I’d heard the skeptical talk about Robert Flaherty’s documentary Nanook of the North well before watching it; how some of the shots may have been staged, how the family depicted in the film wasn’t even a real family. Flaherty, who first encountered the Inuit while working as a prospector sent to the Hudson Bay, didn’t even want to do a film with a storyline at first; he just used the camera to capture bits of action here and there among the Inuit, recording their daily way of life. However – as he explains during a series of lengthy title cards at the outset of the film – he thought that made for a boring moviegoing experience. So he returned to the Hudson Bay as a proper filmmaker, and chose to follow the life of a specific hunter – Nanook by name – and his family, capturing what he breathlessly describes as “a story of life and love in the actual Arctic”.
So before we go on, let’s set some things straight.
- “Nanook” isn’t even the name of the central character. He was an Inuit named Allakariallak.
- Allakariallak’s “wife”, “Nyla,” was not actually his wife. Nor, so far as we can ascertain, was her name Nyla – it was Alice. And she wasn’t Allakariallak’s wife – she was instead Flaherty’s mistress. Another woman in the film, “Cunayou”, was another paramour of Flaherty’s; her real name is not known, and the film glosses over her specific relationship to “Nanook”.
- At the time Flaherty was filming, the Inuit had begun using guns, but Flaherty insisted on filming his cast hunting with spears. There is also an extended sequence at a “white man’s trading post” where a white trader plays “Nanook” a record on a gramophone, and he marvels at it – then, bizarrely, tries to eat the record. In reality, Allakariallak knew exactly what a gramophone was.
- During the film’s introduction titles, Flaherty claims that shortly after filming, Nanook had starved to death on the tundra after a failed hunt. In reality, Allakariallak had most likely died at home, in a cabin, of tuberculosis.
I knew about the staged bits going in; but the scripted bits also stand out pretty starkly. There’s that business with the gramophone, and another meandering couple minutes’ worth of business after Nanook’s children have been sampling sweets at the trading post, which ostensibly gives one child a stomach ache and has to be treated with castor oil; “Nyla” talks to the trader a lot as the child dutifully stands with hands on his stomach, waiting for his dose, and then the camera zooms in a little close on his face waiting for his reaction. …And there really isn’t much of one, so I’m assuming the kid’s acting chops kind of ran out.
For the most part of the film, though, it’s more footage than narrative; lengthy sequences as we watch Nanook and his family catch fish, hunt walrus and seal, or build an igloo. Nyla and Cunayou boil water for stew, the children slide down hills and play tug-of-war with seal flippers. And it is these sequences – when Flaherty gets the hell out of the way and lets things just happen – that caught my eye most.
Two scenes in particular were actually a bit moving; scenes with Nanook and his children. In one, Nanook is patiently and proudly trying to teach a little boy how to use a bow and arrow, and has even made a tiny polar bear out of snow for him to use as a target.
Another sequence was even shorter – a child with a puppy and a toy sledge, coaxing the puppy to pull the sledge behind it. For an inexplicable reason, I was profoundly touched watching him, imagining what his childhood and life would ultimately be like. I found myself hoping he lived a long life and passed with ease.
And that is probably exactly what Flaherty wanted to happen. He was just trying to stack the deck with some staged sequences to grab his audience’s attention, or to give the story some structure.
This is the thing about documentaries, though, isn’t it? Nearly a century later, another film about life at the poles was introduced by Morgan Freeman as being “the incredible true story of a family’s journey to bring life into the world”. Prior to the film, Emperor penguins were going about their business at their end of the world, and we were going about ours, not giving much thought to them. Maybe there would be the occasional clip of footage on a nature show which we’d idly have on the background while making dinner or something. But that same footage presented as a movie, with a narrative to follow, and suddenly everyone was well and truly obsessed.
Flaherty almost certainly went too far with his tweaking, but he was probably on to something.