There is a scene in Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook Of The North that represents all of its authenticity and controversy at the same time. Nanook, the great Inuit hunter of northern Canada, has just caught a seal under the thick ice. He found its breathing hole, stalked it, then darted his harpoon straight down. For a long while he engages the seal in a tug of war. He pulls up on the rope, then gets dragged along as the seal reciprocates. We can’t see it clearly, but I’m sure the rope is tied around his waist. He can’t afford to let go. The seal doesn’t just mean food; it means oil, fabric, and clothing.
What’s interesting about this scene is that Nanook, through his hardship with the seal, resembles Charlie Chaplin in one of his physical comedic routines. Nanook pulls and pulls, then he tumbles, then he glides across the thick snow towards the breathing hole. At any moment the ice could break and he could fall in, probably with no way of getting out. He struggles a bit, then gets up and pulls again. Then he falls again. Over and over. The irony of course is that Nanook is not a comedian, nor is he trying to make us laugh. He is fighting hard for survival. But the length of the shot, the speed of the frames — they take on a secondary, or perhaps tertiary, purpose.
I mention this scene because Robert Flaherty has been criticised a lot for his tampering with Nanook’s real events. This has been labelled the first feature documentary, and for the most part, it stays true to what a documentary is intended to show — in this case, it’s the day-to-day life of an Inuit family. But can it still be a documentary if, say, the family is not really a family? Or if a walrus hunt happens only because the camera wants it to?
Flaherty gives us many beautiful sights in Nanook. Towards the end, as a strong snowstorm ravages the land, he films Nanook and his family (including the huskies) in wide shots. The people are little black specks on an otherwise white landscape. Think of it as the tundra equivalent — or precursor — to David Lean’s glorious desert panoramas in Lawrence Of Arabia. But the family we see only appears to be a family. Nanook’s wives and children are not really his wives and children (the women are purported to be Flaherty’s partners). Nanook’s name is not even Nanook. He’s not an actor. But some of the things he does are scripted, sometimes for drama, sometimes for comedy.
Nanook Of The North, nevertheless, is a powerful film that showcases powerful people living in a powerful environment. Nanook and his family are hardy people, yet they find the time to enjoy life. They are always seen with smiles on their faces, even when they’re eating raw meat and their cheeks are caked in blood. Their children are adorable. As are their husky puppies. There’s a touching moment where Rainbow, the youngest child, sits between two pups and embraces them.
There’s also a scene at a trading post, where the “white man” introduces a gramophone to Nanook, who then attempts to eat the vinyl. Nanook, apparently, knew exactly what a vinyl was at the time of filming. Whatever the case may be, if Flaherty conjures scenes for dramatic effect, he does so with the intention of expressing events as they really are, or were at some point.
The walrus hunt I mentioned. It might’ve taken place for the sake of the movie. But is it not still a walrus hunt? Is it not still executed in the same fashion as Nanook’s ancestors and their ancestors before them? He used a rifle, some critics say. Yes, maybe he did. But we don’t see it. What we see is really what we get, and Flaherty delivers with a movie that’s stark, harsh, and incredibly bleak. But in it all, Nanook and his family’s smiles make it worth while. There is truth in every lie. And so it is with Nanook Of The North.
Best Moment | The bottomless canoe. Or the igloo-building scene.
Worst Moment | Nope.