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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.
Robert J. Flaherty's `Nanook Of The North' may be the first film about
relationship with nature. Flaherty helps establish man's successful
adaptation to his environment by filming extraordinary hunting and fishing
scenes consisting largely of medium shots. The few close-ups of the Inuit
generally portray the successful hunters smiling as they eat their kill.
Flaherty contrasts these moments with sequences communicating the Inuit's
struggles with the natural world. Here, he uses long shots: Nanook and
family become tiny black specks barely visible in the large, white frame.
In the foreground the viewer sees bitter gusts of wind ruling over the
desolate landscape. Flaherty's technique is simple but very effective.
only does he depict man as a mere part of his environment, but he
how powerless man may feel amid the cold indifference of nature. At the
same time, the hunting and feast sequences establish Nanook as a smart,
tough survivor, a surprising victor over nature's harsh elements. In this
way, Flaherty makes Nanook into a heroic figure.
Years ago, in high school, I had to sit through a creaky, dim and dirty, silent black and white documentary about some Eskimo. I remember nothing of the film except that I didn't like it. Today, I had the opportunity to see a recently restored and nicely scored re-release of that film: Nanook of the North. After all the National Geographic, Nova, PBS and Discovery Channel documentaries I have seen over the years chronicling the lives of aboriginal bands of people, (aboriginal people often wearing Coca-Cola T-shirts and baseball caps), this classic 1922 epic is the best I've ever seen showing a happy people working desperately to survive in an incomprehensibly harsh environment. It is quite a compliment to the film and its subject that it retains so much power almost 80 years after it was created. The film simply documents a small group of Inuit and their children in northeast Canada as they struggle to live from day to day. That these people survive at all, let alone remain a seemingly happy, life-loving team in such a place is mind-boggling. So many of the brutally realistic scenes in this wonderful film remind me of how sterilized many contemporary documentaries have become. We see the necessary brutality of finding, stalking and killing your food. Then slicing up your kill right there on the ice and eating it where it died. We witness Nanook harpooning and then `reeling in' a walrus, catching fish with no hook and no real bait and somehow knowing where to dig a tiny hole in the ice. Then, through that tiny hole, he spears and battles to bring in a seal. And he succeeds. But more than the environment and more than the struggle, what keeps us watching this film is character. Nanook is the chief of the small tribe and the father in the main family that is followed. He is smart, curious, inventive, determined and, at the core, a happy, gregarious character that we learn to laugh with, root for and celebrate with as he keeps his family fed. His children are an absolute delight, playful and endearing, seemingly oblivious to the awful world in which they live. The film seems to have no artifice at all and everything seems to be a regular part of their life with little attention paid to the camera. If you are a lover of the documentary form, you cannot miss this re-release. It appears to have been struck from a near pristine negative and restored to its original length of somewhere over 65 minutes. The pleasant score is not too obtrusive and sounds as though it may be a reconstruction of the score composed for the theatrical re-release of the film in 1939, but the credits aren't completely clear on that. See this film.
As a documentary turning point, Nanook of the North is undoubtedly one of if not the most significant work of the twentieth century. The story of Nanook and his family became the center of attention of the national media and virtually altered the perceptions the world had of film for documentary purposes. Flaherty may be to the documentary world what J.R.R. Tolkien is to the fantasy world. He is the giant of the genre. For its time, Nanook of the North was a masterpiece. Simple and profound, the story of Nanook was unique, and henceforth the foundation upon which the great documentarians of the 20th century created their works. However, through hindsight, the film falters. Most noticeable is the fact that Flaherty composed each of these sequences ahead of time and purposefully altered Nanook's life in order to make it seem harsher. In what is one of the most famous scenes, Nanook laughs at a phonograph and bites into a record as if he does not understand it. However, it was discovered later that not only had Nanook seen phonographs before, but he was a regular visitor to the trading post, owned a snowmobile and a rifle, and had probably seen a record player before. This fact puts into question the strength of this work as a documentary. Flaherty defended himself, claiming that some things need to be altered in order for the message to be seen. However, this is what we in the film world call "fiction". Plenty of fiction is based upon fact, but when you call something a documentary, it is held up to a different standard, one that Flaherty's work, although, good, fails to achieve.
