Part of a series on the
Anthropology of art, media, music, dance,
Art of the Americas,
Indigenous Australian art,
Nanook of the North,
The Ax Fight,
Nǃai, the Story of a ǃKung Woman,
Incidents of Travel in Chichen Itza,
National Anthropological Archives,
Centro Cultural Mexiquense,
Museum of Anthropology at UBC,
Museum of Anthropology, Cambridge,
Museum of Indian Arts and Culture,
Robert Hull Fleming Museum,
List of museums,
List of ethnographic films,
Margaret Mead Film Festival,
Tribal art/Folk art,
Robert J. Flaherty,
Robert Hugh Layton,
Social and cultural anthropology
Nanook of the North (also known as Nanook of the North: A Story Of Life and Love In the Actual Arctic) is a 1922 silent documentary film by Robert J. Flaherty, contaminated by docudrama, at a time when separating films into documentary and drama did not yet exist.
In the tradition of what would later be called salvage ethnography, Flaherty captured the struggles of the Inuk man named Nanook and his family in the Canadian Arctic. The film is considered the first feature-length documentary. Some have criticized Flaherty for staging several sequences, but the film is generally viewed as standing "alone in its stark regard for the courage and ingenuity of its heroes."
In 1989, this film was one of the first 25 films to be selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
The documentary follows the lives of an Inuk, Nanook, and his family as they travel, search for food, and trade in northern Quebec, Canada. Nanook, his wife, Nyla, and their baby, Cunayou, are introduced as fearless heroes who endure rigors "no other race" could survive.
In 1910, Flaherty was hired as an explorer and prospector along the Hudson Bay for the Canadian Pacific Railway. Learning about the lands and people there, Flaherty decided to bring a camera with him on his third expedition in 1913, but knowing nothing about film, Flaherty took a three-week course on cinematography in Rochester, New York.
Using a Bell & Howell camera, a portable developing and printing machine, and some lighting equipment, Flaherty spent 1914 and 1915 shooting hours of film of Eskimo life. By 1916, Flaherty had enough footage that he began test screenings and was met with wide enthusiasm. However, in 1916, Flaherty dropped a cigarette onto the original camera negative (which was highly flammable nitrate stock) and lost 30,000 feet of film. With his first attempt ruined, Flaherty decided to not only return for new footage, but also to refocus the film on one Eskimo family as he felt his earlier footage was too much of travelogue. Spending four years raising money, Flaherty was eventually funded by French fur company Revillon Frères and returned to the North and shot from August 1920 to August 1921. As a main character, Flaherty chose the celebrated hunter of the Itivimuit tribe, Allakariallak. The full collaboration of the Eskimos was key to Flaherty's success as the Eskimos were his film crew and many of them knew his camera better than he did.
Flaherty has been criticized for deceptively portraying staged events as reality. "Nanook" was in fact named Allakariallak (pronounced: al.la.ka.ɢi.al.lak), while the "wife" shown in the film was not really his wife. According to Charles Nayoumealuk, who was interviewed in Nanook Revisited (1988), "the two women in Nanook - Nyla (Alice ? Nuvalinga) and Cunayou (whose real name we do not know) were not Allakariallak's wives, but were in fact common-law wives of Flaherty." And although Allakariallak normally used a gun when hunting, Flaherty encouraged him to hunt after the fashion of his recent ancestors in order to capture the way the Inuit lived before European influence. On the other hand, while Flaherty made his Inuit actors use spears instead of guns during the walrus and seal hunts, the prey shown in the film were genuine, wild animals. Flaherty also exaggerated the peril to Inuit hunters with his claim, often repeated, that Allakariallak had died of starvation two years after the film was completed, whereas in fact he died at home, likely of tuberculosis.
Building of the igloo:
The building of the igloo is one of the most celebrated sequences in the film, but interior photography presented a problem. Building an igloo large enough for a camera to enter resulted in the dome collapsing, and when they finally succeeded in making the igloo it was too dark for photography. Instead, the images of the inside of the igloo in the film were actually shot in a special three-walled igloo for Flaherty's bulky camera so that there would be enough light for it to capture interior shots.
