Nanook of the North (1922)

“But Nanook of the North . . . is real on the screen. Its people, as they appear to the spectator, are not acting, but living.”[1]

            Nanook of the North is considered to be the first documentary shot on film. It follows a family of Inuit people living off of Canada’s Hudson Bay: Nanook, Nyla “The Smiling One,” Cunayou, and Allegoo. Robert J. Flaherty, the writer, director, and cinematographer follows them as they visit a trading post, hunt seal and walrus, build an igloo, and survive the elements. It is often considered a masterpiece of filmmaking: “Nanook is one of the most vital and unforgettable human beings ever recorded on film.”[2] Flaherty favors long shots during action sequences and the depictions of traditional Inuit life are remarkable. But there are issues surrounding this film, about the truthfulness of the content and whether that should matter in a genre about real life.

In real life, this man would have used a gun, not a harpoon.

            Nanook isn’t real; it’s a portrayal of Allakariakkal. The rest of the cast is called Nanook’s family, but that’s not quite close either. Nyla was actually Flaherty’s mistress during the shoot. So, this “family unit” isn’t a family, biologically speaking. There are also inaccuracies in terms of how these people lived; the Inuit had already incorporated Western dress into their wardrobe and hunted with guns. They were familiar with some forms of technology, like record players. This movie portrays them as more isolated from “civilization” than they actually were.

            Flaherty also he romanticizes the people he’s filming: terms used to describe them are “kindly,” “brave,” “simple,” “happy-go-lucky.” There is no room to explore them as people, especially once these terms are applied. While there are moments that fit with these characteristics – the scenes where Allakariallak smiles unabashedly at the camera are some of the best moments of the film – it leaves little room for a large interpretation. Juxtapose these terms with how Flaherty depicts them as stereotypical “savages”: they hunt with harpoons; they eat meat raw. This movie was made by a white man, mostly likely for white people. The 1920s was still a time of blatant racism and stereotyping. While Flaherty spent a significant amount of time with the Inuit previous to filming, it is understandable that he would bring his own prejudices and biases to the set.

            For all of these behind-the-scenes aside, generally speaking, people seem to like the movie. It “should be recognized for its incredible contributions to film grammar.”[3] This movie is A First, which is a high distinction in Hollywood. And I see the value of this movie; we see people fight and kill a real walrus and build real igloos out of real snow. It gives us a glimpse of how the Inuit people lived, at a time when their culture was being eradicated by forced assimilation. The fact that Flaherty took the time to document and film these practices expressly for the purpose of “just because” is pretty astounding. While today we might film something or take a picture for a heck of it, the commitment Flaherty had to his vision at a time when moving pictures was still in its infancy is rather awe-inspiring.

What makes it essential?

            The standard answer is “it’s the first full length documentary.” And that’s probably why it’s on this list in the first place. But I think there’s a bigger reason than genre. This movie features a cast of Indigenous people from Canada, a rare feat considering that minorities were being pushed out of Hollywood at this time. The next eighty years would consistently portray Indigenous people as stereotypes, sometimes being played by white actors. It wouldn’t be until the 1990s that movies began exploring the depth of the Indigenous experience.

            Which leads us to the question usually attached to this film: do these factual errors matter? Documentaries usually profess to tell the truth; today, they’re part of everyday life. We record protests, arrests, driving on the street, everyday encounters that turn into something else. When an event turns out to be not what it seems, there’s often instant backlash. So, when the inconsistencies of Nanook are well known, why is this still praised as “essential?” Is it because it depicts traditional Inuit practices when most have been lost from colonization and forced assimilation? Is it because Flaherty purposely travelled with the express purpose of filming these people? I don’t have real answers. But I think this film lends itself to the contemplation of what it means to be a “real” documentary.

[1] “Nanook of the North,” The New York Times Book of Movies, ed. Wallace Schroeder, (New York, NY: Universe), 2019, pg. 771.

[2] Roger Ebert, “Reality at the Edge of the World,”, Web., published 5 September 2005, last accessed 5 July 2021.

[3] Tristan Ettleman, “Does It Matter If Nanook of the North Isn’t Exactly True to Life?”, Tristan Ettleman, Web., published 3 May 2019, las accessed 5 July 2021.

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