Robert Flaherty is one of the more noted documentarians in the history of film. It is not without some concentration (ironically maybe) to watch his most well-known work, Nanook of North, which is as much documentary as it is almost the very first widely seen "Home movie". There's no narration aside from the several title cards listing the obvious things that Nanook and his family/tribe are doing in the arctic. Therefore this is much more of a visual kind of documentary, not as outrageous and experimental as those of Dziga Vertov of the same period (using what camera equipment available, shooting seemingly on the fly), but with a distinct view on what life is usually like for these people. We basically see them doing very elementary tasks, more based on living day-to-day in this harsh climate than anything overly dramatized. That all of the scenes are really 'staged' (and, apparently, it's not even Nanook's real wife) doesn't deter the viewer from what is being shown. It's like a mix of the objective and subjective- objective in the sense that 'this is what it is, the Eskimos hunting for food, raising their children, making their shelter in igloos, and making trips to ensure their survival'. Subjective in that Flaherty's camera is creating a specific view of these people, their faces captured memorably in the scratchy print of the film. In a way it's also like the first, and perhaps more groundbreaking, of the lot of nature documentaries to follow over the years, though to a primitive extreme. In all, Nanook of the North is meant to above all show the versatility of these people, both the physical nature (i.e. hunting the seal, which is the most exciting in the film) and the nature of the spirit of these people, living this way as a cycle over and over again.
For a film as old as Nanook of the North, it might be expected that some cultural imperialism would seep into such an anthropological venture. Amazingly, this is hardly the case. The lives of a band of hardy eskimos are shown with little added or taken away. We see them fighting for food, playing, building shelters, and cowering in the dark winter. All of these elements are shown without undue sentimentality. We are amazed at the lives we see because they are so different from our own, yet we realize just how human they are when they smile at us and engage us. The sequence where the igloo is built is truly remarkable, as are many of the hunting expeditions. However, just when we start to think that the life we are seeing may be perfect in its purity, we are shown the other side of eskimo life. The bleak ending of the film forces the viewer to come to terms with his romanticized view of eskimos that the first part of the film creates. A great film experience.
This is a fascinating documentary from Robert Flaherty, a very prolific
director of early documentaries. He follows the adventures of the
Eskimo Nanook, and we get to see what life was like for the Eskimo in
the early 20th Century as we watch Nanook with his family, hunting for
food, and building igloos.
This is really amazing stuff for 1922. It feels like it could have been made long after that. That's probably due to the fact that it relies on real settings and real people. It's not bound by the restrictions of manufactured sets, costumes, etc. of the period. However, though it looks utterly authentic, don't be fooled into thinking that Flaherty gives us a purely realistic snapshot of Eskimo life. He planted the early seeds of reality t.v. with this film, making careful use of editing to create a narrative with all of the melodramatic trappings of any studio picture. Though it's a fascinating film, it's also a reminder that documentary film is just as manipulative as fiction, and that Michael Moore wasn't the first to corner the market on presenting fiction as fact.
Nanook of the North was a delight to watch from start to finish. What is captured on film is a priceless glimpse into an Eskimo family's life from the early days of film-making. Some people consider the film to be pejorative; particularly in the portrayal of Nanook as simple-minded enough to think little people live inside a phonograph speaker; or in the next frame where he is portrayed confusing a phonograph record with something to eat. I was not offended by this; conversely, considering when the film was made these scenes were endearing to me. Ultimately, what I like best about this film are the close-ups of Nanook and his family, particularly his children. The emotions expressed on their faces when they are happy and playful or sad and afraid reveal the universal link we all share as humans. It is a link that transcends the vast spaces of both cultural distance and time. The film is a masterpiece!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Directed by Robert J. Flaherty, this moving feature about the hardships
faced by an Inuit family is one of the seminal films of the silent era
and brought about his reputation as "the father of the documentary".
Although only having spent a few weeks out in the icy wilderness, Flaherty presents us with a series of beautiful vignettes that capture the absolute essence of the daily struggles for survival that Nanook and his people face. The audiences follows them on their long treks in the constant search for food; picking their way over floes and towers of ice in order to catch a fish or hunt seal and walrus. Yet amongst the hardships and privations, Flaherty also allows glimpses of the tenderness and love within the family. The joy of a meal, the warmth of a shelter, the fascinating communal construction of an igloo. The humanity of the Inuits is rendered with heartwarming affection.
However, often setting his subjects against the bleak yet stunning vistas of unending snow, Flaherty leaves the audience in no doubt that the environment is as much the star. Some critics argue that Nanook is not a true documentary as Flaherty staged some scenes and directed his subjects. However, these critics are wildly missing the point. Nanook Of the North is as much about the barren landscape that Nanook and his clan wander. At its centre, this film is the age old tale of the battle between man and nature.
This is none more evident of the films wonderful final scenes. Caught in a blizzard, the family are forced to find refuge in an abandoned igloo. A happy respite together from the wild storm outside. This scene has been given extra poignancy with the tragic knowledge that Nanook and his family perished in such a blizzard a few months after the film was released.
It's a sad footnote to a tremendous film. A masterpiece of film making that inspires and enthrals and, most importantly, celebrates nature, life and humanity.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is an absolutely brilliant silent film that shows great insight of the lives of the Inuk people of the Northern Canadian arctic way before there was a such thing as National Geography Videos. The fact that these people survived in such a hostile environment is amazing. Having worked as a prospector and explorer in Arctic Canada among the Inuit, Director Flaherty was familiar with his subjects and set out to document their lifestyle. Flaherty had shot film in the region prior, but that footage was destroyed in a fire started when Flaherty dropped a cigarette onto the original camera negative which was highly flammable nitrate stock. It would be interesting to see that footage, but as Flaherty says, he remember what were in there, and re-shoot the best scenes. Flaherty therefore made Nanook of the North in its place. As the first nonfiction work of its scale, Nanook of the North was ice-breaking cinema. It captured an exotic Inuit people in their remote hostile environment, rather than a facsimile of reality using actors and props on a studio set. It was one of the first documentaries ever made. The film shows the traditional Inuit methods of hunting, fishing, igloo-building, and other customs were shown with accuracy, and the compelling story of a man and his family struggling against nature, but little do some people know that it was all somewhat staged. First off, the movie should be call Allakariallak of the Frozen North, because Nanook was really Allakariallak. Flaherty choose the name 'Nanook' due to the Inuk people many legends about bears. The Nanook was the Bear God of the Inuit and decided if hunters would be successful or not. The two wives shown in the film wasn't really Nanook's wives, but Flaherty. Flaherty also exaggerated the peril to Inuit hunters with his claim, often repeated, that Allakariallak had died of starvation two years after the film was completed, whereas in fact he died at home, likely of tuberculosis. About that home-- it's a real wooden house, not a igloo as view in the film. They used igloos only when a blizzard caught them up during the hunting in the middle of nowhere, not all the time. It's urban legend to think that Inuits live always in igloos. Flaherty wanted them to build a igloo despite them living in a house to show their culture. The first building of the igloo was too small for the camera and the dome collapsed. Then when they finally succeeded in making the igloo it was too dark for photography. Instead, the images of the inside of the igloo in the film were actually shot in a special three-walled igloo for Flaherty's bulky camera so that there would be enough light for it to capture interior shots. I feel for the Inuit people that day, when Flaherty ask them to build three 2 and half igloos for no reasons. Another thing Flaherty staged was some hunting sequences, Allakariallak normally used a gun when hunting, Flaherty encouraged him to hunt with harpoon in the fashion of his ancestors in order to capture the way the Inuit lived before European influence, making it harder for Allakariallak. Sometimes its better to use traditional weapons to hunt; because if you shoot an animal in the water it will more often than not sink quickly, so a dart with a barbed detachable point is thrown from a great distance using an atlatl, that way the sea mammal won't sink. Soon to be identified by the harpoon floating in water with line detached. Flaherty was a bit of a jerk, but the full collaboration of the Eskimos was key to Flaherty's success as the Eskimos were his film crew and many of them knew his camera better than he did. Flaherty tries to make the Eskimos on the film look like they couldn't understand technology such in the case of the trade post scene and a gramophone. The scene is meant to be a comical one as the audience laughs at the naiveté of Nanook and people isolated from Western culture. In truth, the scene was entirely scripted and Nanook knew what a gramophone was. It wasn't the only comical humor. There was a scene where Nanook and his family come out of a small kayak like a bunch of clowns out of a small car. It's a cinematic effect. Each person in the kayak was a separate filmed shot, edited together in a convincing fashion. The titles are carefully used to hide it. It's a hint at Flaherty's sense of humor. It was a little disappointing finding out that a lot of the movie was staged. Flaherty's time both staging action and attempting to steer documentary action have come to be considered unethical amongst cinema verite purists, because I believe such reenactments deceive the audience, but in this case, it works to make the audience understand the culture more and more. Flaherty defended his work by stating that a filmmaker must often distort a thing to catch its true spirit. It was a huge success, and in the following years, many others would try to follow in Flaherty's success with "primitive peoples" films. While this film is a true peace of art. I think the greatest fascination comes from this is that it fact the truth on most of the modern propaganda-documentaries, that kills the basic, pure form of documentaries. While the film will showing be shown in Anthropology class. I wouldn't say it's a ethnography work or salvage ethnography. Enthnography are supposed to be an observation where the people watching don't influence or act, so to say this is a ethnography film is wrong. Check the movie out if you want. Also check out the Long Exile, by Melanie McGrath discusses the making of this film and the people depicted in it in depth and Nanook Revisited.
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