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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Gabriel de Gravone
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
An excellent documentary to be viewed by any film scholar or documentary fan
Thoroughly Modern Flaherty
by: Christopher M. McHugh
Robert Flaherty's second film on Eskimos, "Nanook of the North," is one of the world's first examples of a cinema verite' / aesthetic expressionism documentary. His first film outing into the Eastern Hudson Bay is now lost (allmovie.com), "Nanook of the North" was his second attempt. To deal with the extreme cold Flaherty utilized two recently developed Akeley gyroscope cameras that required little lubrication so that he could tilt and pan (cinemaweb.com). Flaherty clearly had a special place in his heart for the Itivimuit people. At times his documentary resembles a home movie, concentrating on Nanook's family's personality, rather than simply the actions they take part in. He does this primarily through the use of close-ups and filming private moments; such as the family waking up. The audience finds themselves smiling back at young Allegoo as he drinks castor oil. In regards to the soundtrack for "Nanook," the VHS copy I viewed didn't seem to match up with the visuals. When Nanook and his family are going to bed, the music is so intense it seams like the family should be fighting a bear, rather than nodding off for the night. Perhaps this problem has been remedied in the Criterion Collection's edition, which was released in 1999 on DVD (FYI available at half.com). The title cards in "Nanook" display, once again Flaherty's fondness for his subject material. Not only, Nanook's family, but Flaherty also seems to display a fondness for the Hudson Bay landscape. Flaherty does this through utilizing flowery language. For example, when we see a shot of the horizon, Flaherty's card reads: "the sun mocks them during the long winter (paraphrasing)." The lighting is excellent in "Nanook," due mostly in part to the fact that Flaherty staged sequences that couldn't be lit properly, such as building a bigger (mock) igloo to accommodate his cameras and lights. It is unclear whether these shots were filmed closer to civilization, due to Flaherty's use of the Haulberg Electric Light Plant (Flaherty 1922)and its need for fuel. Flaherty attempts to make Nanook's family a symbol for the typical, 1920's U.S. family, as (a typical U.S. family) might have lived if they were in Nanook's family's snowshoes. Flaherty even goes so far as to exclude Nanook's second wife, Cunayou (CultureDose.com) [YAY! EXTRA CREDIT!] with the exception of one particularly noticeable shot where the family is getting out of bed. Flaherty treated Nanook's family as though it might have been his own. He even went so far as to show the family dailies so that they could give him input. Flaherty pointed out in his paper, "How I filmed Nanook of the North," that he shared much with the Itivimuit, including his gramophone, tea, tobacco and sea biscuits. The Itivimuit responded back by helping out Flaherty as much as possible, leaving extra food for him and by making sure he was safe (Flaherty 1922).
As far a cinematography goes "Nanook" holds up quite well. As stated earlier, Flaherty was able to pull off pans and tilts, even in such a cold environment. The shots are framed quite well, since most of the time Flaherty didn't need to rip his equipment out in a moments notice. Nanook himself, for the most part, seemed to indicate what was going to be happening every step of the way (before it actually happened).
The pacing of "Nanook" seems to flow like rolling hills. After much action takes place Flaherty gently takes us down and puts us to bed with the family. While such action as the seal hunt is built up with quite a bit of anticipation. And when Nanook and his comrades struggle with the seal (for 20 minutes in reality), the audience is left biting their nails.
Upon viewing "Nanook" for a second time I realized how little has changed in U.S. society, as to their perceptions of those who live in a non-material world (and continue to hunt for food themselves). A 20-hundreds audience's initial reaction is probably very similar to that of a 19-twenties audience. This initial reaction subsides once Flaherty draws us into Nanook's family and they become human to us. I imagine some might criticize Flaherty for his shots of Nanook and his family members posing and smiling straight on at the camera, but these moments are most precious in "Nanook of the North." From what I gather from various sources and his paper, Mr. Flaherty was out in this frozen wilderness with no other English-speaking individuals. He obviously had a command of the language or a translator, but even more than that he obviously treated his subjects with dignity (on and off camera). His style here is closer to participant observation, rather than an ethnography. A good lesson can be learned from Flaherty, in that, great friendship and even some fun can be had when the filmmaker surrounds himself with his subject, although she or he may loose their objectivity. However, to be closer to a people is to understand them better. No one can doubt that Flaherty's take on the travel film is ingenious and that he revolutionized the film industry. To this day, "Nanook of the North" succeeds in being a modern film, easily accessible to anyone. It conveys the lifestyle and ideas of a different culture clearly and with a very human touch. And that is all that anyone could want from a documentary.
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