(1922) dir. Robert J. Flaherty
The best silent documentary about Eskimos that I’ve ever watched.
Seriously, though, Robert J. Flaherty’s classic film, Nanook of the North, is deemed to be the first feature-length documentary film, following the life of a Canadian Inuit and his family as they hunt walruses and snow foxes, build igloos, and romp with their huskies. The film has many amazing pieces to it, many fascinating elements. But the film is criticized from a documentary angle in the Flaherty staged most of the sequences, building a partially full igloo, with an open end so he would have enough light to shoot by, but also that the family is not Nanook’s and Nanook is not Nanook’s name for instance.
Being the first of its kind, many of these standards didn’t exist. Flaherty’s approach is almost diorama-like, setting Nanook on display more in the ways to document they ways that Inuit people survived in the times before the Europeans came along. In fact, according to my reading, Nanook hunted typically with a gun, though for the film he is shown with spears and bow and arrows.
The most interesting sequence either way includes Nanook and company snaring, killing, and eating a walrus, which they did with traditional means. Flaherty’s intentions were good, if dubious by standards of non-influence in documentary methodologies of today. The film is still a landmark in cinema and still captures actualities that still have great power. One of my favorite images was the naked baby, slung from his mother’s back-pouch, dropped among the husky puppies, some simple, beautiful image of nature and humanity.
According to Flaherty, Nanook went on to starve to death in a hunting expedition only two years after this film was made. Again, research suggests that this may have been a fabrication and that Nanook may have succumbed to illness brought by the Europeans. This particular element shows what truth is lost in the fabrication, why documentarians try to rely on “truth” to be the powerful element in the process and the soul of the production. When the truth is lost or altered, it clearly diminishes the power of the image. But clearly, no matter how much staging is created, these people are captured in many ways doing things or at least acting out the realities of a life long now gone.