The walrus hunting was fun to watch, although tainted a little by knowing it was slightly staged.
Scene That Bugged Me: The kayak scene was just plain silly. Was there any need for the clown car nonsense?
Watch it if: You’re a documentary fan and want to see where it all began
Avoid it if: You believe everything you see