Okay Geoff, at long last I’m onto Nanook and Flaherty. It’s been coming on for three years now, but what’s three years compared with one hundred years which have passed since Flaherty set out to make the Big Aggie? Yes, he started filming in August 1920 and finished in August 1921, according to Wikipedia, the source of all (questionable) knowledge.
Now Geoff, you and your cinephile mates will have to go easy with me on this essay because I’m still trying to come to terms with this film Nanook of the North which I first saw in 1963 at the State Film Centre in Melbourne when I worked in their Information Section.
Many wonderful films were available to me at the time but the two which made the most profound impression were Nanook of the North and Pather Panchali. I was pretty fortunate that these films were available to me when I was only 20 years of age.
I saw them many times in the years which have slipped down the river since then, showing both films to students at Swinburne and the VCA. I recall a screening about 1997 when I introduced Nanook to my VCA doco students, telling them that although the film was made about 1920 it was still as fresh as a daisy. I also told them that the label “documentary” might be an anomaly.
So let's go back to the film. As I mentioned in the first essay of this three part series, in 1910 Flaherty set out for Hudson Bay prospecting for iron ore magnate Sir William Mackenzie. who suggested that Flaherty should take a Bell & Howell movie camera with him one of those expeditions.
Here is the first essay
Maps of the location from the intro to the films: can be found if you click here
Flaherty shot a lot of footage over two expeditions, the figure of 70,000ft comes up in some accounts. When he returned to the USA he edited it and showed it around, but he had an appalling accident, dropping a cigarette into some nitrate film in his editing room and lost a huge amount of his negative. But he still had a positive copy left from that disaster; we would call it a “cutting copy” or “work print”, i.e., a positive copy struck from the negative to enable editing of the footage without harming the original camera negative. He showed this positive cutting copy in various screenings and after that he considered what he might do with his film.
According to records I’ve read, including the introductory graphics at the head of the film he was not pleased with his footage, he thought “it didn’t amount to much!” Here is Flaherty's introduction
I imagine from what he said in those captions and from what others have written that he found it too fragmented, lacking a thematic throughline or themes. It’s possible he already knew that he needed a central character, maybe even a hero.
From the outset I believe Flaherty was not trying to make an "actuality" film such as the Lumière Brothers did when they made their A Train arrives at a station, or Workers departing the factory.
I think Flaherty's motivation was to make a "mythic" film, a film which would present a passing way of life which could not easily be captured with the incredibly limited technology of his day, and given the extreme conditions he would have experienced in the frozen wastes of the arctic circle. Returning from his earlier expeditions where he had tried to capture an actuality/ observational film he was quite disappointed with the results so the next film was always going to be a representational film.
He set out to make the film we know as Nanook of the North. He spent many years trying to raise finance and eventually succeeded in getting the funds he needed from Revillon Frères a French fur trading company.
Some say he had taken a “course” in filmmaking in the earlier period of 1913/14. However he would have needed to learn much more about the Akeley camera which was quite different from the one he used in the past. There are different reports about when he took this course, some reports say 1914, others say after he’d secured the finance for Nanook. I suspect it was the latter, preparing for the major shoot in 1920. Maybe he did it on both occasions!
"He bought two Akeley motion-picture cameras which the Inuit called "the Aggie".
He also bought full developing, printing, and projection equipment so he could show the Inuit what they had filmed on location. He lived in a cabin attached to the Revillon Frères trading post."
The two images below show the sort of Akeley camera he used with two different lens
configurations. The first has short lenses such as we would now call a “normal” lens
which in 35 mm would be about 50 mm which would present images with what we
would call a “normal perspective”.
These two lenses are identical. One lets light to pass to the film.
The other is for the operator to frame the shot via the rectangular tube
of the “parallax” viewfinder on the side of the camera.
This camera has two telephoto lenses, but only the longer one let’s light through to the film. The shorter one lets the operator see what he is filming, not precisely, but close enough.
Parallax viewing is never really accurate for framing.
Then Flaherty set out to make the film with his new equipment and his improved technical knowledge. He chose an Inuit man called Allakariallak to be the central character re-naming him “Nanook” which means the “Bear”. He thought that would make it easier for people to relate to his central character yet still remain in touch with Inuit culture. Two Inuit women played Nanook’s two wives, but they were not Allakariallak's wives.
You can sense where I’m going with this line of thought. He intended to make what we would call a narrative-drama which would represent the lives of the Inuit as he knew them from previous trips, not an “observational” film like the footage he had shot during earlier expeditions.
Now, of course I’m not saying there is no “observational” footage in “Nanook of the North”. I’m certain there is. But it’s only a small percentage of the footage in the film, by far the greater proportion being “set-up” or “dramatised” material. If you like, “fake” observational footage. Take a look at this extremely significant scene filmed at the Trader’s store:
Nanook is seen listening to the voice coming from the “phonograph”. He acts as if he’s hearing it for the first time and he actually bites the record to taste it. Like many other scenes in the film this is pure pretense. It’s not “actuality” footage of Nanook doing something spontaneously for the first time while the camera just happens to be rolling. It’s acted and it’s directed. And it’s pretty good acting too.
