The Measure of a Person is What They Do With What They Have
February 17, 2015 11:01 AM   Subscribe

Beginning in 1920, Robert J. Flaherty spent a year in the Canadian Arctic (Port Harrison in Northern Quebec) documenting the daily struggles of an Inuk man named Nanook. The resulting feature-length film, an American silent documentary with elements of docudrama, was the first of its kind, in a style that would eventually become known as "salvage ethnography." Nanook of the North: A Story Of Life and Love In the Actual Arctic (1922)

As it was released in 1922, this is not a politically correct movie. Nor is it cinéma vérité. Scenes and relationships were staged. At times it portrays Nanook and his family as savage primitives. Some viewers may find certain scenes offensive or objectionable.
The movie's Building an Igloo sequence.

IMDb has the poster.

Nanook of the North can be streamed through the Internet Archive. The IA also has Flaherty's Man of Aran (1934) -- a fictional documentary about life on the Aran Islands off the western coast of Ireland.

Controversies, and Follow-Up
A follow-up documentary, Nanook Revisited, was released in 1990. Filmmakers revisited the original filming site and discovered Flaherty had staged several sequences, "sired children to whose future he paid no heed, and is himself now part of Inuit myth."

""Nanook" was in fact named Allakariallak (pronounced: [ɢ]), while the "wife" shown in the film was not really his wife. According to Charles Nayoumealuk, who was interviewed in Nanook Revisited (1988), "the two women in Nanook - Nyla (Alice [?] Nuvalinga) and Cunayou (whose real name we do not know) were not Allakariallak's wives, but were in fact common-law wives of Flaherty." And although Allakariallak normally used a gun when hunting, Flaherty encouraged him to hunt after the fashion of his recent ancestors in order to capture the way the Inuit lived before European influence. On the other hand, while Flaherty made his Inuit actors use spears instead of guns during the walrus and seal hunts, the prey shown in the film were genuine, wild animals. Flaherty also exaggerated the peril to Inuit hunters with his claim, often repeated, that Allakariallak had died of starvation two years after the film was completed, whereas in fact he died at home, likely of tuberculosis."
Roger Ebert:
"The film is not technically sophisticated; how could it be, with one camera, no lights, freezing cold, and everyone equally at the mercy of nature? But it has an authenticity that prevails over any complaints that some of the sequences were staged. If you stage a walrus hunt, it still involves hunting a walrus, and the walrus hasn't seen the script. What shines through is the humanity and optimism of the Inuit. One of the film's titles describes them as "happy-go-lucky," and although this seems almost cruel, given the harsh terms of their survival, they do indeed seem absorbed by their lives and content in them, which is more than many of us can say."
Comparative Review
MIT's DV Lab: Documenting Science Through Video and New Media, Spring 2011 course included a class that viewed and comparing excerpts of three films about the Inuit -- Nanook of the North (1922), Nanook Revisited (1990), and Starting Fire with Gunpowder (1991) -- and Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera (1929). (Previously on Mefi)

More from Flaherty
Tabu (1931)
Man of Aran (1934)
Elephant Boy (1937)
Louisiana Story (1948)

The IA's University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology Films Collection
posted by zarq (10 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Oops. The (Previously on Mefi) next to Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera should direct to: Previously on MeFi. (3 links, one for each word.) Sorry about that.
posted by zarq at 11:06 AM on February 17, 2015

I think this inspired Seth's graphic novel George Sprott.
posted by brujita at 12:14 PM on February 17, 2015

Inuit performer/artist/force of nature Tanya Tagaq speaks about Nanook of the North, which makes sense, as she's performed a live 'response' to the film (as the original plays on a screen behind her).
posted by erlking at 12:20 PM on February 17, 2015 [7 favorites]

erlking, thank you for linking to that!
posted by zarq at 12:24 PM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

"If you stage a walrus hunt, it still involves hunting a walrus" is my new favorite proverb.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:25 PM on February 17, 2015 [6 favorites]

I was amazed at how accessible this film was when I watched it for the first time a few years back. Regardless of the controversy surrounding it I think everyone should see it at least once.
posted by furtive at 1:26 PM on February 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

One of the single most valuable classes I took in college was called 'visual anthropology,' which pretty much started with Nanook of the North and taught us to look at *all* documentary films with a great deal of scrutiny, because even if a documentary filmmaker doesn't outright stage a scene (or build a half-igloo so they can film "authentic" scenes of an Inuk family sleeping ) they've still got some kind of agenda, good or bad. Sometimes (think Michael Moore) the agenda is obvious, but sometimes it's better hidden under the guise of "objectivity." That class really inoculated me against the sea of media bullshit that we're all swimming in these days, and I'm continually grateful to have taken it. Thanks Pacho!
posted by usonian at 2:35 PM on February 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

furtive, yeah. "Nanook" is very much troublesome, but still rather terrific. Presenting the truths, fictions and controversies really does add the whole package of this film.
posted by chainlinkspiral at 2:56 PM on February 17, 2015

For some reason, whenever they had nothing else to do or we had a substitute teacher, we were shown this film over and over when I was in 6th or 7th grade. With no explanation or anything. It was very odd.
posted by Maias at 3:40 PM on February 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

Tanya Tagaq performed live in Vancouver with a few musicians, with Nanook of the North projected behind her. It was a mesmerizing, hair raising, performance in a small performance hall, January 2014 PuSh festival. Seeing her live was a highlight of the year.
posted by seawallrunner at 11:31 PM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

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