One day, nearly a century ago, Robert Flaherty was standing in a room. While smoking a cigarette, he was looking at the reels of footage he had shot of Inuit in northern Canada. Soon, some ash from his cigarette landed on the negative. The highly flammable nitrate stock burned up quickly, and around 30,000ft of film—the product of three years of labor—was lost forever.
One can’t be sure how much this accident affected Flaherty, personally or professionally. He still had an edited version of his footage that he had been test screening. However, he dismissed it and decided to return to the north; he would shoot everything again. This time, he didn’t want the result to resemble a “travelogue,” a sin he felt the earlier footage committed. He would focus on just one family, capturing their struggles and their triumphs.
For four years, he tried to obtain financing for the project—showing potential backers the earlier, “travelogue” version to evoke interest—before French fur company Revillon Frères agreed to fund him. In August 1920, he went to the North again and spent a year there, gathering footage. The result was Nanook of the North: a documentation of Nanook, an Inuk, and his family as they trade, scour for shelter and hunt for food in the harsh, snowy territory around the Hudson Bay. (“No other race” could survive the tough conditions the Inuit resided in, proclaims an intertitle.)
Upon release, Nanook of the North was a critical and commercial success, not just in the States but abroad as well. It was considered groundbreaking cinema; here was a culture few people were intimate with and a location even fewer had visited. The original review in The New York Times asserted that Nanook had the “true dramatic essentials” and urged people to go see it at The Capitol.
Since then, Robert Flaherty’s breakout film has accrued an intimidating legacy. It spawned imitators as several other indigenous peoples films tried to cash in on its success. Flaherty’s next project, Moana, was also a studio-led effort to recapture the appeal of Nanook, but this time with a Samoan tribe. Today, he is recognized as the “Father of the Documentary.” (The term “documentary” itself was first used in a review of Moana.) When, in 1989, the Library of Congress was selecting its first batch of 25 titles for preservation in the National Film Registry, Nanook of the North found a place among cinematic landmarks like Star Wars, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Citizen Kane. In a recent Sight & Sound poll conducted to find the Greatest Documentaries of All Time, Nanook ranked seventh.
For viewers today, Flaherty’s films might be startlingly dissimilar to modern documentaries, but one must not forget that the format’s conventions we accept today hadn’t even been propagated when he was filming Nanook and Moana. He was a documentarian back when there were no documentaries.
To my eyes, Flaherty is one of the most aggressive salvage ethnographers in not just cinema, but all art. A term coined in the 1960s to refer to anthropologist Franz Boas’ work with Native Americans, salvage ethnography is “an explicit attempt to document the rituals, practices, and myths of cultures facing extinction from dislocation or modernization.” Flaherty saw civilization’s influences—including him and his camera—as a sign of the beginning of the end for these people’s cultures. He wanted to document them before they became well and truly history.
Unfortunately, he was a little too late. In the cases of both the Inuit in Nanook and the Samoans in Moana¸ modern influences had crept in to the extent that the way of life Flaherty wanted to capture no longer existed. However, problems like these were minor contrivances for the American filmmaker. He would resort to staging details and engineering scenes that fit in with his vision, regardless of their current relevance, and that’s where the biggest criticisms of his work emerge from. For example, the extensive and painstaking tattooing ritual that serves as the climax of Moana—signaling the protagonist’s induction into adulthood—was no longer practiced on the island. He had to pay the actor to endure it.
Note the use of “actor.” Flaherty was not above cherry-picking the tribal members he found most photogenic and apt for his filming. Nanook’s real name was actually Allakariallak (pronounced al-la-ka-ɢi-al-lak). The “families” so lovingly photographed in Moana and Nanook weren’t related at all. The two wives of Nanook—Nyla and Cuyanou—were, at best, his common law wives. (The children weren’t his children either.)
It’s telling that of the three most famous scenes from Nanook, not one is devoid of artifice. People often recall with fondness the igloo building sequence, a playful look at Nanook’s family as they cut out snow from the ground to pile it in that iconic formation. After the dome is finished, Nanook finds a sheet of ice he can use to create a window and, once that is inserted in its place, one of his daughters cleans it from the inside to let the light and warmth in. Except, Flaherty could think of no way to shoot inside an actual igloo (it was too dark) so a special, three-walled igloo was created where he could shoot his actors indulging in domestic whimsy.
There’s a sequence midway through the film where Nanook battles a seal. Standing atop a blowhole, the hunter waits with his harpoon; he attacks the seal with it as soon as the animal comes up to breathe. A titanic struggle follows, as Nanook is dragged across the ice and keeps pulling. He eventually signals to a few other tribespeople, who pull along with him and together they finally vanquish the seal. Flaherty filmed all of this in one long, unbroken shot and it’s undeniably exhilarating to watch even today, an action scene to rival any modern spectacle.
Yet, it would do one good to remember that the Inuit had by then begun using rifles and other advanced hunting equipment; Flaherty made them go back to harpoons just for the purpose of his project. (In another sequence where Nanook hunts a walrus—again with a harpoon—the tribesmen were allegedly pleading with Flaherty to end their fight and use a rifle to kill the creature, but he pretended not to hear them.) Most damningly, as Dean W. Duncan’s essay for the Criterion Collection’s restored version of the film reveals, the seal being “hunted” was long dead; Nanook was being pulled around in this tug of war by friends standing just off camera.
Nanook has sections portraying the humorous and fun-filled aspects of the Inuit’s lives, part of Flaherty’s desire to depict the intimate details of his subjects’ universe. For example, when Nanook visits a “Trade Post of the White Man,” he is shown a gramophone (presumably a blinding new invention to the Inuk), and how man has learnt to “can” his voice. As the trader hands over the just-played record to Nanook, he examines the artifact closely and then tries to take a bite, bursting out into embarrassed laughter afterwards. As William Rothman’s Documentary Film Classics (1997, Cambridge University Press) notes, this scene was entirely scripted at Flaherty’s behest. Nanook was well aware what a gramophone was.
In 2005, Roger Ebert added Nanook of the North to his “Great Movies” series, a well-deserved inclusion, and noted, “[The film] has an authenticity that prevails over any complaints that some of the sequences were staged. If you stage a walrus hunt, it still involves hunting a walrus, and the walrus hasn’t seen the script. What shines through is the humanity and optimism of the Inuit.” He concluded his paean by saying, “Nanook is one of the most vital and unforgettable human beings ever recorded on film.”
While his sentiment may be true, he was fooled by yet another of Flaherty’s lies. An intertitle at the beginning of Nanook states that the great hunter died of starvation on a hunting expedition two years after the film’s completion, a statement Ebert parrots. In reality, he had died a much more mundane death: succumbing to tuberculosis while at home.