#57) Nanook of the North (1922)
OR “50 Words for ‘Staged’”
Directed & Written by Robert J. Flaherty
Class of 1989
The Plot: Presented as a realistic slice of life (though with many scenes staged for the camera), an Inuit named Nanook (Allakariallak) and his tribe travel the frozen tundra of Port Harrison (now Inukjuak) Quebec, hunting wildlife and seeking shelter from the cold. Oh, and if you like shots of different animals being killed and skinned on camera, this film has got you covered.
Why It Matters: The NFR sums up all you need to take away from this film with the following passage; “Though Flaherty’s authenticity has since been called into question, its emotional impact and artistic style still resonate.” There’s also a pretty academic essay by Patricia R. Zimmermann and Sean Zimmermann Auyash.
But Does It Really?: The aforementioned NFR selection says it all. The film blurs the line between fiction and reality in a highly questionable way, but “Nanook” wrote a lot of the rules that documentaries still follow. As with other docudramas of the era (see “In the Land of the Head Hunters”), I’m not quite sure whether to chalk this one up to informative or entertaining (infotainment?). Regardless, take what you will from this landmark film, and keep at least one critical eye open.
Everybody Gets One: Among the many myths of this film, the unfortunately true one is that Allakariallak (the real Nanook) died two years after filming. Despite the opening title, his death was most likely due to tuberculosis, rather than starving. We’ll see more of explorer-turned-filmmaker Robert Flaherty when I take a look at “Tabu”.
Wow, That’s Dated: Gramophones, castor oil as a cure-all. Also, jury’s still out on whether or not “Eskimos” is an acceptable term. Just play it safe and say “Inuit”.
- Nope, nothing stagey about a scene where everyone pops out of a kayak like it’s a clown car.
- Why is Nanook bartering for candy? WE NEED REAL FOOD!
- Some of these hunting scenes are a bit much. This may be the first snuff film.
- Speaking of hunting, the Inuit had moved on to rifles at this point, but Flaherty insisted on more primitive hunting methods. I imagine this was Nanook’s personal “The 1900 House”.
- Thanks to some quick Googling I learned that the collective noun for walruses is herd. Some search results also accept a pod, a huddle, or an ugly of walruses.
- Geez intertitles, don’t tell me when “the suspense begins”. Not exactly Hitchcock, are we?
- Walruses are “the tiger of the north”?
- Staged or not, it’s still pretty cool to watch someone actually build an igloo.
- The film takes a moment to point out that the “blubber eating Eskimo” is a misconception. Really Flaherty, that’s the one rumor you want to clear up?
- Wow, I don’t remember this film being such a downer at the end.
- 1994’s “Kabloonak” is a fictionalized account of the making of “Nanook”. That’s right, a fictional version of a true story about making a fictional version of a true story.
- The documentary “Nanook Revisited” helps dispel some of the myths this film generated.
- Speaking of, it was only a matter of time before “Documentary Now!” got a shout-out here.
- Frank Zappa once dreamed he was Nanook.