So you can see why many people from different eras might be confused about this film. It was controversial when it was first released to the world in 1922 and it remains controversial down to our time.
Here are some samples of comments by critics of the film:
Visit to the trade post of the white man
“In the "Trade Post of the White Man" scene, Nanook and his family arrive in a
kayak at the trading post and one family member after another emerge from a
small kayak, akin to a clown car at the circus. Going to trade his hunt from the
year, including the skins of foxes, seals, and polar bears, Nanook comes in
contact with the white man and there is a funny interaction as the two
The trader plays music on a gramophone and tries to explain how a white man
'Cans' his voice. Bending forward and staring at the machine, Nanook puts his ear
closer as the trader cranks the mechanism again. The trader removes the record
and hands it to Nanook who at first peers at it and then puts it in his mouth and
bites it. The scene is meant to be a comical one as the audience laughs at the
naivete of Nanook and people isolated from Western culture. In truth, the scene
was entirely scripted and Allakariallak knew what a gramophone was.
In making Nanook, Flaherty cast various locals in parts in the film as one
would cast actors in a work of fiction. With the aim of showing traditional Inuit life,
he also staged some scenes, including the ending, where Allakariallak who
‘plays’ Nanook and his screen family are supposedly at risk of dying if they could
not find or build shelter quickly enough. The half-igloo had been built beforehand,
with a side cut away for light so that Flaherty's camera could get a good shot.”
Well Geoff, I had known from my earliest viewings that some scenes were "set-ups" , e.g., when examining the "family bedding down in the Igloo" scene. As a filmmaker I knew that Flaherty would have struggled to get a "wide shot" inside an igloo and also that he would have struggled to get enough light there as film stocks were very slow in those days, meaning "not as light-sensitive" as they became many years later. Also, lenses of that period were not as "fast" as modern lenses, e.g., typically older lenses could not ‘open’ to an aperture of more than f.2.8, while more modern lenses a few years later could open to f.1.4 which is two stops faster. In plain terms, with a lens opening of f.1.4 you could capture an image with only 25% of the light which would be required for an aperture of f.2.8.
I was also doubtful that he would have had a really good wide angle lens, and anyhow the shot inside the igloo showed no typical wide angle distortion. So I was not too surprised when I read that he had built an extremely large "half" igloo to avoid all those difficulties. Otherwise he could not have achieved the scene at all.
Hunting of the walrus
It has been pointed out that in the 1920s when Nanook was filmed the Inuit had already begun integrating the use of Western clothing and were using rifles to hunt with rather than harpoons, but this does not negate that the Inuit knew how to make traditional clothing from animals found in their environment and they could still fashion traditional weapons. They were perfectly able to make use of them if found to be preferable for a given situation.
The film is not technically sophisticated; how could it be, with one camera, no lights, freezing cold, and everyone equally at the mercy of nature? But it has an authenticity that prevails over any complaints that some of the sequences were staged. If you stage a walrus hunt, it still involves hunting a walrus, and the walrus hasn't seen the script. What shines through is the humanity and optimism of the Inuit. (Roger Ebert)
So let’s have a look at this sequence
Now the many criticisms raised against this sequence are very strange as I see them from my perspective as an active filmmaker since age 18 till today, 76.
When I first saw Nanook it was from a muddy 16mm copy, but I didn’t know that it lacked clarity until I saw much better quality copies more recently. And I’d never seen a film quite like it at the age of 20 even though I had seen hundreds of major films by that time.
I didn’t view it again until about 1986 and then I saw it with very different eyes from when I was only 20. I could then see things as a filmmaker with some experience which had escaped me in 1963. But I did not see the gun! How could that be?
After 1986 that I showed it to many groups of my students up to my retirement in 1998. None of them ever mentioned the image of the gun, which I only noticed from recent viewings was carried by the trader. I had not even noticed that the trader was one of the hunters in any of my previous viewings.
Now you might wonder why I missed this gun? Partly because the older copies were unclear, muddy 16 mm prints, partly because I was concentrating on other things. I was certainly concentrating on the plight of the harpooned dying walrus. Prior to that I was aware that images of the Eskimos creeping up on the beached walrus herd were shot in telephoto because I could see how compressed the perspective was: typically telephoto. I could also imagine why Flaherty used telephoto for that sequence because the camera made a noise like a chaff-cutter so they were forced to keep it at a good distance from the herd so as not to frighten the walruses away.
In later viewings I saw the rifle in the hands of the trader, both before the hunt and during the hunt. That was probably on my 15th viewing of the film! How could I be so slow?
That raises another question: did they actually shoot the walrus with the rifle and if so when? Did they shoot the walrus close to the time it was harpooned or only after it was harpooned, maybe to shorten its death throes? If so, I applaud them.
And of course, “So what!” So what if they used the rifle in the hunt as well as their traditional harpoons, because the film was clearly shot at a time of transition between the ancient unspoilt Inuit culture and the modern colonial trading intervention, long before what it is like today with motorised sleds etc.
Flaherty was making a film which represented change to the Inuit during that transitional era which included their culture as well as their adaptation to European trade and technology, as has so eloquently been pointed out in the Wiki quote from Roger Ebert.
