Starring: Allakariallak, Alice Nevalinga, Cunayou
Director: Robert J Flaherty
At the start of this film, a title card lets us know that Flaherty worked for a fur company in the Artic which brought him into contact with the people of the Artic Circle. He started to take video footage of them, but when the film was partially destroyed during editing, he returned and film for a year, capturing the lives of Nanook, his family, and their lives. It sets us up with the sense that we’re heading out into an adventure in a dangerous and uncharted land to witness the strange lives of those who live there.
This film is often referred to as the first feature length documentary and it is no mean feat. It must have been incredibly exciting to see this film in a time when most people didn’t really travel much or leave their own country. The twenties was an exciting time of change, and this film to me has some of that joie de vivre, that sense of excitement and expansion of horizons…. and yet, it’s not at all a documentary in the sense that we would now know it.
Now we want out documentaries to not interfere with the subjects and to take an objective view, to capture things as they are. We want to learn something new and for that to be as truthful as possible. But back in this era, that sense of not staging things or interfereing was not applied to film. Nanook is actually a man called Allakariallak, who was indeed a real Inuit man and did live the kind of lifestyle that is shown in this film. He died shortly after filming not of starvation, as the title card romantically states at the start of the film, but at home and likely from tuberculosis. The woman who plays his wife was actually Flaherty’s “common law wife”, that is, his girlfriend, and scenes where Inuits see records being played for the first time and being introduced to technology are meant to be some comic relief, but in fact, the Inuit were all aware of technology.
There are some great stories from this film about the way that the igloo scene wouldn’t work because the camera was too bulky to fit inside an igloo and it was too dark to film in there, so a kind of open sided one was built. So much of this film is staged, and yet it does capture the activities that the people of the Artic did do in every day life. Well, most of the things they did do or at some time did do… It’s an odd mix of the very real made romantic and captured on film.
So, you have to watch this film with a pinch of salt, and when you do, it’s quite a beautiful film. It captures faces and relationships, snow and hunting, a people who lived a life far from anything that the average person knows. Perhaps it’s a love letter to the Great White North and the people who live there, and there’s something lovely about that, even if by modern standards it’s a little misguided. It’s also the father of documentaries, taking the camera to far off places and inviting us in. It’s merits and truthfulness are much debated today, but it’s certainly a powerful and moving film.
See It If: you are interested in film history, documentary or wild landscapes. It’s not always accurate but it is a passionate and moving film. Beautiful.