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The film Nanook of the North is a pioneering effort by film-maker Robert Flaherty. Released in 1922 and filmed in the immediately preceding years, the film was a tentative experimentation in two genres – ethnography and documentary. At a time when the written word was the primary mode of information dissemination, Nanook of the North attempted to achieve what an ethnographic book on the Eskimo would have done.
When motion picture as we know it today was taking its early steps as a medium of popular culture, Flaherty, who called it a non-fiction film, can be credited to have made the first documentary. Looking back at the ninety years since the release of Nanook of the North, one can see vast improvisations in film-making technique and technology. The addition of synchronized sound would be another cornerstone in the history of films.
(Ellis & McLane, 2005)
As can be expected in this early example/experimentation with narrative film, there are a few obvious problem areas. While nominally adapted to the documentary form, the viewer cannot avoid feeling the enactment of a pre-conceived script. It is as if the film-maker, instead of making himself the invisible observer of unfolding events, seems to have instructed Nanook and his clan to perform specific acts. This is typical of not only early documentaries but also the vast body of ethnographic publishing of the previous century.
For example, other post-First World War forays in this genre such as Dziga Vertov’s The Man with the Movie Camera, Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a City (1927) and John Grierson’s Drifters (1929) all share this common flaw. This is also true of Flaherty’s subsequent film Moana (1926). Flaherty portrays Eskimo and Samoan cultures in a revisionist mode by creating imagined characters, bringing back to life lost cultural practices (such as hunting for Walruses using harpoons) and setting the film in an ancient period (conveyed to the audience through use of oil lamps when electricity is easily available). All this goes to show that these early ethnographies were “done less in the name of art than to salvage elements of the past by portraying them in the filmic equivalent of ‘the ethnographic present’. As a result, Flaherty’s alterations and temporal licenses met considerable disapproval in scholarly circles. He only inflamed passions further by stating, ‘Sometimes you have to lie. One often has to distort a thing to catch its true spirit’.” (Askew, 2006, p.29)
There is also a directorial slant that seeks to iterate well-established stereotypes of the natives. This is not only applicable to Nanook and the Native American stock he comes from, but also to all indigenous people under European imperialist purview. For example, similar stereotyping of the natives is evident in British-authored ethnographies in Indian subcontinent, German experience in African colonies, Belgians in the Congo and the French occupation of Indo-China. What is also evident in early film ethnographies are the fixedness in perspective – these films were made by white men for other white men, with a patronizing attitude toward nativities/communities being explored. Further, the primitives were shown to display Western family ideals:
“Like a museum display in which sculpted models of family groups perform “traditional activities,” Nanook’s family adopts a variety of poses for the camera. These scenes of the picturesque always represent a particular view of family or community, usually with the father as hunter and the mother as nurturer, paralleling Western views of the nuclear family. In the following trading post sequence, Nanook is shown to be ignorant of Western technology….This conceit of the indigenous person who does not understand Western technology allows for voyeuristic pleasure and reassures the viewer of the contrast between the Primitive and the Modern: it ingrains the notion that the people are not really acting.” (Rony, 1996, p.112)
Indeed, the patronizing attitude toward the subject is revealed by the extent of staging and acting incorporated in the film. In Nanook of the North, it later emerged that the two female companions to Nanook are not his partners at all, but rather the wives of Robert Flaherty (as qualified by common law provisions of early twentieth century). In the film Nanook Revisited, which was made toward the end of the century, the film crew get to interact with one of Flaherty’s offspring, begotten him by one of the female characters in the earlier film. Such revelations prompt serious questions about the integrity of the project Flaherty had undertaken, where the projected ‘reality’ is far from the actual reality. It is safe to say that the film-maker’s personal involvement in the lives of on-screen characters has not been paralleled in documentary films made in following decades. The lack of authenticity of portrayed indegenous people is learnt from the directorial choices. For example, Nanook wasn’t the actual name of the male protagonist, but rather it is Allakariallak; the wife and mother of his children Nyla was played by Alice Nuvalinga (one of the wives of Flaherty) alongside the other woman Cunayoo, and Nanook’s son Allegoo’s real name is Phillipoosie. Hence, what is construed dominates what is actual – something that modern documentaries have significantly overcome. In modern ethnographic documentaries, the focus is more pronounced on objective reality as opposed to cinematic appeal. (Griffiths, 2002, p.114)
