In this blend of documentary and fictional narrative from pioneering filmmaker Robert Flaherty, the everyday trials of life on Ireland's unforgiving Aran Islands are captured with attention to naturalistic beauty and historical detail.
Robert J. Flaherty
Colman 'Tiger' King,
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Documents one year in the life of Nanook, an Eskimo (Inuit), and his family. Describes the trading, hunting, fishing and migrations of a group barely touched by industrial technology. Nanook of the North was widely shown and praised as the first full-length, anthropological documentary in cinematographic history. Written by
Affectionately remembered as "the first real documentary" since the work of the Lumière brothers as well as arguably the first feature length film, Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North marks a remarkable fusion of intrepid anthropological chronicling of a way of life unknown to the general public at the time of its release, yet tweaked with shrewd cinematic manipulation. Whittling countless hours of footage into a compact 80 minutes, Flaherty cobbles together his footage (both real and staged) into a loose narrative following the hardships and rewarding moments of Inuit life, as focalized through chosen protagonist 'Nanook'. Flaherty's unobtrusive style is so engrossing and convincing that it is easy to overlook the recognition that real life would hardly 'flow' in such a conveniently paced Hollywood style narrative, thus educating mass audiences on unfamiliar material in a more familiar, palatable fashion.
What is surprising is, rather than depicting Nanook and his family as savages in a spirit more keeping with his time, Flaherty goes to great pains to stress the gentleness, resourcefulness and humour of the Inuit. Introducing Nanook and his family through heroic close-ups of them beaming at the camera, Flaherty instantly commands the support and sympathies of the audience, further garnering it through subjecting them to the series of perilous natural challenges undergone regularly by Nanook and his family. Through crafty yet subtle editing, Flaherty turns potentially dreary footage into exhilarating and captivating, with particular standouts being Nanook, talked up as a singular hero, undergoing devastatingly cinematic walrus and seal hunts and the horrifyingly beautiful spectacle of ferocious winds ravaging plains of snow at dusk in an exquisite, lingering long shot, still gripping even more than eighty years after the fact. Equally, Flaherty draws particular focus on the moments of levity crystallizing across the film, his cameras drinking up Nanook's children sliding down icy hills on their bellies, a husky puppy being hidden in a parka to keep it warm and even enjoying a surrogate domestic scene while keeping warm inside an igloo.
While such conventions may be increasingly commonplace in the field of contemporary documentaries and news, when even the most allegedly 'objective' footage can be assumed to have a thesis, in 1922, forging a film with humour, excitement, beauty and seeping sorrow out of an anthropological study was a work of largely unprecedented genius. Nanook of the North still brims with an unmistakable earnest energy to this day, and, unbound authenticity aside, the craftsmanship and tender affections of Flaherty's work (even ending the film in Inuit, "Tia Mak", in lieu of "The End") still cementing it as a foundational classic of the silent era.
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