But the heart of the matter comes down to this Geoff. Not only was I fooled by my earlier viewings of the film to see less in this sequence than I have seen in more recent viewings, but I think it was the same for many of the people who saw it on its first release when it created a sensation.
Why have these criticisms been raised to the level of “controversy” to denigrate such a great work? Why does this happen over and over in cinema history? Is it just the shock of the new similar to the furore over the premiere of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” in 1913?
The denigration of Nanook of the North extends to many other scenes in the film. It seems people desperately wanted to belittle or undermine the wonderful nature of this beguiling masterpiece. Why did they feel the need to do so? Fortunately for us who revere the film it’s so great that it rises above these carping criticisms and is rightfully placed among the major works of cinema.
Now let’s take a look at a different kind of scene altogether, something which probably was observational in nature, Nanook icing his sled runners to prepare for a new day’s trekking:
You can see from the way this is shot that it is more “casual” and “perfunctory”. It gives “information” which is intended to explain conditions in the icy wastes, difficulties which the Inuit must endure and overcome, including protecting the sled made from organic material from the hunger of the dogs, and also warming their own hands when icing the runners with cold water. Additionally, it explains the necessity for protecting the young huskies from the hunger of their elders.
It’s such a brief sequence. It has all the hallmarks of “actuality” observed rather than set-up and performed filming. It could be considered “filler” or it could be considered essential to the unfolding narrative. I think it’s essential for many reasons: it gives us some necessary information about the daily routines and it backgrounds the importance of those routines. It also speaks to the harshness of the conditions which threaten the lives of these people even in an era of transition when they can trade skins for metal pots and tools from the trader’s store. It also shows how they have to look after themselves with the cold biting into their hands, warming their freezing hands on their cheeks just as we might do when we visit cold places like ski resorts.
There are other small vignettes in the film which have this quality of information fill-in.
In this scene Flaherty shows Nanook sewing a skin onto his kayak frame:
This scene of skins being attached to the kayak frame lasts 20 seconds! How extraordinary that Flaherty gives only 20 seconds to such a crucial piece of activity and information. The kayak is a miracle of invention and construction and is so central in the lives of these hunters as viewers will see in other sequences. Then we are shown the “omiak” or large canoe being carried by many Inuit from the river to the trading post.
We are told its frame is made from driftwood and covered with walrus and seal hides, but beyond this there is scant information about the construction of either a kayak or and omiak. From the 1.22 mark you can see clearly how the skins do not always reach the edges of the frame of the omiak.
At 1.42 they beach the omiak near the trading post. At 2.29 they start hauling it up the slope to where fur pelts are hanging on racks. This omiak is quite heavy despite being made of relatively few pieces of driftwood. It’s a communal vehicle, quite distinct from the kayak, which usually serves one person, but not always as we shall see.
I’m such a crazy viewer Geoff. I always wanted to know how they managed to make these two flimsy craft waterproof! How come they weren’t bailing out excess water all the time? No information like this can be found in the film as Flaherty was not making an instruction manual on “How to build a kayak or an omiak”. However, you’ll be pleased to know such information is currently available on many sites on the net.
Although his film was confused with being a “documentary” whatever that term might have meant in 1922, it was not primarily intended as an information piece.
So let’s now see a sequence which brings together a lot of things I’ve mentioned so far. Nanook goes fishing:
It opens with a title which tells us the importance of Nanook’s skills as a hunter when times are tough and his people are facing starvation. Then we see him paddling his slender leaf-like kayak to take him to a spot where he will fish on the ice-floe. That’s followed by a sequence of shots which show him using a wicker mat upon which he lays to protect himself from the cold ice. Then we see him using a lure and a three-pronged harpoon to catch fish which he kills by biting them behind the head.
This shot also raises the question whether Flaherty used
two cameras when filming on that day.
Like any proud fisherman he shows off his large catch gleefully at 4.42. Then he packs up for the day and gives another Inuit man a lift home on his kayak, lying face down upon the fish which Nanook had caught.
I love this sequence. It has been set-up but looks casual. The catching of the fish is entirely dependent upon chance, he doesn’t get all the ones he goes after but the camera observes every move including the ones that got away. There are wide shots, medium shots and close ups in this mix, finishing with Nanook giving a “brother fisherman” a lift. The final shot with fish draped over the front section of the kayak is what we might call “medium wide”.
There are many components feeding into this sequence. We see how traditional Inuit hunters used their tools, artefacts and weapons to hunt for fish. Their lives are dependent upon these artefacts and their skills as hunters. We can see that Flaherty has planned the structure of this scene, it has a beginning, a middle and an end. I’m guessing here, but I think even the “tag” of giving a fellow fisherman a lift was not serendipitous, possibly had been planned before the shoot. In any case it doesn’t matter much about that, it could be either. But I’m quite sure that Flaherty and Allakariallak knew what Nanook had to do that day and had worked it out between them before they set out for the hunt.
Another sequence which is similar to the fishing scene is the seal hunt. In this beautiful sequence we see Nanook discover a seal’s breathing hole and we are told that seal have to surface every 20 minutes to breathe so they must keep their breathing hole open.
1.20: We see Nanook in profile waiting for signs of the seal arriving.
1.29: He has his harpoon poised ready to strike.
1.30: He plunges his harpoon into the seal (it’s a front-on shot) and it then cuts to a wider profile shot of him struggling to hold the cord in his hands. This is followed by a series of “antics” as he struggles to keep hold of the seal.
2.27 He seems to be getting the upper hand and can pull away from the hole, only to be dragged back towards the hole in the ice.
3.04 He signals to people in the distance that he needs help.
A great wide shot showing the cavalry arriving. More falls, and now closer on Nanook. Nanook draws back from the hole again as people arrive with sled.
They seem to be taking their time! Another great wide shot.
4.30 Nanook reaches for his knife and starts widening the hole in the ice.
4.47 We see the seal being dragged up from the water by the entire group.
5.00 We read a caption about the dogs howling with their typical wolf howls in anticipation of a feast. Shots of ferocious hungry dogs demanding some food. Definitely not acted. This is the real thing.
5.40 Now the entire seal is out of the hole and up on the ice.
5.53 We see the butchery commence with the cutting of the skin. Slashing through the blubber while the dogs make very fine snarling cutaways.
6.54 Now the blubber has been peeled off and we see the relatively skinny little carcass of the seal.
7.12 Nanook drags away the skin and blubber,
7.25 They roll the carcass over and start cutting the meat. Now it’s time to carve the fresh warm meat and have a feast, including the dogs who have all been acting as cutaways throughout this event. These dogs are not a bunch of extras, they are central to the action. Who needs meat to be cooked? Eating it raw sure saves on electricity and gas. But what if you can’t find enough moss to light a fire?
8.05 Another caption about the importance of seal meat for sustenance. It also explains that the eskimos savour blubber as we do butter. This is followed by a shot of two children wrestling over a seal flipper, each of them has an end of it in their mouth.
9.24 Now it’s time for the dogs to get some of the kill. Nanook throws them pieces of meat which disappear down greedy gullets at the speed of light. Up here in the icy waste you can’t afford to be slow off the mark! Some dogs don’t like other dogs getting anything. So now we have a dog fight. Nanook separates the dogs, the final caption for the scene telling us it’s getting dark and the dogs have caused a dangerous delay.
As you can see, this sequence has so many elements including a lot of information. But is it primarily an information piece? No! It could be considered as an ethnographic documentary but I don’t think it is exactly that. It is also very entertaining. Every time I’ve shown it to people they have chortled along with Nanook’s struggle to hold the seal. Then they pause when the Inuit are shown eating the raw flesh. This whole scene is a planned, dramatised and choreographed sequence which includes information and discomforting reality.
But all is not what it seems.
I read somewhere in the deep past that Nanook was pulling on the rope which went to another breathing hole some distance away which had a number of his friends pulling in a tug-of-war against him. If this is true then it clearly shows that Flaherty had a very liberal sense of what is true. He wanted to show a titanic struggle between man and beast and maybe that’s how he achieved it.
And behind that story there is another story.
When Flaherty was making the film he developed his camera original negative footage in the cabin attached to the trader’s store where he had facilities for developing the camera negative, drying it, putting it into a printer to make a copy, and then developing that printed copy. After drying that printed copy he could show the eskimos the scenes that had been shot the day or so before.
The story goes like this: when Flaherty was showing the eskimos the footage of Nanook struggling with the seal, they went up to the screen to try to assist Nanook in his dire effort, having forgotten (apparently) that they were at the other end of the rope only a day or so previously.
That reminds me of a scene from Godard’s Les Carabiniers but let’s not delve into that one right now.
What is the truth? Where does the truth lie?
Is Flaherty being fraudulent when he creates a scene or sequence which purports to show something as “actual” when it is in fact a “representation” or “facsimile”?
As I have mentioned earlier, it seems Flaherty wasn’t interested in how to build a kayak or an omiak. But in the next sequence he has Nanook build an igloo. This might be the most famous igloo in the history of the world. It is certainly archetypal.
But it could also have been presented in a series of “How to…” films such as we had at the State Film Centre in 1963! “Films with a purpose!”
I’m not going to describe every move in this sequence. If you haven’t seen it, it’s definitely worth a look. It runs about 8 minutes in total. I’m just going to make a few general comments about it.
The family arrive with sled and dogs at a hilly site and Nanook starts looking for the right sort of ice, prodding with his spear. He finds the right stuff and starts cutting into it with his blade. We are not told whether this blade is metal or ivory. A caption tells us that it is “deep snow packed hard”.
Then in beautifully framed shots Nanook seems to be instructing others where to place the dogs. He starts cutting into the packed snow so that the cavity will be part of the structure when complete. Now another caption tells us the blade is a walrus ivory blade. This is quite important because it would have a different resistance to the cold than a metal balde of similar size (it’s about as long as a machete).
And we’re told it is instantly glazed with his saliva when he licks it with his tongue. While father works the children play, sliding down the hill, a rather ancient game I think, one using the other for a sled or toboggan.
Nanook manoeuvres large chunks of cut ice into place making a dome.
The walrus ivory blade is a great tool, absolutely perfect for all the tasks which he performs. Cutting, shaving, shaping (sculpting) the blocks so they fit well together.
Another caption tells us that the women fill the gaps with snow to keep the wind out, no mortar required. No spak-filler. Babies hide inside their mother’s furry hoods for warmth while all the adults work on this igloo, it’s a family job.
The children play with toy sleds, one of which is pulled by a husky puppy. They start ’em young!
Now Nanook reaches the top of the dome, the snow-bricks have to be cut precisely. They utilise a gravity assist in building this dome as all things incline towards the centre like a keystone in an arch.
More gap-filler and baby sleeps on mum’s shoulders as she works.
Nanook places the topmost “brick” and now we have a perfect igloo. Final gap-filling.
Another caption “Complete within the hour” ! Is this really true? Was he having a joke on us? Did these three adults really build the igloo in an hour?
From inside the igloo Nanook cuts a rectangular hole and sticks his head out smiling profusely, very pleased with himself. Just a bit of over-acting here!
Then he goes looking for real ice because he’s going to make a window to let light into the igloo for Nyla. He selects and chips out a block which is quite different and much heavier than the blocks they built the igloo from and carries it to the dome.
He places it against the dome and measures it to cut out a piece of the wall. When he has it out he fits the ice in its place, smooths it off, and uses the piece he took out to make a reflector to improve the lighting inside. Final shot of the sequence is Nyla cleaning “her new window” from the inside.
My thoughts about this sequence: this igloo would have astonished Brunelleschi! His dome could not have been built in an hour but I bet he would have been gobsmacked by Nanook’s dome. Second, every element of this dome is water! Okay, it’s water in solid state! But it is a home made of water which will protect this family from the biggest arctic gales. They might get snowed over but it will never collapse.
Then we come to the filming. There are so many different choices of angle and view. It looks like “casual observation” but it clearly follows a plan. I think Flaherty has seen this construction process previously and has worked out a plan to show all the most important details.
He also gives us essential information such as the “walrus ivory” blade, but does not tell us why not a steel blade… they could have bought a steel blade from the trader’s store. On the other hand I suspect the tip of Nanooks spear which he used to chip away at the ice is metal, but I can’t be sure.
So this sequence has many characteristics, aside from the cutaways of the children playing childish games which occur everywhere across this planet. Every element he includes in this sequence has its own part to play in the whole, and the igloo is going to be crucial to the ending of the film, but I’ll save that scene for last.
Now I’m going back a way, to the very beginning of the film. After the
introduction which includes the prehistory of his trips and Flaherty’s motivation for
making his new film, we get to see two wonderful portrait shots, Nanook and Nyla.
They are quite different from each other.
This famous still from the film is taken from the movie image portrait of Nanook
seen from 0.16 - 0.27. Although it is a portraiture shot it is a moving one, and it’s
acted and directed. Nanook is clearly taking instruction from Flaherty and his face
shows he has had a very tough life. He seems to have had an injury to his left eye.
Nyla, the smiling one, (0.29 - 0.40) is the nymph. In the film she is seen rocking and smiling and also responding to direction from behind the camera.
Now I’m going back a way, to the very beginning of the film. After the introduction which includes the prehistory of his trips and Flaherty’s motivation for making his new film, we get to see two wonderful portrait shots, Nanook and Nyla.
Now, the very first 'sequence' of the film, Nanook paddling from the distance to the shore in his kayak:
We are told Nanook is coming down river to the Trading Post. A child lies facing Nanook on the front end of the kayak. He “parks” the kayak carefully, alights from the kayak and lifts the child “Allee” off the kayak onto the rocky shore.
Then we see Nyla emerge from inside the kayak. Wearing all those furs it’s a tight fit and not easy for her, but she does eventually get out and onto land.Then Nanook passes her the bare-skinned baby which was left behind.
Now Cunayou emerges from this mighty ship. She is no child, she’s a fully grown adult. She runs to shore.
The last to emerge from this “troop-carrier” is little Comock a husky puppy.
OKAY, that’s the scenario. That’s how it unfolds. Every time I’ve shown it to a group of people they have laughed along with it, full of acclamation at this lovely sequence. Last year I showed it to a group of elderly people, like me, in Gisborne. None of the 24 there had ever seen it and only one of them knew the film by name. They all loved this film, and I think, like me, they were captivated from this very first scene.
However, none of them questioned very deeply how it could have been achieved. And let me be honest, only after about 10 viewings of this film did it occur to me that it was a gag, a set-up, and quite an elaborate one for the time.
Even if all those people could have fitted into the hull of this little kayak, it would have been really troubling for them, incredibly difficult to get them inside the hull in the first place, and extremely difficult for them to get them out.
I assumed after so many viewings that Flaherty had made use of the many captions telling us the names of the family to allow him to “jump-cut” the scene. After the first child is put onto the shore, a caption “Allee”, we go back to the kayak and later see the caption “Nyla”... then she comes forth, with difficulty.
She takes the baby from Nanook and goes to shore, while Nanook stays there at the side of the kayak. Caption: “Cunayou” ! Cut back to kayak, as Cunayou emerges, like Nyla, encumbered by her furs, and then she dashes to shore.
Another Caption “Comock” and we see the little puppy being lifted out by Nanook.
Now this is my contention: by the end of this charming sequence Flaherty has the audience, audiences everywhere, eating out of the palm of his hand. They love it. Just as I loved it in 1963, just as all my students loved it when I started showing it in 1986, and just as those elderly folk like me loved it last year. We were all captivated by this scene.
