Nanook of the North (1922)

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Synopsis: Heralded as the very first feature-length documentary, Nanook of the North features key events in the life of Eskimo (Inuit) hunter Nanook (Allakariallak) and his family, including their methods of trading, hunting, transportation, building shelter, and child-rearing, all filmed against the desolate backdrop of the Canadian arctic.

I was first exposed to Robert J. Flaherty‘s magnum opus (which is in the public domain, by the way) when I took a class on visual anthropology – a subfield of cultural anthropology chiefly concerned with the production and analysis of ethnographic photography and film – as part of my college minor in Film Studies. Ironically, my major was Anthropology/Sociology, though as I remember, I chose to credit that particular class toward my minor rather than my major, as I already had enough credits to complete my major. BUT LET’S NOT GET INTO THAT FASCINATING STORY RIGHT NOW. If you seek to research this film, one of the very first things you’ll learn is that it’s not exactly the first full-length documentary, but rather the first docudrama, as Flaherty staged many of the scenes for dramatic effect. Not only that, but he distorted the facts as to how the Inuit truly lived at the time the film was made, choosing instead to have Allakariallak act the part of a recent ancestor who had not yet been exposed to any European influence. This included having Allakariallak and his fellow men be filmed hunting for food with traditional spears instead of modern guns, which had already become the Inuit weapon of choice by 1922. (Think about it – would a people who are depicted as on the brink of starvation, who are bringing in huge stocks of highly-valued pelts to trade with the European settlers, really give away such a valuable commodity for nothing more than “knives and beads and bright-colored candy?”)

This is what’s known in filmmaking as an EXTREME extreme-long establishing shot.

I’m not a documentarian, but I am an anthropologist – or I played one in college. Nanook is classified by the scientific community as “salvage ethnography,” which just means that Flaherty was trying to capture a vanishing way of life that had already partially died out by that time in the interest of preserving its memory before it completely disappeared. (Or, you know, in the interest of exoticizing his subjects, but the definition gives salvage ethnologists on the whole the benefit of the doubt.) These days many anthropologists find salvage ethnography, particularly the kind that doesn’t explicitly label itself as such, to be unethical and dishonest; you’re not doing science any favors by hiding or manipulating the truth. Then again, anthropologists these days find most of the actions carried out by early anthropologists to be unethical. It’s a self-conscious field with a very problematic history. But one of the first rules of anthropology is, nothing is 100% objective; therefore, you should take everything that purports to be 100% factual – including the first “documentary” – with a huge grain of salt. Frankly I’m surprised Flaherty depicted the exotic and “primitive” (real anthropologists abhor this word) Eskimos as having any contact with Europeans at all – except, of course, that funding for the film was provided by Revillon Frères, the French fur company with which Nanook is seen trading.

But instead of chastising the film for what it’s not, it should be praised for what it is: one of the first cinematic glimpses that white Europeans and Americans got into the lives of a culture that was not their own. Just because it’s not the whole truth doesn’t mean there is no truth to it; it was actually filmed in the Canadian arctic using real Inuit people hunting real wild animals. While it’s gotten a bad rap over the years for not living up to the standards of an honest documentary or true ethnography, it’s still a remarkable film made by some remarkable people. While I can’t rate every scene based on its authenticity, what I can do is rate it on its entertainment value, which I assume most of you are here for anyway. If you’re here for me to lecture you some more about the ethical concerns of cultural anthropology, we’ve gone about as far as we can go with me sounding like I know what I’m talking about, and soon it’ll just devolve into me typing long strings of undefined vocabulary terms – participant observation! cultural relativism! – before I fly off the handle completely and start inserting funny doodles of Franz Boas in place of real words.

Jeez, that’s like the sixth person to climb out of that thing! What is this, a clown kayak?!?

