Does It Matter If Nanook of the North Isn’t Exactly True to Life?

NANOOK OF THE NORTH (1922) — Robert J. Flaherty

Note: This is the hundred-and-twentieth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my fifth favorite 1922 film, NANOOK OF THE NORTH, directed by Robert J. Flaherty.

As the filmmaker for whose work the word “documentary” was coined (for the later MOANA [1926]), Robert J. Flaherty looms large in the art form. Many point to his first film, NANOOK OF THE NORTH, as the first documentary in the recognizable tradition of the work. In fact, NANOOK was not the first movie to document real life; cinema was dominated by actualities in its earliest years. But of course, those slices of life were minuscule and unfocused, examining moments rather than lifetimes. NANOOK OF THE NORTH should be recognized for its incredible contributions to film grammar. It almost doesn’t matter that much of its reality was staged. It actually adheres closer to the future of documentaries in doing so.

This is not a cynical evaluation of the “fake news” values of documentarians or something. There’s just a true misunderstanding of the construction of documentaries, I believe. They are as true to life as possible (well, the quality ones made in good faith are). But like any piece of media, they reflect a certain set(s) of realities, and their production will always be influenced by outside, uncontrolled factors. So, yes, it does matter that NANOOK OF THE TRUTH isn’t 100 percent authentic; it serves as a great, primeval example of the construction of “non-fiction” cinema. And it also doesn’t matter in the sense that NANOOK’s fabrications and line-blurring doesn’t hinder its human tale.

The story of the making of the film has the potential to overshadow the product itself. Flaherty was hired on explorations into the Canadian Arctic in 1910, and by his return in 1913, had decided to film what he saw there. Three years later, he was testing the footage in front of audiences, but a lit cigarette burned his plans all away. Oh, and the film. By 1920, Flaherty was able to return and focus his efforts on crafting a narrative around a central character, an intuitive yet landmark decision that would make NANOOK transcend the actualities of yesteryear and the travelogues that existed at the time.

And so the character of Nanook was born. Nanook was in reality Allakariallak, and his “wife” in the film may very well have actually been Flaherty’s common-law wife, a practice he employed with the “natives” again in making MOANA. Allakariallak also used guns in his hunting, but Nanook didn’t; he used traditional weapons like spears. Nanook died in the frozen wastes searching for food for his family a few years after filming was completed, as an intertitle explains, but Allakariallak likely died of tuberculosis at home. Nanook was bewildered by a phonograph record at the white man’s trading post, but Allakariallak had almost certainly encountered them before. And the incredible igloo building scene is almost authentic, but interior shots had to be completed with a special three walled igloo that wasn’t actually used as a residence.

These are some of the inconsistencies of fact and fiction in NANOOK OF THE NORTH. There may very well have been more, including the coaching of movement for the camera in nearly every moment. But what Flaherty does end up producing is, essentially, a crafted presentation of an approximation of Inuit life in the Arctic. It is true that Allakariallak and his family’s life were not exactly easy, and that their traditions were giving way to the “modern world.” That is NANOOK’s thesis, and the resulting film accomplishes that message in spades.

Full film

It stages humans against the harshness of nature, whether it’s in the example of the incredible, thrilling walrus hunt, the growing blizzard, or the trouble in the ranks of the dogs that are integral to keeping the group of humans alive. It still documents exotic animal life and almost alien, snow-filled landscapes. NANOOK OF THE NORTH is a bold experiment, one that pays off with the promise of cinema intact. Its fundamental, human truth is communicated, even if facts or real events are circumnavigated. That these contrivances can be borne in the face of emotionally compelling material is itself an uncomfortable truth, but in the end, you have to marvel at the way of life and nature on display in NANOOK OF THE NORTH. It’s one of the more important films of the silent era, and although it’s fifth on my 1922 list, it’s still a must-watch.

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