"Nanook of the North"

Essay by salak June 2006

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"Nanook of the North" was directed by Robert Flaherty in 1922. The film is remarkable because it is the first of its kind. Many consider this film to be the first documentary ever made. Nanook chronicles the often-brutal relationship between humans and nature's unforgiving elements. Over the course of a year, the movie's subjects--Inuit Nanook and his family--must hunt, fish, and build an igloo to survive in the pristine but inhospitable environs of Canada's frozen Hudson Bay region. No film before Nanook had endeavored to put the real lives of real people on the theatrical screen. Nanook of the North began, in many ways, the long evolving tradition of documentary film as we know it today.

The fact is that Flaherty took many creative liberties with his film. Nanook and his "family" were actually not a family at all. They were Inuit people, whom Flaherty thought to be especially photogenic, hired and paid to be in the film.

Many scenes were contrived. For example, the scene where Nanook struggles with the seal was actually a dramatization. The seal we see was dead from the beginning and the tug-of-war struggle was actually between Nanook and other "actors" off camera. The dramatic battle with the walrus was actual, but as Flaherty was shooting the footage, Nanook and the others were shouting to him to put down the camera and pick up the gun to shoot the walrus. Flaherty ignored there shouts so that he could capture them taking the walrus in the "old way." Furthermore, the clothes that we see Nanook and the others wearing were not really representative of what the Inuit people would be wearing at the time; they were more representative of the clothing from the days gone past. By 1921 Inuit people were incorporating clothing from the south,