“Nanook of the North” - Robert Flaherty (1922)

Documentary films cover a vast range of subject matter, and the history of documentary films  is filled with masterpieces across this range, making them difficult to compare and rank.  And yet this history has one landmark film that makes it stand out among the others – Nanook of the North (1922).  Not only was this film probably the first feature-length documentary, it may still be the greatest documentary film ever made.

Certainly the making of this film about Eskimos in upper Canada must have been an extraordinary effort, and anyone who sees the film can’t help wondering how it was even done under what must have been severe shooting conditions of that environment.  Writer-director Robert Flaherty (1884-1951) was initially an explorer and prospector working in upper Canada and was at that time only a novice filmmaker.  In 1913 he had shot some film of the Inuit people (Eskimos of Quebec’s Nunavik region), but his negatives were subsequently lost in an editing-room fire.  It took him some years to get the financial backing to return to the area and make a new film, this time with a more clear idea of what his narrative should be. 

In fact Flaherty’s injection of narrative, which was facilitated by his showing developed film rushes to his Inuit subjects in order to get suggestions concerning how to accentuate the developing narrative, was both stylistically groundbreaking and controversial.  Many people over the years have criticized the film’s authenticity and have complained about artificially staged scenes in the film [1,2,3,4].  I will discuss briefly those criticisms below, but I do feel that the liberties taken by Flaherty on this occasion were well justified.  What Flaherty produced was more than an ethnographic account of some remote aboriginals; it was a poetic and universal tale about man’s struggle to be.  Indeed the movie’s subtitle was A Story of Life and Love in the Actual Arctic.

The story of the film passes through five phases or acts, each of which depicts a struggle within an increasingly threatening environment.  This gives the film a melancholy flavor that highlights the main character Nanook’s intrepid determination to continue with life in “The North”.  Throughout these scenes there is shown the contrast between the harsh environmental circumstances and the positive spirit of Flaherty’s subjects:
“The most cheerful people in all the world – the fearless, lovable, happy-go-lucky Eskimo.”
This is highlighted by many editing cutaways showing Nanook’s children playing in the snow and his wives happily attending to their offspring and their chores.

1.  Introducing Nanook

In the opening sequences the Eskimo Allakariallak, who is known as “Nanook” (an honorific meaning a great polar bear but signifying a great hunter), is shown situated in his northern region, where only about 300 people live in an area the size of England.  These people live entirely off the wild animals in the area, which they kill for food, for their skins and furs, and for other elements of the animals' bodies.  Nanook travels by sled with his two wives and several young children to a coastal “white man’s” trading post where he swaps the furs he has obtained from his hunting for needed commodities.  This includes the furs from seven polar bears he has slain with his harpoon over the past year.  There is a famous scene of the trader showing Nanook a recently acquired novelty – a phonograph record player, which amazes the delighted Nanook.

2.  Nanook’s Hunting
Because of an iceberg blockage along the coast, normal fishing is blocked, and Nanook is forced to dart over the ice floes in order spearfish some salmon.  Later he and some mates learn of some walruses that have been spotted, and they go to hunt them.  Since a walrus weighs almost two tons, to kill one of them is a super haul.  Nanook and his companions do manage to harpoon one walrus that was snoozing on the shore, and then they all struggle to pull the frantic beast ashore as it tries to swim away.

Then the harsh winter sets in with its cold weather and brief hours of daylight.  Nanook goes looking for seals.  Along the way Nanook captures an arctic (white) fox.  Although the fox’s white fur means the animal is doomed, Flaherty has some shots here of Nanook’s son briefly playing with the animal.

3.  Camping

Since the family’s winter hunting expedition has entailed a long arduous journey over the snow-covered terrain, they need to camp somewhere.  So Nanook sets about quickly constructing an igloo out of the packed snow. It includes a window made of ice that enables them to see out side without subjecting them to cold drafts.  This is a famously fascinating scene, and it further depicts the cheerful industriousness of Nanook in the wild.  Even the husky puppies that are part of their family have their own little igloo built for them to protect them at night from the savagery of the older huskies that pull the family sled.  And while the amazingly resourceful father works on the igloo, the children are shown in cutaways playing in the snow.

In the morning one of Nanook’s wives, Nyla, is shown giving her infant an "Eskimo kiss" with her nose.  This was probably one of the first widely spread images of this famous custom. 
 