I think the scene is constructed like a good gag! Flaherty was an entertainer. He wanted people to see his film. He wanted them to love his film and he chose an opening sequence which took them by surprise and made them laugh. And from that moment on the audience was his.
But we all bought it as if it was a single take just cut up to allow captions to name the characters. I don’t think so. You would have to measure the “waterline” as the emptying progresses, but it’s my belief that this scene was created in stages, as Flaherty already knew he could intercut every emergence with a caption.
Another thing which makes me feel that is the case: the hull of the kayak narrows towards the front and the back end. So the space inside is always getting narrower, and the frame is quite delicate. There would be a real risk that people would get stuck if they were all in it together at one time.
Anyhow the bottom line is this: from the very first scene of this film Flaherty was signalling his audience a few things:
A: I’m going to surprise and entertain you.
B: I’m introducing you to this group of people whom you will accept as a family, although they are not a family in real life.
C: I’m giving them names and you will remember them by those names, even though their real names are quite different, even unpronounceable, e.g., Allakariallak.
From the very start he was telling a tale, a fictional account of the way of life of a band of ice-nomads in a period, which as the audience would see in later scenes, included the incursion of western culture at the Trading Post.
Suffice to say, this scene opens the film and gets it off to a great start for all the audiences I have viewed it with. They are always hooked into the world of the film and the charm of the film. It sets a tone which will be sustained, although darker things will follow. It is a curtain-raiser. Flaherty was an entertainer. But he also was making a film which would bridge two cultures: the traditional world of the Inuit is present all the way through the film as if the
Trader’s and our techno culture had not arrived, but each sequence can only exist because our techno culture is already there, at the Trader's hut, the phonograph, the rifle which may have been used to shoot the Walrus, and the camera upon a tripod. Flaherty depicts the intersection of these two cultures, the culture clash, and the Eskimo's embracing of this new culture through every scene of this film.
Now we come to the final scene from the movie. The “family” inside the igloo are preparing for sleep. The dogs are outside in the freezing arctic night.
TITLE: “The shrill piping of the wind, the rasp and hiss of driving snow, the mournful wolf howls of Nanook’s master dog typify the melancholy spirit of the North.”
When I look at the interior shots of the igloo now I can’t believe I ever thought there could be so much room inside! The shot of Nanook taking off his boots shows five people sitting almost side by side on a platform cut into the ice. (0.35)
Then we see Nanook from behind, bare-backed as he lies under some skins for blankets with the women on either side still in their furs. The baby is also bare skinned! Now the women take of their furs and lie underneath a thin-looking skin which covers the group like a blanket.This is all a single wide shot, 45 seconds duration. Shots of the dogs outside, settling down in the biting cold. Back inside, people settling into sleeping positions. More dog shots and icy drifts over landscape.
Now the interior shot shows the people closer, from above, sleeping. Nanook is centred. More shots of dogs and scudding icy waste.
3.40 back inside we cut to a rear view of people sleeping,
3.51 cut to Nanook seen from another angle, face visible, sleeping.
It’s a beautiful shot.
Aside from the issue of “How large was this igloo in order to enable filming?” my main reaction to this sequence is just how poetic it is. It’s a piece of pure poetry from an era of cinema when filmmakers allowed themselves the freedom of poetic expression. In this case the choice of images, the quality of ‘being’ represented in those images, including the dogs settling stoically for the long cold night outside, is pure poetry. But there is also a visual rhythm to this sequence which is poetic, not just because of the musical accompaniment.
But I think the whole film is poetic in its inspiration. It may be a very practical film when it comes to showing the building of an igloo, or hunting for a seal or walrus, but every sequence is imbued with a different quality of poetry in cinema. And even when it is informative it’s also entertaining. When I say informative, that is more the case in some scenes, less so when it comes to skinning the kayak which I mentioned earlier.
Earlier in the film there’s an interior shot of them using a moss fire heating something in
a pot. I wondered how this could be inside an igloo? Wouldn’t the heat from that little
moss fire melt the interior ice of the igloo? Wouldn’t the warm human breathing of five
people mean that the ice would melt and drip on them all night?
Enough of these little practicalities! The big issue is the debate over Flaherty being
a faker! Pretending to show things as “actual” when they were really set-ups.
Showing us an Inuit family which is not really a family at all, just a group of
individuals assembled for the making of a film. Showing us a seal hunt which was
entirely set-up! Showing us an actual walrus hunt which included the use of a gun
which may have been fired to kill the walrus, or may not have been fired at all?
All these questions leading to endless claims of Flaherty faking it. And all these
negative views are designed to tear the film down from its pedestal.
How dare a documentary filmmaker make such a fake film?
The controversies have been ongoing ever since the film surfaced, not among the
many who love the film and found it charming, informative, entertaining, endearing.
The negative critics had a field day and have continued to do so right down to our time.
Who are these people who desperately want to tear this film down?
And why are they so ferocious in their opposition to it?