One area of ambiguity in Nanook of the North is the mixing of nature and ethnographic documentary genres in one product. As much as the film is about the life and livelihood of an archetypal clan of the American Arctic, a major portion of the film is dedicated to covering animal life in the region, with walruses, seals, fishes and sledge dogs all getting detailed attention. These passages in the film are comparable to the kind of work David Attenborough had undertaken throughout his illustrious career. But in Attenborough’s case the emphasis was clearly on nature and what transient coverage of human inhabitants takes place is only to provide the requisite backdrop. In Nanook of the North, Flaherty clearly gets carried away by events and phenomena in the Arctic wild that the film ends up giving inadequate screen-time to developing human characters. While Nanook, Nyla and other members of the small family are introduced in brief, the identities of these characters are not properly developed. Always preoccupied with the here-and-now, the Eskimo has no time, energy or the inclination to grow his spirituality. (Bird, 1996, p.258) While this is the impression given to the audience, it is not a wholly accurate one. Of course, one has to remember that Robert Flaherty was much more than a film-maker. He was a key member of the early Arctic explorers, whose contribution to the understanding of the region is very important. More than an ethnographer, Flaherty donned additional hats of cartographer, miner, geologist, wildlife photographer and more.
“In the course of four expeditions, financed by Sir William Mackenzie (who “with his daring imagination, was to Canada what Cecil Rhodes was to Africa”), Robert Flaherty added the Belcher Archipelago to the map of Canada and had an island named after him by the Canadian government. He was, too, the first white man to cross the Ungava Peninsula, known until then only by the Eskimo – whose constant, uncomplaining battle for near survival and whose friendly ways and humor he came not only to admire, bur to love. “ (Lee, 1984, p.38)
Hence, the flaws inherent in Flaherty’s early forays into film-making should be seen in the context of his overall contributions and multiple roles played by him. To accuse Flaherty of employing re-enactment, staging and altering in what was supposedly a ‘documentary work’, is a harsh indictment of him. Modern scholars, analysing Nanook of the North retrospectively see such things as persistent phenomenon in the whole history of ethnographic documentary film. For example, it is common practice to make natives perform rituals specially for the camera and settings changed in order to accommodate the film crew. Following Nanook of the North, other ethnographic documentaries of the American North appeared. Prominent among them such as Eskimo (1934) and The Alaskan Eskimo (1953) were full of carefully staged reconstructions under directions from the film-maker. Hence, to single out Flaherty as breaking the integrity of ethnographic film making is unfair. If anything, the blurring of the boundary between ‘fiction’ and ‘documentary’ can be seen as necessary for achieving overall dramatic effect and artistic quality. The success and lasting legacy of the film is a valid proof of this filming philosophy. (Askew, 2006, p.27)
Indeed, Nanook of the North was such an influential film in early “non-fiction” genre, that the methods used in its making, flawed as they might be, have been widely adopted in subsequent projects. For example, the subtitle of Flaherty’s next film Moana: A Romance of the Golden Age indicates that the film-maker was dealing with myth. Due to this perception, the director “established the other face, a prototype of the documentary”. This precursor to the whole array of documentaries that are released later reveals “a more popular approach to what sometimes would be called the drama-documentary or docudrama.” A good example of this genre is the Silent Enemy (1930) – a film about the Native Indian tribes of North American tundra as they struggle to stave-off starvation. (McCaffrey & Jacobs, 1999, p.217)