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.

2 thoughts on “Nanook of the North

  1. i would like to know about the film since i am do­ing an as­sign­ment based on this film
    my first ques­tions is
    1.actors in the film were they so­cial or the­atri­cal ones?
    2.what do you think in terms of com­par­ing the so­cial and the­atri­cal actors,who can make the story more real and cred­i­ble?
    3.what kind of mode of rep­re­sen­ta­tion was used other than ob­ser­va­tional?
    4.did stage take place when mak­ing this doc­u­men­tary?
    your help is much ap­pre­ci­ated and would like to hear from you soon since i have to sub­mit the as­sign­ment next week.
    thank you very much for the help !!

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