Nanook of the North, directed by Robert J. Flaherty and released 11 June 1922, has become just as famous for being an early documentary as it is for having several staged sequences. This was also one of the earliest silents I saw, before I began building my list in earnest and keeping track of everything.
Flaherty began working as a prospector and explorer in the Hudson Bay in 1910. He was eventually inspired to bring a camera on his third visit, in 1913. To learn how to work with film, he took a three-week cinematography course in Rochester.
From 1914–15, Flaherty shot hours worth of footage of Inuit life. In 1916, he’d accrued enough footage to start test screenings for a documentary, a project which was received very positively. Sadly, when he dropped a cigarette onto the original camera negative, he lost 30,000 feet of film.
Undeterred, like all good creators should be after such a devastating, irreplaceable loss, Flaherty decided to start all over with new footage, and to focus on one Inuit family in particular. He realized the lost footage had been too much of a travelogue, and not enough of a human interest film.
Flaherty spent four years raising money, and was finally funded by Revillon Frères, a now defunct French fur and luxury goods company. The resulting film was shot near one of their trading posts at Inukjuak, Québec, from August 1920–August 1921.
Flaherty chose Allakariallak, a well-known hunter of the Itimivuit tribe, as his protagonist. This was a pragmatic choice, as Flaherty wanted full cooperation and collaboration with the Inuit people. After all, they were his film crew, and many were more skilled at using his camera than he himself was.
The storyline is simple but powerful. Nanook and his family, on Québec’s Ungava Peninsula, struggle to find food and shelter during a typical brutal winter. Many scenes are of Nanook hunting—fish, walrus, fox, seal.
As much as I love animals and would never go back to eating meat, I have to admit vegetarianism and veganism aren’t practical or realistic in regions like this. So much of a culture’s traditional diet is dependent upon geography. People in the Far North and Iceland eat much differently from people in Korea or India.
The film opens with Nanook and his family arriving at a Western trading post. Everyone climbs out of a clown car-like kayak, ending with a Husky puppy. Nanook has brought pelts from his numerous kills to trade for knives, beads, and candy.
One of the white traders at “the big igloo” shows Nanook a gramophone, and Nanook closely inspects both machine and record to try to figure out how the music is produced. Nanook also tries to bite the record.
This is meant to be a funny culture clash scene, though in reality, Allakariallak knew very well what a gramophone was.
Allakariallak also normally hunted with rifles, like most modern hunters, but Flaherty urged him to use harpoons in the film. The hunts themselves, however, were very much real, and Inuits hadn’t stopped hunting the traditional way and making traditional hunting weapons.
They also still made and wore traditional clothes, in spite of having begun to wear Western clothing by the Twenties. It’s not like Flaherty staged the entire thing, as some people believe.
Nyla and Cunayou, Nanook’s wives, were Flaherty’s common-law wives in real life. They didn’t have an intimate relationship with Allakariallak at all off-camera.
The building of the igloo also required some staging, but more for technical and pragmatic than dramatic purposes. Any igloo’s dome would’ve collapsed if it were large enough to accommodate a camera. It was also too dark to film anything by the time the igloo was finished.
Thus, the interior igloo scenes were filmed in a three-walled igloo, large enough to accommodate the camera, and with enough light to film interior shots in the dark.
This isn’t a film with a happy, sunny ending, or even a satisfying sense of resolution. We only see Nanook and his family have survived another day and found shelter in an abandoned igloo before dark, with their dogs shivering and covered in snow outside.
Only the strong survive in this tough, brutal climate. Every day is a matter of surviving till tomorrow, and finding enough food to fill everyone’s stomachs.
Though many scenes were staged, either entirely or for greater dramatic effect, Flaherty’s intention was to show the authentic details of the traditional Inuit way of life. Many Westerners had no familiarity with it in this era (and many still don’t).
The film was a huge international success, and typified what later came to be called salvage ethnography, recording the folklore and practices of endangered cultures and cultures losing their traditions to modernization.
The film has been referenced in popular culture countless times over the years, in regards to both the film itself and to the name Nanook.
A 2014 poll in the British film magazine Sight and Sound voted Nanook the seventh-best documentary of all time.