Documentaries and Books Drama

Nanook of the North

I admire Robert Flaherty and Neil Sheehan for the same reason: Their persistence in the pursuit of creation. Sheehan’s Pulitzer Prize winning book A Bright Shining Lie was almost never published because he lost 8 months of work in a computer hard drive crash and was so depressed that he nearly quit. Flaherty shot 30,000 feet of film in the Arctic in 1914 and 1915, but lost it all when he dropped a lit cigarette (This was in the days of nitrate). He too somehow persisted, returning to Northern Canada with a Bell & Howell camera and making one of the most influential films of the 20th century: 1922’s Nanook of the North.

The story: In an area of land as large as England that abuts the Hudson Bay of Canada, only a few hundred human beings scratch out an existence. Nanook and his family are among the Inuits who live in this bleak, deadly, yet beautiful environment. We see them fishing, hunting walrus, building igloos and interacting with white traders. We also see them laughing and playing and being a family. The tone is partly anthropological and partly human drama, and viewers find themselves fascinated by the lives of the Inuit family as well as rooting very much for their survival.

Nanook of the North | The Current | The Criterion Collection

Generally hailed as the first documentary, it might better be termed the first docu-drama because it is assembled in a narrative form and because some of the sequences were staged. The family were not really a family; indeed the wife Nyla was Flaherty’s wife. The amazing walrus hunt sequence is real, but Flaherty asked the Inuit to use traditional spears when by this point in history they had firearms.

Cinéma vérité enthusiasts have raked Flaherty over the coals for the above and many other liberties he took with the “documentary” form. But in fairness to him, there was no documentary form at the time, so it’s not as if he overturned conventions upon which the audience had long ago come to rely. And whatever sins he committed as a story teller, it was a remarkable feat with 1916 technology to be shooting and developing film in such an unforgiving place.

Despite being known mainly for its historical significance, this movie is not “film school medicine” (in contrast, say, to the first 15 minutes of Häxan). There is something extraordinarily moving about watching fellow members of our species hanging on by the skin of their teeth yet also finding joy and love in an unimaginably remote, dangerous part of the planet. It is hard to imagine the sensation the film must have caused when it debuted, and it still has psychic weight today.

Nanook of the North is in the public domain and you can watch it for free here. This version has a lovely soundtrack which the original print did not (music was added in 1939).