Nanook of the North (1922)
“A story of life and love in the actual Arctic.”
Director: Robert J. Flaherty
Cast: Allakariallak, Nyla, Allee
Synopsis: In this silent predecessor to the modern documentary, film-maker Robert J. Flaherty spends one year following the lives of Nanook and his family, Inuit living in the Arctic Circle.
Today, if we want to feed ourselves, we select whatever we desire from a shelf in the fridge or the local supermarket. We’ve lost the ability to hunt; we treat animals as pets, and turn our minds from the distasteful processes required to slaughter those animals we choose to eat. Most of us would be hard pushed to skin a rabbit if the situation called for it, so to be granted an insight into a way of life which is dominated by the need to hunt and kill animals in order to survive is something of a rarity. The fact that this perpetual struggle takes place in the cold, implacable landscape of the Arctic just makes it all the more remarkable.
Nanook (The Bear) is an Inuk, living with his family in a region of the Arctic as large as England but in which only 300 people reside. Their life is hard, but they seem to be a happy and close family — so close, in fact, that, in an unintentionally comical scene, we’re introduced to all four of them emerging from the cramped confines of a kayak in which we initially thought only Nanook sat. Their life is a harsh one, and it’s fascinating to see the way they’ve adapted in order to cope with the demands of a forbidding landscape. Working together, and in under an hour, husband and wife build an igloo, complete with ice window and artfully positioned reflector, to provide shelter for the entire family. At night, the family sleeps together under one large hide for warmth, and yet the adults sleep topless despite the fact that we can plainly see their breath when they arise in the morning. Their dogs, near wild at times, sleep outside, which means that the sled must be parked on top of the igloo to prevent them from eating the seal-hide thongs that bind it during the night. During the day, as Nanook and his family go about their daily business, they swaddle themselves beneath layers of clothing, including, for Nanook, an eye-catching pair of thick, furry trousers.
They lead a transient life, constantly on the move, travelling to wherever there are rumours of possible food. We see Nanook and a few friends stealing upon an unvigilant group of walruses, and witness the heartbreaking attempts of one of their number to rescue its mate as it flails on the end of Nanook’s harpoon. Unable to start a fire on the packed snow, the men gnaw at the raw meat of their catch with visible relish. Watching their constant hunt for food in such inhospitable terrain, one wonders why they simply don’t move, but a part of the answer to that question might be addressed by the controversy that surrounds much of Robert Flaherty’s film.
Flaherty himself has admitted that much of what we see was staged for the camera. The scene in which Nanook visits a trading post where he is amazed and intrigued by a gramophone record was scripted; by the 1920s, Nanook and his fellow Inuits were using rifles rather than harpoons to hunt. The technical difficulties of filming from within the confines of an igloo meant that a special three-wall version had to be constructed for the film. There’s even a rumour that Nanook’s two wives weren’t his at all, but that they were the common-law wives of Flaherty! What is known is that, rather than dying of starvation while hunting shortly after the film was shot as the opening narrative titles claim, Nanook actually died of tuberculosis in his bed.
Despite these controversies, Nanook of the North does still serve as a valuable document of the lifestyle once led by the Inuks, even if that lifestyle was already starting to disappear when the film was made. It makes for fascinating viewing, with perhaps the only disappointment being that we never really get to know as much about Nanook and his family as individuals (rather than representatives of an alien way of life) as we would like.
(Reviewed 1st October 2014)