Flaherty’s chief concern in Nanook is to play up the conflict between preindustrial man and his environment, to emphasize Nanook’s daily struggle for survival in just about the harshest landscape one can imagine. He achieves this effectively, but for a film set in such a frigid place, there is a lot of warmth to Nanook and his family as well. We’ll get all the suspenseful moments of the walrus hunt, the gory details of its aftermath, but he also shows the joy of the children enjoying their meal, and even playing with their food as if there has always been such marvelous abundance. Nanook will labor tirelessly to build his igloo, cutting and shaping blocks of snow and ice to create an airtight chamber that will be his family’s dwelling for the night – and then there’ll be a cutaway, and we’ll see Nanook’s two small children using each other as sleds to speed gaily down a hill of snow. Flaherty wants to show the human side of his subjects, to depict the universality of the attitude of children to adult matters (though he is not afraid to show the adults indulging in downtime activities as well). Even still, the wide angle of the lens and the disconnection between the cameraman and his subjects never truly allows for the audience to know Nanook and his family on a fully personal level, and leaves us feeling more voyeuristic than empathetic. We understand that they know how to have fun, but we still don’t know how they feel about their world, about their lives or their environment. It is this disconnect between filmmaker and subject, along with the third-person narration of the intertitles, that keeps the audience on the outside looking in, rather than in the midst of Nanook’s family.

Furthermore, Flaherty’s desire to capture multiple aspects of Inuit culture leave the film feeling more like a collection of scenes rather than a cohesive narrative. It’s hard to think of a way to summarize the film other than, “There are some Inuits and a bunch of stuff happens to them.” First we’re trading; now we’re hunting; now there’s this subplot about not being able to find shelter for a while; sometimes our dogs fight. Because I am viewing it from a 21st-century perspective, it did not feel engaging to me, though I understand some of this could be attributed to my nasty habit of losing focus when attempting to watch silent films. Everything feels drawn out and like it takes ten times longer than it should. What will probably bother modern audiences the most, though, is the explicit depiction of animal slaughter and cruelty. The fact that it’s in black and white should hamper the effect a little, plus my print was so grainy I usually couldn’t make out a lot of fine detail anyway. However, I was bothered somewhat to see the dogs be allowed to fight, to see the arctic fox captured and taunted by Nanook’s child, and most egregiously by the “vicious” wolf that was supposedly attracted by the scent of blood but was so obviously tethered down and provoked into snarling. I fully realize that this is the environment these people live in and this is their way of life, so I have absolutely no problem with the hunting scenes; just warning any of you out there who are a bit squeamish or very sensitive to things of that nature.

Yes, but what’s the weather like?

Overall, while I appreciate Nanook of the North‘s significance to the history of anthropology, it doesn’t make a terribly entertaining film for the run-of-the-mill movie-goer. In fact, it’s probably only due to Flaherty fudging the truth a little and inserting his own dramatic narrative that the film is watchable at all. It’s an interesting glimpse of early-twentieth-century Inuit life – albeit a manipulated one – and a neat snapshot into the early formation of what would become the rules and principles of documentary filmmaking. However, it’s definitely one of those I can appreciate from afar and don’t see a lot of reason to watch outside of a classroom environment.

Nanook of the North (1922) – 2/5 stars


  1. Kim (the zombie variety)

     /  November 23, 2010

    My mom (who was born in 1950) calls me Nanook of the North when I bundle up for the winter. So, for the longest time I would wear this coat (faux-fur-lined with faux-suede) and call it my Nanook of the North jacket. AND IT NEVER OCCURRED TO ME THAT IT MIGHT COME FROM SOMETHING. Growing up is weird that way.
    And I tell you this because… Um… The more you know?

    • My mom (who was born in 1951) never called me Nanook of the North, but she did send me off to bed by saying, “Bedtime for Bonzo!” which I later discovered is actually the title of a movie starring Ronald Reagan & a chimpanzee. And if I snored she’d call me Snoretta Young, which is a pun on the actress Loretta Young. So while we thought our moms were just being weird, they were really just making really hip cultural references. OUR MOMS ARE TOO COOL FOR US.

      Actually, no, Snoretta Young is still a completely weird thing to say.

  2. A nice and unique film blog to have stumbled onto. I also enjoyed “Nanook” and was amazed to learn that an igloo is a slice of property which can be erected in less than an hour, involving expertise honed over generations. And that folk have similar concerns in LA and SE (short for salvaged ethnography).

    With your interest in anthropology, which I share somewhat in spite of being a mere engineer, you may enjoy “The Horse Thief” (Chinese Tibetan) and “A Time for Drunken Horses” (Kurd Persian) both of which can are in the SE genre, certainly the first. Both are sketched briefly on my site.

  3. Hey there just wanted to give you a quick heads up.
    The words in your article seem to be running off the screen in Safari.

    I’m not sure if this is a format issue or something to do with browser compatibility but I figured I’d post
    to let you know. The style and design look great
    though! Hope you get the issue solved soon. Many thanks

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