This weekend, Jenny and I watched Nanook of the North, the classic film that is widely considered to be the first feature-length documentary ever made.
By today’s standards of documentary and journalism, Nanook is a fraud. As Wikipedia has it, “Much of the action was staged and gives an inaccurate view of real Inuit life during the early 20th century.”
“Nanook” was in fact named Allakariallak, for instance, while the “wife” shown in the film was not really his wife, but was actually one of Flaherty’s eskimo wives. And although Allakariallak normally used a gun when hunting, Flaherty encouraged him to hunt after the fashion of his ancestors in order to capture what was believed to be the way the Inuit lived before European influence. The ending, where Nanook and his family are supposedly in peril of dying if they can’t find shelter quickly enough, was obviously farce, given the reality of nearby French-Canadian and Inuit settlements during filming, though Allakariallak himself died of exposure two years later after being caught in a snowstorm.
Nevertheless, there is a powerful authenticity to the film: these were real Eskimos hunting real animals in the real frozen North. And considering the equipment available back in 1920, when the silent documentary was made, is it any wonder that, for example, indoor scenes had to be staged in a false semi-igloo open to the sunlight? Furthermore, if Nanook is the first feature documentary, then its maker, Robert J. Flaherty, should perhaps be forgiven for not following the standards that were later developed for the art form he invented.
One aspect of the film that struck me was how little explanation it contains of what we see. In a contemporary documentary, the narrator would explain each action, each item as it appeared on screen. Nanook, as a silent film, has to make do with much less text. Why are they climbing that mountain of ice? How does the three-pronged fish spear work? How does an igloo keep people warm? We aren’t told. A curious effect of this enforced reticence is that it turns the audience into anthropologists. As we watch, we are forced to draw our own conclusions about what we see.
So Nanook has its minor ethical flaws, but these are nothing compared to, say, the problems with Birth of a Nation. The indigenous people in the film are not exploited, but instead given dignity as human beings with remarkable skills and fortitude. A distant part of the world, exceedingly difficult to travel in, was revealed to millions. And the film itself remains powerfully compelling.
The power comes from extended scenes of Inuit reality — which, even if staged, reflected a genuine way of life. We see a fierce battle with a harpooned walrus, and in another scene Nanook struggles to hang on to the line as a harpooned seal struggles to escape under the ice. One of the most fascinating scenes depicts the construction of an igloo, block by block, culminating in the installation of an ice window to let in light.
Remarkable, too, is the recurring theme of the Eskimos as happy. Despite their struggle for existence, or perhaps because of it, they do seem like a cheerful group, and I have no reason to believe Flaherty was making it up when he said that after living with the Eskimos for six years, he considered them the happiest people he’d ever known. The Inuit in the film live a life that is almost completely free of bullshit: no hemming and hawing, no agonizing over decisions, no activity that is alienated from its ultimate purpose. In terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the Inuit live the complete pyramid every day: they spend most of their time attending to their physiological and safety needs, living in a small family group that provides love and belonging, and achieving esteem by contributing to the group’s survival. It’s a precarious existence, but when it works, it has a kind of completeness and immediacy that the more complicated, civilized life lacks.
For an interesting analysis of Nanook by someone who knows a bit more about movies than I do, check out this article by Roger Ebert.