4. Seal Hunt
They are still searching for seals, and Nanook knows that the seals swimming under the frozen water need to come up and breathe air every twenty minutes.  So he looks for any small air holes in the ice that seals maintain for breathing.  He finally finds one tiny hole, and manages to hook  a submerged seal with his harpoon.  There then ensues a lengthy tug-of-war between Nanook and the massive seal that lasts 3:20 of screen time.  Finally, with his family’s help, Nanook hauls up the seal, and the hungry family immediately begin slaughtering it.  But their semi-savage dogs are hungry, too, and they become more snarlingly wild at the sight of the available flesh.  In fact the dogs are so ravenous over the few scraps of meet they are given that they start attacking each other.  This extended dogfight, we are told, dangerously delays the family’s progress toward shelter.

5.  The Journey
Now the family is just trying to find shelter as darkness falls and a threatening, windy snow storm arises.  They finally find an abandoned igloo and settle in for the night.  Far away from the safety of home and with the swirling snowstorm outside, Nanook and his family try to get some sleep as the film ends.  The final intertitle reads,
“The shrill piping of the wind, the rasp and hiss of driving snow, the mournful wolf howls of Nanook’s master dog typify the melancholy spirit of the North.”

Throughout Nanook of the North, things have been getting progressively darker and more threatening for our spirited and dauntless protagonists.  It is even more somber when we reflect on the fact that the real Allakariallak died shortly after the film was released, reportedly starving to death while out hunting for deer.  We see a picture of a grim, heartless world through which our intrepid hero is trying to make his lonely way.

Flaherty effectively colors this scheme by often cutting away to images of the husky dogs that  Nanook owns.  They are his companions, but they are also brutish and mysteriously “other”.  They represent the other, ultimately untamable aspect of nature, and their constant, contrasting  presence was a crucial part of Flaherty’s art.

Some people, though, have criticized Flaherty for his creativity and deviation from pure ethnographic objectivity [1,2,3,4]. For example,
  • Nanook’s family in the film was not his real family but were Inuits who were cast by Flaherty to play their roles.
  • Inuits were already using rifles for hunting in those days, but Flaherty wanted them to eschew such recent technology in the film and stick to their traditional hunting methods.
  • In order to film the interiors of the igloos, Flaherty had a part of the wall removed so that he could have camera room and adequate lighting.
  • Several events were staged; for example the seal hunt tug-of-war in Act 4 was artificially staged with offscreen assistance.
However, I believe that all of these creative decisions on the part of Flaherty were sound, and I am in agreement with Roger Ebert that they contributed to a higher level of narrative authenticity of the tale [5].  In this connection esteemed film critic Andrew Sarris, who ranked Flaherty in his "pantheon" of great film directors, commented [6] –
"One of the most beautiful moments in the history of the cinema was recorded when Nanook smilingly acknowledged the presence of Flaherty's camera in his igloo.  The director was not spying on Nanook or attempting to capture his life in the raw.  He was collaborating with Nanook on a representation rather than a simulation of existence."
The key thing about a film, whether fictional or documentary, is the degree to which it embodies a compelling and authentic visual narrative. That ultimate authenticity is there, in my opinion.

Flaherty used a number of cinematic techniques to achieve just that.  His use of parallel action showing Nanook’s kids being allowed to play while their parents toiled managed to cast a human, but still realistic, light on the family’s upbeat bearing towards a difficult world.  And Flaherty’s frequent use of cutaways to show storms and the desolate landscape were aesthetic gestures that helped establish and maintain the mood of lonely struggle in a hostile world.

But it was Flaherty’s orchestration of the grim counterpoint between the cheerily resourceful Nanook, the inhospitable environment, and the carnality of the dogs that make this film a work of art.
★★★★

Notes:
  1.  Dean W. Duncan, “Nanook of the North”, The Criterion Collection (11 January 1999).   
  2. “Nanook of the North”, Wikipedia, (5 May 2017).    
  3. “Robert J. Flaherty”, Wikipedia, (23 February 2017).   
  4. J. E. de Cockborne, “Nanook of the North (1922)”, A Cinema History, (October 2015).  
  5. Roger Ebert, “Nanook of the North”, Great Movie, RogerEbert.com, (25 September 2005).  
  6. Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968, E. P. Dutton & Co. (1968), pp. 42-43.

No comments: