Review: Nanook of the North: A Story Of Life and Love In the Actual Arctic (1922)
It’s really difficult to categorize Robert J. Flaherty’s 1922 masterpiece Nanook of the North: A Story of Love and Life in the Actual Arctic (now more commonly known as Nanook of the North). It is routinely named and considered to be the first feature-length documentary, and genre of filmmaking which did not actually exist in 1922. It is just as often decried for being staged, the exact opposite of what we currently mean by “documentary film.” The truth about that particular aspect of Nanook of the North lies somewhere between those two poles. What is certain is that it’s powerful, moving, and definitely unique among all other movies made in 1922.
Nanook of the North details the life on Inuit hunter Nanook (Allakariallak) as he struggles to survive and feed his family, wives Nyla and Cunayou and his two children Allee and Rainbow, in the Canadian Arctic. It’s a harsh environment to be sure, but Nanook and his family seem fairly content, even while locked in a constant and life-and-death battle with their surrounding. This is Inuit life in 1922, though it was about to disappear. Robert Flaherty indeed dragged a camera to the Arctic, the actual one as the subtitle of the film takes great pains to note, and struggled right along with Nanook and the family for the duration of filming. That’s pretty harsh too, and there is a subtle meta-narrative about the making of the film reflected in the struggles of this Inuit family.
The “factual” problems with Nanook of the North are well documented. Flaherty himself was quite candid about which parts were staged. Nanook is Allakariallak, a real Inuit man famed for his hunting prowess with a family feed. The wives we see on screen, however, not his actual wives. The most exciting part of the movie involve typical Inuit hardships like constructing an igloo or hunting a seal, but Flaherty admitted that these scenes were staged. So, let’s cut our pioneering documentarian, a wee bit of slack. It’s not like Flaherty was running around the Arctic with a steadicam and a union film crew. The actual fact of the matter is that he journey to the end of the earth and filmed the inhabitants in very genuine situations, even if they had to be fudged for his camera in the moment of filming.
As Roger Ebert notes in his excellent essay on Nanook of the North, just because you “stage” a walrus hunt, you’re still hunting a walrus and the walrus probably didn’t get the script. Truer words never spoken. The Walrus plays his part, as well as the seals and the weather and Nanook himself in this film, and the result is one of raw, staggering beauty. Flaherty would go to produce other more sophisticated, polished films, notably Tabu, a Story of the South Seas (1931), an ill-fated collaboration with F.W. Murnau and my personal favorite Man of Aran, a 1934 doc about life on the Aran Islands off the western coast of Ireland. But for sheer magnificence, sheer raw power, and sheer illustration about the human struggle to survive, viewed through the prism of Nanook’s and Flaherty’s own to make this movie, you just can’t beat Nanook of the North.
How to see Nanook of the North
Nanook screens pretty regularly so keep an eye on your local theatres. There is also a magnificent Criterion edition of the movie and it’s well worth owning. Or, you can scroll right down to the bottom of this post and watch the complete movie online.
Gallery of Images from Nanook of the North