Film: Nanook of the North

Learning the bow and arrow.

Nanook of the North is a 1922 documentary film directed and shot by Robert Flaherty. Flaherty's film is the portrait of the life of Nanook, an Inuk living on the northeast shore of Hudson Bay. The film depicts Nanook visiting a trading post, building an igloo, snagging fish through holes in the ice, and hunting for walrus and seal.

Nanook of the North was a surprise hit in 1922. It is today regarded as the Trope Maker and Ur-Example of the documentary feature film—although it isn't really a documentary (see Documentary Of Lies below). It was one of the first 25 films placed on the National Film Registry in 1989.


Tropes:

  • Clown Car: After Nanook lands his canoe at the trading post, first one wife, then the second wife, and then a dog all get out from the seemingly tiny space inside the canoe. (Actually Flaherty filmed each getting in and out separately.)
  • Documentary: If a documentary is defined as using film to document Real Life, they goes all the way back to the very first films ever made for public viewing, the micro-short films shot by the Lumiere brothers in 1895. However, Nanook of the North is the first feature-length documentary, and almost surely the first film that resembles a modern documentary, a portrait of real people that tells a story.
  • Documentary Of Lies / Dramatization / Manipulative Editing: Virtually everything in this film is manipulated or staged for the camera. Flaherty defended his work by stating that he was trying to capture a way of life that was already disappearing. It should be noted that since Flaherty was essentially inventing the documentary film as a concept, the guidelines that documentarians are generally expected to adhere to did not exist at the time. It's also a bit Fair for Its Day because this was not long after the age of exhibitions where Native Americans and other "ethnics" living in the country would act like they were living their people's traditional cultures so that whites going to the exhibits could see a visual demonstration of it. Native Americans, for example, would wear clothes their ancestors wore generations ago. At the time, this was the only way people could do more than just read books about old lifestyles, and Flaherty was just following that tradition.
    • Pretty much everything about Nanook's personal life wasn't true. Those two women weren't really his wives. Those children weren't his kids. He did not later die of starvation, as Flaherty's opening title cards claim, but rather he died of natural causes, probably tuberculosis. His name wasn't even "Nanook", it was Allakariallak.
    • Nanook and his fellow Inuk were far more familiar with Western technology and culture than the film would lead one to believe. By 1920 the Inuk were wearing western clothing, using motor-powered boats, and hunting with firearms. Flaherty insisted they use older, more traditional methods. The events of the film were not spontaneous as the film suggests, but instead staged for Flaherty's camera, although the seals and walruses they hunted were real wild animals. Essentially what the film is really showing is Nanook demonstrating various traditional Inuk customs and survival strategies for Flaherty's camera. The most uncomfortable scene in the movie, where Nanook is introduced to the phonograph and attempts to eat a phonograph record, was also staged, as the real Allakariallak was well aware of what a phonograph was.
    • The igloo that Nanook built was too small and dimly lit for Flaherty to film inside, so the shots supposedly of Nanook's family inside the igloo were filmed in a larger, open structure.
    • Some sources claim that the most dramatic shot in the film, Nanook's tug-of-war with a seal that he has speared through a hole in the ice, was staged, with some of his comrades pulling at the line from a second hole offscreen.
  • Eskimo Land: Might be the Trope Maker, and certainly, as noted above under Documentary Of Lies, perpetuated the idea of Eskimo always wearing parkas and living in igloos and hunting with harpoons and such.
  • Great White Hunter: He isn't white, but Nanook fits the trope in every other way, and is even described as a "great hunter" in a title card. The real Allakariallak was in fact cast in Flaherty's film due to his skills as a hunter.
  • National Geographic Nudity: Seen briefly from Nanook's wives as they are waking up inside the igloo.
  • No Ending: In the (staged) final sequence, Nanook's dogs get to fighting each other, and by the time Nanook has regained control over the dogs, it's too late to make it back to his igloo. Stumbling along as a winter storm kicks up, Nanook and his family find someone else's abandoned igloo. They lay down to rest. The End.
  • Noble Savage: Nanook all the way, as he is described as "the kindly, brave, simple Eskimo". At other times the film gets even more condescending, describing the Inuk as "happy-go-lucky" and remarking on how they like to trade for "brightly colored candy" at the trading post.
  • Precious Puppy: Nanook builds a little igloo for the puppies belonging to his pack of dogs, to keep the bigger dogs from eating them.
  • Scenery Porn: Some staggering shots of Hudson Bay and the Canadian Arctic, especially considering that Flaherty was shooting in harsh conditions with heavy, cumbersome 1920s cameras.