Nanook of the North (1922)

Nanook of the North or Nanook of the North: A Story of Love and Life in the Actual Arctic, is widely regarded as the first documentary ever created. In modern terms, it is closer to docudrama though no distinction between the two was yet made when director Robert J Flaherty first screened his unique film. The documentary captures the harsh wilderness as Nanook, an Inuk Man, and his family struggle to survive.

Flaherty first travelled to the arctic circle purely for scientific exploration, and on this occasion encountered the Itivimuit tribe. After filming sporadically during his 1914 to 1915 excursion, Flaherty returned home but accidentally set thirty thousand feet of the negatives ablaze. He returned to the frozen tundra with the explicit wish to document the tribe. Over the course of one year from 1920 to 1921, Flaherty filmed the exploits of the tribe in their daily idiosyncratic habits. What Flaherty captured within a year is simple and fascinating – both in content and form.

Flaherty unveils the frozen isolation exceptionally well for one who opens his film with an apology for lacking directorial skill. As an explorer into this new world, Flaherty operates with a keen knowledge of how to frame a sensational image of an alien landscape and express it to the masses. If the mountains of snow or expanses of floating sheets of ice do not express the brutality of the landscape, the title cards poetically fill in the blanks. In 1922, no documentary rule book was yet created and therefore objectivism is missing from this piece as Flaherty radiates an obvious admiration for the resourcefulness and simplicity of the tribe through title cards and dramatic score.

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The camera shifts back and forth between omniscient eye and conscious observer, standing back from valiant struggles to catch prey but then closing in on a beaming Nanook triumphantly displaying the catch. Flaherty breaks the wall between himself and his subjects continually and incidentally creates a great repore between viewer and star. Flaherty succeeds best in his portrayal of the intimacies of the tribal family itself. Moments which are alien are ultimately universally familiar, Nanook teaching his children to hunt or creating a temporary shelter from the tumultuous blizzards, each is a moment of intimacy between tribe and viewer.

Sadly, claims concerning staging are somewhat founded in truth. The documentary would normally fall under the label Salvage Enthnography, but the factuality of the piece is compromised as Flaherty insisted on documenting the tribe in a manner prior to European intervention. Nanook (actually named Allakariallak) hunted with guns in reality, and the family we witness is not totally his own. However, staging the practices of a tribes’ ancestors hardly seems a devastating realisation.

The integrity of the piece may not be as solid as the endless expanse of thick ice it portrays, but the innovation and intention of the film deservedly earns Nanook of the North a place in filmic history.

Classic Moment… 

The igloo is fully formed and every crack of the shelter is plugged with snow and ice. Nanook, however, decides to add one finishing touch. With his blade, Nanook carves and shapes a block of ice into a window and packs it into his home. Finally, a block of snow is placed adjacent to reflect light into the dome. Elegant ingenuity.

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