Robert J. Flaherty, the “father of the documentary,” created the first true documentary with his Nanook of the North – a film that explores the lives of the Inuit of Northeastern Canada, most specifically one “Eskimo” named Nanook who tragically died two years after filming but had become a worldwide sensation. What is most beautiful about this film is the story of its genesis – that there was a real version of 30,000 feet of film that tragically burnt up with the accidental flick of a cigarette ash, and Flaherty felt so passionate about his subjects that he headed back into the wilderness to reshoot the entire documentary. That is not without controversy, however, since the new version is made up of performers, situations, and an overall execution that seems to be entirely (or at least mostly) scripted and performed rather than shot naturally.
A short digression. I actually watched the Documentary Now season 1 episode 2 about “Kunuk” and really enjoyed it. I only knew a small piece of the connection to this film – I mean, anyone with any small exposure to a significant education is at least aware of it – and actually watching the film was a really eye-opening experience having watched the satire of it first. Watch Documentary Now. Fred Armisen and Bill Hader are geniuses.
So what’s left is a film that generally covers a great deal of material that may not be entirely real – but as Schneider’s book observes, “if Nanook’s beaming face as he warms his son’s hands is part of an act, then he was simply one of the great screen performers in history.” It is less about what is obviously not real, but what is so very real that makes this film spectacular.
I enjoyed this film. It is somewhat strange to look at a historical document with such a bizarre history and examine both of its fiction and nonfiction contributions to early filmmaking. Still, this piece showcases big cultural observations about a family in the throes of a violent environment. They still struggle, they still push for survival, they still work hard to make the most of their lives that are all they know. While some of what is in the film seems like strange directed-blackface-parody (for whatever reason, the scene with the record player really rubbed me the wrong way in terms of its infantile and bizarre direction in what I can only hope was fiction when Nanook bit the record…maybe I’m wrong), the majority of it showcases some beautiful little poignant moments.
What I am most impressed with is the story about how the film came to be and Flaherty’s dedication to making something genuine and never before seen in the world. While nonfiction adventure writing had been the norm since the beginning of time, this new format truly forced Flaherty to be on scene with all of his equipment and to edit together thousands of feet of footage – an entire first draft of which was tragically destroyed. His dedication to his subject and telling the story he set out to tell as a life mission is as inspiring as it gets, especially considering the world that he was portraying was literally a harsh, desolate wasteland.
A film as beautiful as it is legendary, Nanook of the North sets the bar high for every documentary that followed.
I watched Nanook of the North on Criterion (#33), and it was a surprising early Criterion release with few special features and even a different logo. It was interesting to see how far they’ve come! The short Harvard interview with Flaherty’s wife parroted a great deal about what was already written about the film, but it was a nice addition to the DVD.