As the first "nonfiction" work of its scale, Nanook of the North was
ground-breaking cinema. It captured many authentic details of a culture little
known to outsiders and it was filmed in a remote location. Hailed almost
unanimously by critics, the film was a box-office success in the United States and
Flaherty is considered a pioneer of documentary film. He was one of the first to
combine documentary subjects with a fiction-film-like narrative and poetic
Treatment. Furthermore, the film has been criticized for portraying Inuit people as
subhuman arctic beings, without technology or culture which reproduces
the historical image that situates them outside modern history.
It was also criticized for comparing inuit people to animals. The film is
considered to be an artifact of popular culture at the time and also a result of
a historical fascination for Inuit performers in exhibitions, zoos, fairs, museums
and early cinema.
From The Guardian:
When the film was released, it got rave reviews and no one called it a documentary.
It simply seemed to be in a class by itself. It still is. Flaherty was never again to achieve
such lack of self-consciousness and purity of style, though films like Moana, about the
Samoan lifestyle, Man of Aran and Louisiana Story contained extraordinary sequences.
In 2014 Sight and Sound film critics voted Nanook of the North the seventh-best documentary film of all time.
Who said it was a documentary? Did Flaherty ever say it was?
When did that term documentary come into common usage, and how specific was that term in that period, or any subsequent period. (There is a footnote at the end of this essay with a suggestion for further reading.)
Since my first viewing of Nanook in 1963 I’ve been fascinated with the topic of Inuit or Eskimo people, not only from Canada and Alaska, but also from Iceland and Greenland. There are many reasons for this fascination which includes their artefacts, their way of life in such arduous conditions, how they managed to find ways to ensure the survival of their people, whether we regard them as individuals, families or tribes. My fascination included interest in igloos, kayaks and harpoons.
I wasn’t aware of things such as the difficulties they faced in hunting seal and walrus so without seeing this film I would be totally ignorant of their tremendous capacity for hunting large prey such as a walrus, and how much it meant to them other than food: hides, ivory for knives, etc.
Another part of my deep interest and fascination comes from reading about human evolution. How do people like Bedouin, Australian Aborigines, Pacific Islanders, Incas and Inuit people adapt to their specialised environments, all of which demand extreme adaptation?
People who live in Tibet or the Andes have adapted to breathing incredibly thin air, very low in oxygen. Inuit have adapted to virtually no vegetable food intake unless like the Japanese they use seaweed. How much must they have changed their metabolism to survive on a meat only diet? And how long did it take for them to achieve it?
They were forced to become incredibly ingenious to survive. By this I mean making the most out of almost nothing! They not only evolved as makers of harpoons, knives from whalebone, fur for clothing to keep them warm, kayaks, omiaks, and little braziers as seen in the igloo interior, but they also evolved to be able to live without fresh fruit, fresh vegies, and no three greens!
Somehow they adapted and did not destroy their metabolism by a strict diet of meat
and blubber. Maybe this evolution of their metabolism took many thousands of years.
Mawson nearly died from eating his dogs when starving in the Antarctic. He became
poisoned by the high dosage vitamin A stored in the dogs' livers, a danger which he
did not know about. As a result his solesbegan to peel away from his feet in his boots.
The Inuit might have faced this issue thousands of years earlier,it’s possible their
metabolism evolved to avoid it.
But the central part of this discussion comes down to "TRUTH". As Flaherty so
eloquently said: "one often has to distort a thing in order to catch its true spirit."
In making this film he was lifting Inuit life out of the mundane into the mythic. He probably knew that people, the public, would have liked to have seen an accurate rendition of the everyday struggle for life as it played in actual events, but he was not trying to do that. He was intent upon making a film which caught the spirit of survival, endurance, which really is timeless. In the case of the Inuit I pose this question:when did these people branch off from the rest of the native peoples of America?
Was it 4 thousand years ago, or were they already established in Canada and Greenland before the migration of the people we now call American Indians?Were the Inuit latecomers or early comers? I know it is outrageous to state this,they may have been living in the icy wastes for 40 thousand years. I just can't imagine how they could have adapted in a short time frame.
Now all these sorts of thoughts have come to me from my early viewing of Nanook of the North.This little film made 100 years ago by a most amazing American adventurer, which took the world by storm, informed thousands of people about the life of the ESKIMO as most people call them. Audiences who paid their money to see the film were attracted by their outlandish ways and the freakish nature of their existence.
I don’t think Flaherty is guilty of making a film “circus freak” show. His film glorifies Nanook and his “family”, and his people. He is in awe of them as people for their courage and their ingenuity. He was making this film as his deepest tribute to these beautiful people whom he loved. He made it before there was any real notion of what a documentary film might be or should be.
Do you think this poster from the 1920’s suggests a documentary film? I don’t think it does. To me it suggests an adventure, entertainment and romance.
“A picture with more drama, greater thrill, and stronger action than any picture you ever saw” !!!!
“A STORY OF LOVE AND LIFE IN THE ACTUAL ARCTIC”
Nowhere is the word documentary present. Was this poster just designed to get people to see the film? Yes, I think it was that, but more. I think it was a true statement about the nature of the film. I don’t think it represents a change of attitude on Flaherty’s part from his setting out to make his film and a change of attitude after shooting and editing to release that film.