Visit to the trade post of the white man:
Another scene that is much discussed is the visit to the "Trade Post of the White Man." In this scene, Nanook and his family arrive in a kayak at the trading post and one family member after another emerge from a small kayak, akin to a clown car at the circus. Going to trade his hunt from the year, including foxes, seals and polar bears, Nanook comes in contact with the white man and there is a funny interaction as the two cultures meet. The trader plays music on a gramophone and tries to explain how a man 'cans' his voice. Bending forward and staring at the machine, Nanook puts his ear closer as the trader cranks the mechanism again. The trader removes the record and hands it to Nanook who at first peers at it and then puts it in his mouth and bites it. The scene is meant to be a comical one as the audience laughs at the naivete of Nanook and people isolated from Western culture. In truth, the scene was entirely scripted and Nanook knew what a gramophone was.
Hunting of the walrus:
It has been pointed out that in the 1920s when Nanook was filmed, the Inuit had already begun integrating the use of Western clothing and were utilizing rifles to hunt rather than the harpoon; but this does not negate that the Inuit knew how to make traditional clothing from animals found in their environment, and could still fashion traditional weapons; and were perfectly free to utilize them if found to be preferable for a given situation.
The film is not technically sophisticated; how could it be, with one camera, no lights, freezing cold, and everyone equally at the mercy of nature? But it has an authenticity that prevails over any complaints that some of the sequences were staged. If you stage a walrus hunt, it still involves hunting a walrus, and the walrus hasn't seen the script. What shines through is the humanity and optimism of the Inuit.
Flaherty defended his work by stating that a filmmaker must often distort a thing to catch its true spirit. Later filmmakers have pointed out that the only cameras available to Flaherty at the time were both large and immobile, making it impossible to effectively capture most interior shots or unstructured exterior scenes without significantly modifying the environment and subject action.
As the first nonfiction work of its scale, Nanook of the North was ground-breaking cinema. It captured many authentic details of a culture little-known to outsiders, and was filmed in a remote location. Hailed almost unanimously by critics, the film was a box office success in the United States and abroad. In the following years, many others would try to follow in Flaherty's success with "primitive peoples" films. In 2005, film critic Roger Ebert described the film's central figure, Nanook, as "one of the most vital and unforgettable human beings ever recorded on film."
At the time, few documentaries had been filmed and there was little precedent to guide Flaherty's work. Since Flaherty's time both staging action and attempting to steer documentary action have come to be considered unethical amongst cinéma vérité purists, because they believe such reenactments deceive the audience.
In its earliest years (approx. 1895-1902), film production was dominated by actualities, short pictures of real people in real places. Robert Flaherty's great innovation was simply to combine the two forms of actuality, infusing the exotic journey with the details of indigenous work and play and life.
In 1999, Nanook of the North was digitally remastered and released on DVD by The Criterion Collection. It includes an interview with Flaherty's widow (and Nanook of the North co-editor), Frances Flaherty, photos from Flaherty's trip to the arctic, and excerpts from a TV documentary, Flaherty and Film. In 2013, Flicker Alley released a remastered blu ray version that includes six other arctic films.
Literature and publications:
The novel The Watsons Go to Birmingham: 1963, by Christopher Paul Curtis, mentions the movie in an impersonation by Daniel Watson, the father of the family.,
The book The Zombie Survival Guide 2003, by Max Brooks, references the movie, though it erringly reaffirms that the lead character "starved to death a year after that documentary was shot.",
Frank Zappa dreamed he was Nanook in his 1974 song "Don't Eat The Yellow Snow".,
Kabloonak is a 1994 film about the making of Nanook of the North. Charles Dance plays Flaherty and Adamie Quasiak Inukpuk (a relative of Nanook) plays Nanook.,
In the film, The Lost Boys, Corey Haim's character has a dog named Nanook.,
In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "His Way", the station Chief of Security Odo is compared to Nanook of the North because of his icy personality.,
In the cartoon Hey Arnold!, Grandpa Phil's pet name for Arnold is Nanook.,
The title of an episode of The Powerpuff Girls, "Nano of the North", is a clear parody of Nanook's title.,
The 1993 Rugrats episode, "The Blizzard", featured an attempt by the babies to reach the "North Pole" in their back yard, aided by "Angelinook of the North".,
In the 1988 Night Court episode "Danny Got His Gun: Part 2," episode 103 (season 6), Dan is rescued from a plane crash in Alaska by an Inuit family. The episode contains several overt and situational references to Nanook of the North.,
In the 1969 animated television special Frosty the Snowman, the railroad ticket agent mentioned that the route to the North Pole would make a stop at "Nanook of the North".