Criterion Collection · Documentary

#33 Nanook of the North (1922)

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#33 Nanook of the North (1922)

1922 // USA // Robert Flaherty

Criterion Collection (LINK)

Nanook of the North is the kind of film that its perpetual reputation and formidable status in cinema history indeed eclipse the film itself. Released in 1922 with rave reviews, it continues to dazzle film critics in the 21st century, recently ranked at number 7th in the Sight and Sound “Greatest Documentaries of All Time” poll. The film is often quoted as the first feature-length documentary, likewise, Robert Flaherty the director is regularly regarded as the father of documentary.

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As much debatable as its magistral influence is its controversy of authenticity. After burning the original footage accidentally by fire in 1916, Robert Flaherty re-shot the new scenes during his third expedition along the Hudson Bay in northeastern Canada, filming a story of an Inuit hunter in the barren land under the extreme cold. Nanook, whom Flaherty handpicked personally, is our hero in the story, although he was dead two years after the film released, Nanook becomes the representation of the Eskimo’s culture and a synonym of Eskimo’s bravery, his image of holding a harpoon high up with one hand in hunting walnuts has ever since been relieved as a vivid memory on every viewers’ mind.

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Flaherty’s camera aims to capture the daily life and struggle of Nanook and his family in observant eyes, constructing a fluid dramatic story with bits and pieces of Inuit’s mandate activities, from trading hides in trading post to fishing with ivory baits, from the meticulous igloo building to fierce sledges riding. The liveliness of Nanook, his two wives and sons, plus the adorable puppies, were all transposed across the Arctic space to our conscious mind. But how far the impact could be for the contemporary viewers, who could just easily sit on sofa and turn on the Discovery Channel anytime they want? Probably not as impressive as the one living in 1922 would feel. Still I am deeply awed by the menace tug of war between Nanook and the seal just as I am truly dazzled by the ingenious idea of the ice window in an igloo.

Unsurprisingly, my heart is hurt when I learnt the film is a “fraud”. Okay, maybe partly a “fraud” since Nanook is really an Inuit and not a CGI figure. Yet, Nanook is not “Nanook” but a man named Allakariallak. How about Nanook’s lovely and caring wife who chews his boots and shelter their children under her hood? Not his wife either but Flaherty’s mistress. And who could imagine the “seal” having a tug of war with Nanook is a group of people hidden outside camera’s frame? The scenes are staged, planned ahead by a calculated and innovative mind, much like what Benjamin Christensen did in Häxan (1922) where tales of witchcraft and detailed interrogation in witch-hunt are reenacted by actors. Would it be too harsh if I call Nanook of the North a deception, a lie that steals my wholehearted trust?

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After all, why Flaherty needed all the staging? The word “documentary” has not yet been conceived in 1922, and when film was firstly invented, it was used to capture everyday life, for instance workers getting off work or train arriving at the station. Not until pioneers like Georges Méliès or Edwin S. Porter utilized the medium in fantastical and dramatic purposes did the cinema evolved. In Nanook of the North, the dramatic elements are ostensibly notable, but beneath the surface is a humanistic heart and an ethnological mind. The reenactments are within the reign of Eskimo’s past, or their fading culture before the invasion of the so-called civilization. Who cares if the Inuits have been using rifles instead of harpoon for hunting in 1922? Who cares if the Inuits are wearing fashionable clothes instead of the bulky furry coat? Flaherty only interests in depicting a race in their original unique form before bygone, a race that is the exemplary of man verse nature that continues to strive timelessness in film. And this is not a fraud.

Film Rating: 4/5
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