Nanook of the North

A part of this view­ing list: Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion Spine #33: Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North.


This is the third time now that I’ve seen Nanook of the North. I’m cur­rent­ly rewatch­ing films I’ve already seen but not reviewed that are on the Cri­te­ri­on list. Despite the fact that Nanook of the North is filled with more inac­cu­ra­cies and staged scenes than actu­al ethnog­ra­phy, it is impor­tant to real­ize that though much of its crit­i­cism is accu­rate, it isn’t all jus­ti­fied.

Fla­her­ty was blaz­ing trail for fea­ture length non-fic­tion film­mak­ing, as well as loca­tion shoot­ing in harsh envi­ron­ments. The cam­era he used was so large that a non-authen­tic three-walled igloo had to be con­struct­ed to allow enough light and space inside for film­ing to take place. He used this equip­ment in the Arc­tic, on ice fields and in bliz­zards and haul­ing it hun­dreds of miles. And while actu­al­i­ties were com­mon fare at nick­el odeons, con­struct­ing a non-fic­tion nar­ra­tive of this sort had nev­er been done before.

This is a sit­u­a­tion in which crit­i­cism should not be per­son­al. In hind­sight, tak­ing in the lega­cy that Fla­her­ty cre­at­ed with doc­u­men­tary cin­e­ma, it is easy to rip Nanook of the North to shreds as more sto­ry than doc­u­ment, but aim would be bet­ter tak­en at doc­u­men­taries which are arranged in the style of Nanook and con­tin­ue to make the same mis­takes and fal­si­fi­ca­tions, often deliberately.[Michael Moore, I’m look­ing at you.] In fact, I would argue that Fla­her­ty made no mis­takes in the film­ing of Nanook apart from being care­less enough to acci­den­tal­ly burn the neg­a­tives from his pre­vi­ous attempts at mak­ing it.

From an ethnographer’s stand­point, Flaherty’s insis­tence that the Inu­it use meth­ods that were already becom­ing used less and less often was inspired. The preva­lence of firearms, West­ern build­ing mate­ri­als and motor­ized water­craft was on the increase, and like­ly with­in anoth­er gen­er­a­tion it would have been impos­si­ble to make a film like Nanook of the North. So Fla­her­ty was unknow­ing­ly cre­at­ing sal­vage ethnog­ra­phy that has been equal­ly impor­tant to anthro­pol­o­gy as to cin­e­ma. It is no coin­ci­dence that I watched this film once in a film class and once for an anthro­pol­o­gy class.

It is pos­si­ble to read the film as a meta-doc­u­ment about spec­ta­tor­ship in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry as well. Fla­her­ty was clever enough to real­ize that he must craft a film that his audi­ence would enjoy so we end up with patron­iz­ing and roman­tic inter­ti­tles and oscil­lat­ing shots of the Inu­it as skilled and sim­ple [Nanook and the gramo­phone being a prime exam­ple of the lat­ter] but always as sav­ages. Flaherty’s pres­ence as a char­ac­ter with­in the film is min­i­mal, unlike in Hoop Dreams [anoth­er Cri­te­ri­on title] where the direc­tor acts as a par­tic­i­pant-observ­er.

Ulti­mate­ly, I think it is impor­tant to rec­og­nize the faults in a film like Nanook of the North while not hold­ing it against the film­mak­er. This film is tru­ly a land­mark of ear­ly cin­e­ma, so it is no sur­prise that its form con­tin­ues to be copied even to this day. Mis­takes and all, and even by those who should know bet­ter.


• Watch the entire film at Google Video.
• How I Filmed Nanook of the North by Robert Fla­her­ty.
Cri­te­ri­on Essay by Dean W. Dun­can.
Roger Ebert essay.
DVD Out­sider Review.
• Mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of real­i­ty in Nanook of the North [with a tiny video clip] Full project on the film here.
Ger­hard Lampe’s aca­d­e­m­ic analy­sis of Flaherty’s style.
The Cri­te­ri­on Contraption’s review.