Nanook of the North (1922)

“The mysterious Barren Lands — desolate, boulder-strewn, wind-swept — illimitable spaces which top the world.”

Synopsis:
An Inuit hunter (Allakariallak) struggles to help his two wives (Nyla and Cunayou) and two children survive in the harsh Arctic Circle.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary begins his review of Nanook of the North — “probably the most famous of all documentaries” — by noting that its director, Robert Flaherty (a “mining-explorer-turned-filmmaker”), made the picture “to show audiences around the world why he admired the Eskimo people”, who (in Flaherty’s own words) “had taken care of [him] on different expeditions over a ten year period”. Peary argues that while “visually the picture is still fascinating”, the “human drama seems a little lacking”; he complains that “you never really learn what these people are like, just what they do to survive”. He also notes that “critics have always complained that Flaherty had his subjects create scenes specifically for the camera”, with some of them “com[ing] across as phony”.

I’m much less concerned than Peary about either of these two issues. Watching how a group of humans manage to survive in seemingly unlivable conditions is sufficient “drama” for my tastes; and while it’s true that many of the scenes were commissioned specifically for the film, as Roger Ebert puts it so bluntly in his “Great Movies” review, “If you stage a walrus hunt, it still involves hunting a walrus, and the walrus hasn’t seen the script.” What does concern me a bit are two other points: first, that Nanook and his “family” aren’t really a family (apparently Flaherty talked openly about this fact, but it’s not mentioned at any point during the film itself, which feels deceptive); and second, that the survival techniques used by Nanook were already becoming antiquated at the time Flaherty shot his footage. In both cases, simply providing a written disclaimer at the beginning of the film would have been enough to satisfy my needs.

Regardless, Nanook… remains a movie all film fanatics should see — not only for its incredible pseudo-ethnographic footage of a bygone era, but for its undeniable (if controversial) place in documentary filmmaking history.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine pseudo-ethnographic footage of early-20th-century Inuit life


  • Many fascinating scenes of Arctic survival and ingenuity



Must See?
Yes, as a classic of the documentary genre.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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One Response to “Nanook of the North (1922)”

  1. A once-must, at least – ’cause no self-respecting ff should ever say, “Why, no, I haven’t seen ‘Nanook of the North’!”

    ~not only is it that famous a doc, but it’s a pretty good one. It’s certainly a more interesting early doc than, say, ‘Drifters’ – and filmed with a better visual sense. It’s under 80 minutes and moves rather swiftly.

    ‘NOTN’ could possibly be a good title to have in a collection. It’s one of those which can serve to remind – if you’re having a hard or bad day – that maybe your day isn’t going that badly after all. …And remind me to never visit the Arctic Circle. Brrr!!!

    Fave scene: Nanook puts a ‘window’ in the igloo. Clever guy!

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