Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Nanook of the North (Flaherty. 1922)

"The truest and most human story of the Great White Snows."

For most movie geeks, Robert Flaherty is an interesting director to discuss. It is true that he directed the first commercially successful documentary feature film ever made, Nanook of the North, but some do not see his importance to the genre. Flaherty was not a director who worked with facts. Rather, he created manipulated reenactments of reality to show the audience a romanticized version of their already existing notions toward the subject matter. This is what sparks debate between us geek types. Is Nanook a documentary or not? Let’s try to work this out…

Webster’s dictionary defines a documentary film as a film or TV program presenting the facts about a person or event. If this is your criteria then Nanook fails on almost every level. The film supposedly tells the story of an Inuit hunter named Nanook and his struggles to provide for his family. Here is your first factual error as Nanook is not even close to the main character’s actual name, Allakarialla. Also, Nanook is seen hunting with spears when it is obvious that guns have become part of the Eskimo culture. Unbelievably, Flaherty even introduces two female wives of Nanook who are actually not married to the hunter at all. It almost seems like nothing in the film is real.

The biggest factual error is seen at the very end of the film when Flaherty tell us that Nanook died of starvation just two years after the film was shot. In reality, Allakarialla died in his home of tuberculosis.

Before you completely dismiss Nanook’s merits as a documentary film, it is important to know that staging reality was the norm for documentary filmmakers of the time. The rules of documentary had not yet been written, but there was no other way for Flaherty to market the film. He has said that he was merely concerned with showing the plight of the Inuit to the more evolved cultures of the world. Flaherty argued that “a filmmaker must often distort a thing to catch its true spirit.” He was simply doing something remarkable with very not-remarkable equipment. I see it as an extraordinary success in filmmaking.

From an entertainment standpoint, Nanook of the North is not on the top of my list of favorites to watch. It features some really interesting shots from inside a three sided igloo. It also has some charming moments where Nanook over exaggerates his misunderstandings of the surrounding world. Still, I would be fibbing if I said that I found every part as interesting as I found the whole.

Nanook of the North: B

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