14th March 2020
Footnote: In considering the term 'documentary' I should note that my friend Andrew Pike sent me this transcript from an essay in The Penguin Film Review (3, 1947) by the esteemed British director Pat Jackson which discusses the subject at pp84-87.
YOUR QUESTIONS ANSWERED
PEOPLE everywhere are becoming more interested in the artistic and social questions which face the film industry. We intend to put our readers' questions to the men and women who make our films. Send a postcard of the points you would like to have discussed to Roger Manvell, Penguin Film Review, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex. This time we have asked Pat Jackson, director of Western Approaches, to answer a query which reads: "More and more studio feature films are adopting documentary technique on the one hand and fantasy on the other. Of these two powerful forces, reality and unreality, which is the more desirable, and which is the more likely to predominate?'
This question would be easier to answer if I could be certain what this wretched word documentary really means. Having spent eleven years in documentary, I should know by this time. However, there is consolation in the fact that even now film makers still argue about what is and what is not a documentary film. Consequently I am fairly convinced that there is no exact definition; so before answering the question, I must try to make clear what I mean by it.
Grierson's own definition, the 'creative interpretation of reality,' should still serve, but somehow it doesn't, for there has been a far too rigid line of demarcation between his type of documentary and many studio films which, to my mind, are documentaries both in outlook and content. This originated because Grierson's filmic interpretation of reality-through no fault of his but the limited resources at his disposal-never had any flesh and bones; none of the emotions which make people glow with hope and sympathy, cold with fear and anger, or moved to tears and laughter. His interpretation could not transmit the very breath and beat of life, because he was never able to enter the field of drama. He transmitted information and a point of view. He traced the out side pattern of human conflicts, but he rarely if ever could step inside and fashion a living drama out of his designs. He found a new subject-matter, and he taught that the contemporary scene is full of drama if the artist has the vision and the political insight to seek it out. He revealed much of it by a persuasive form of screen journalism. But this is not the end of documentary, it is only the beginning.
But it was this style which Grierson evolved that came to be classified as documentary, and I believe that now this word has come to mean something far greater than it ever did, something which cannot be defined by or restricted to any particular style, technique, method or even motive of production.
When, for example, I hear one of Mary Field's Secrets of Nature and John Ford's Grapes of Wrath both referred to as documentaries, I feel quite justified in drawing my own line somewhere. So I take the plunge and say here and now that to me a documentary film is one which seriously attempts to make a contemporary comment on the way of life, problems and true character of any people anywhere on this earth; and now may heaven pre serve me. That definition must include films of the calibre of Grapes of Wrath, Way to the Stars, TheWay Ahead, Fury, Millions Like Us, Children on Trial, The Last Chance, The Southerner and The Overlanders, and many others. To me, all these films are documentaries, for they tell a story of people in conflict with their environment. Parched earth, mob law, war, poverty. They have the courage to seek out the facts, and without falsification present them in a narrative form; they show us, not only the cause of conflict, but the effect of it on human beings; all the facets of human behaviour and the amazing qualities of people at grips with life and forces beyond their control. They help us to understand, not only the world as it really is, but people as they really are and as they become when the odds are loaded too heavily against them. They establish an identity between ourselves and peoples of different nations. Surely, this is cinema being used to accomplish its greatest task - the destruction of prejudice and misunderstanding between the peoples of the earth; and if this is not the purpose of documentary; I would like to know what is.
The purist, I know, will argue that a commercial film which has for its motive profit never can be a documentary. It is, I think, idle to deny that this motive is a force which dictate a policy and the selection of subjects, and that it may limit the production of films which attempt to achieve a purpose beyond entertainment: This may be so; but to argue that because films are produced by this motive their integrity of purpose and social significance are destroyed seems to me to be complete nonsense.
It is impossible to say which type of film is more desirable: it's a matter of taste. But it would be regrettable if any one type of film predominated. I think we want a well-balanced output; we' want our escapist pictures and our realist pictures, but whether we shall get them depends upon the public as well as producers, who can hardly be blamed for studying box-office returns and gauging public taste accordingly; and whilst the general demand is for films which attempt nothing more than to provide enter tainment, these are bound to predominate, but not, one hopes, to the complete exclusion of the story-documentary.
This, I think, raises a serious issue of principle. There can be no doubt that film is the most persuasive and forceful medium for the dissemination of ideas, and as such its potential influence either for good or evil is immeasurable. The acceptance and appreciation of this fact imposes upon those who have the power to wield this influence the gravest social responsibility. The manner in which they accept this responsibility can only be determined by the production policy they formulate and the balance of output be tween the realist film, whose purpose is to dramatise an objective assessment of contemporary issues, and the entertainment picture pure and simple.
If for the sake of argument, our civilisation were in danger of being blotted out by an approaching ice age and the output from British and American studios was concerned with nothing but Wicked Ladies, Caravans, Carnivals, Magic Bows, Wonder Boys, Ziegfeld Follies, there can obviously be little merit in the inner realism these films achieve, because the overall policy of production is a deliberate retreat from a realistic point of view and ap preciation of the dangers and possibilities of approaching catas trophe. In such a hypothetical situation cinema would have con tributed nothing and achieved nothing but to have become an opiate providing more and more convincing means of escape from a world becoming more and more frightening.
An ice age does not threaten us, but an atomic age does.