This year my theme for Criterion Month was a film from every decade starting with the 1920s and ending with the 2010s. Criterion’s physical collection currently contains 21 films from the 1920s, four of which I’ve already seen. So I picked Robert Flaherty’s 1922 documentary Nanook of the North, which is one of those building-block films you hear about in film school. “This was the first film to do blank!” You get the idea. Nanook of the North is a film acclaimed for its storytelling techniques but not so much its actual story. That’s because the story is as Phil Collins might say “a pack of lies.”
Well maybe not lies. Let’s call them “embellishments”. This was a big concern I had going into this film. What value can I take from a documentary when I don’t know fact from fiction? My other concern was whether or not this film was racially insensitive. Even at a glance, Nanook looks to be one of cinema’s early examples of the unfortunate “Noble Savage” trope.
So what do modern Inuit people think of Nanook of the North? I couldn’t find much online though I did find several articles from five years ago with Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq. Tanya is a Canadian Inuk throat singer who in an effort to reclaim Nanook of the North has used her vocal talents to accompany the film in a handful of performances. If you haven’t seen throat singing you should check this out. It’s intense.
Tanya said she was embarrassed the first time she saw the film saying it was full of “a bunch of bullshit happy Eskimo stereotypes.” Though she does believe director Robert Flaherty had a love for the Inuit, even if it was through “1922 goggles”. One point Tanya made of the film, ”There are moments in the movie where … my ancestors, they’re so amazing. They lived on the land and I just still can’t believe that. Growing up in Nunavut and just the harshness of the environment itself, the ability for people to be able to survive with no vegetation, and just the harshest of environments, it’s just incredible to me. I’m very proud of my ancestors.” So I’m glad some value can come from this film. So how did Nanook of the North come to be?
Robert Flaherty was born the son of a prospector in 1884 in Iron Mountain, Michigan. Is there a more appropriate place for a prospector to live than a place called “Iron Mountain”? Flaherty was exposed to many different regions and peoples following his father on iron ore expeditions. He also became an acclaimed still-photographer in Toronto years later. In 1910, Flaherty was hired as an explorer/prospector on an expedition to the Canadian Pacific Railway. There Flaherty became fascinated by the local Inuits. Upon his return, Flaherty took a three-week cinematography course and year after year came back to shoot footage of the Inuits going about their lives. Flaherty showed his test footage at screenings to wide enthusiasm. Then in 1916 he dropped a cigarette onto the camera negative and lost 30,000 feet of film. Shit.
Still compelled to film the Inuits, Flaherty decided this time he would only focus on one family. He would try to tell a more focused story rather than an aimless travelogue. He spent the next four years raising money and finally returned in 1920. He decided to focus the film on a celebrated hunter named Allakariallak which Flaherty decided to call “Nanook” and used the local Inuits he had befriended to serve as his crew.
You have to admit it’s a hell of a story. Flaherty wouldn’t have spent so much time traveling to the Canadian Pacific Railway and working with the Inuits if he didn’t have an admiration for them. So why did he make them so primitive? I just told you he used Inuits as his crew and yet in the film Nanook acts like he’s never seen a record player. He actually takes a record and bites down on it. What’s the deal, Flaherty?
Flaherty claims he made changes to “catch the true spirit” of the Inuit. So much so that the version of the Inuit he displays is more of a throwback to what the Inuits used to be like. In the film, Nanook uses a spear to hunt. When in reality Allakariallak used a gun. He also talks about the constant struggle to fend off hunger and that after filming Nanook died from starvation. When in reality Allakariallak died from tuberculosis in 1924.
Knowing this information beforehand I had trouble engaging myself with these characters. Really the only moments where I felt truly compelled were anytime animals or fire was involved. For example, there’s a scene where Nanook stalks a walrus with a spear. Obviously the walrus isn’t in on any of this. The same could be said for any time Nanook has to track down moss (a scarce resource) and use it to make fire or fuel for his family.
I also feel I should be honest and make it known I’m not the biggest fan of silent films. The footage is rough and the pacing is slow. In the silent films I like there’s often an extra element that holds my attention. Like the editing in Battleship Potemkin, or the nightmarish set design in Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Nanook of the North lacks those artistic flourishes.
Everything about Nanook of the North feels very workmanlike. Almost like an industrial film. Flaherty’s cameras were big and cumbersome and he didn’t have much flexibility in the arctic. The film relies heavily on title cards to set the scene and I never found a rhythm with the story.
That being said there is a certain “je nail sais quoi” about the film’s star. Allakariallak’s warm smile and unflinching optimism throughout the film makes him a very charismatic figure. Here he lives in one of the most desolate places in the world and yet he makes it his own. The arctic is Allakariallak’s bitch.
It’s comforting to read that Flaherty, even if his film doesn’t always reflect it, had a deep respect for the Inuit way of life. His interest in other cultures continued with the 1926 documentary Moana and the the 1935 documentary Man of Aran but he was never able to match the impact or success of Nanook of the North.
Even if I’m not crazy about the film I do appreciate that it inspired me to read more about Inuit culture and appreciate their resourcefulness and ingenuity. That’s what I love about Criterion Month. It’s a great opportunity to explore stories and cultures from places you know nothing about. It’s something I’ll always remember “Now and forever more” to quote Phil Collins.