Milestone Movies : Nanook of the North (1922)

The birth of documentaries as real life fictions…

by Brannavan Gnanalingam

Robert Flaherty is one of the most influential filmmakers of all-time. He’s also one of the most controversial. Called the first documentary filmmaker, and the father of visual anthropology (both of which are slightly historically inaccurate), Flaherty caused a stir with his 1922 Inuit tale Nanook of the North. The New York Times excitedly proclaimed the film as signifying the end of Hollywood, especially given Hollywood was reeling at the time from a number of sex and drug scandals.

However, while Flaherty’s later career wasn’t as spectacular, he left such a lasting impression that films such as Moana (filmed in Samoa), Man of Aran (filmed in the Aran Islands off Ireland) and the Louisiana Story (1948) have been seen as important documentary milestones. Flaherty’s life is also subject to an entertaining documentary to be shown at this year’s International Film Festival, called A Boatload of Wild Irishmen, which focuses on Flaherty’s controversial approach to shooting ‘real-life’.

Flaherty was a mining prospector who managed to gain a reputation for his still photography and moving images that he captured while up in the Canadian Arctic. However, his film work shifted after seeing (and being compared to) Edward Curtis’ 1914 film In the Land of the Head Hunters. Curtis’ film looked at the Kwakwaka’wakw people in British Columbia. Curtis eschewed the idea of simply showing, and favoured, by all accounts, an exploitative and patronising narrative. This approach convinced Flaherty to shift the way he conceived of Nanook of the North, turning the film into an examination of how a single Inuit (whom he named Nanook) lived his life in the harsh Arctic climate.

The only problem is the film is hardly documentary. Nanook was a character invented by Flaherty, and the actor’s real name was Allakariallak. His ‘wife’ was anything but, and the legend goes the woman who plays Nanook’s wife was actually Flaherty’s mistress with whom he had a child and later abandoned. A Boatload of Wild Irishmen interviews Flaherty’s purported grand-daughter, and suggests Flaherty’s legacy is hardly that of ethnographer trying to trample as little as possible. Flaherty also convinced Nanook to appear more primitive – hunting was done with spears, instead of the rifles they would have used, and scenes were manipulated so that Flaherty could get better shots. Flaherty also structured his film around a narrative – everyday life was made to fit in exciting blizzards and hunts.

But the film caused a sensation. And it was seen as revolutionary: it was one of the first times that ‘exotic’ cultures had been shown to a Western mass market, and the main characters were seen as authentic, real-life figures. It has also subsequently been argued to capture a culture at a particular point in time, Flaherty’s interventions notwithstanding. Through this film – which in turn led him to being argued to be the founder of documentary feature film – Flaherty set up the age-old debate around documentary. How much of a documentary is manipulated?

Any film that purports to capture real-life, whether it’s a cinéma-vérité film that attempts to be hands-off, or a talking-heads documentary, would always feature some sort of authorial intervention from the location of the camera, to what is actually shot, to how the shots are edited together. And, the same debate, hasn’t simply happened with documentary film, but with anything that claims to capture reality – from the news to a photograph. Nanook of the North arguably instituted these debates right from the outset (Flaherty was always very defensive when quizzed about how much manipulation he did), and set up the model by which documentary cinema is still to this very day, judged. One only needs to look at the reception to filmmakers like Frederick Wiseman, Michael Moore, or Nick Broomfield, or films like Hoop Dreams, An Inconvenient Truth or Les Maîtres Fous.

Flaherty found himself after Nanook of the North with Hollywood studio support and a commercially sellable name. His follow-up Moana (1926) however was a commercial flop. It was filmed in Savai’i, Samoa, and also featured a dubiously contrived narrative and ‘actors’ playing ‘real-life’. It’s a fascinating account of tribal traditions and Flaherty’s own pre-conceptions of how a “Noble Savage” lived in Samoa (it’s hard not to compare Moana with the anthropologist Margaret Mead). As A Boatload of Wild Irishmen suggests however, Flaherty’s films have some ethnographic merit in that they captured people from a time gone-by, as they once may have been, and the documentary showed contemporary Samoans watching and enjoying the film.

However, this attempt to freeze a people in time is what makes Flaherty quite problematic. It’s true that film by its nature ‘freezes’ the image it captures – but Flaherty’s aim was to freeze the ‘real-life’ according to how he patronisingly thought the people lived. Man of Aran (1934) came about following Flaherty’s growing friendship with English documentary pioneer John Grierson took him over to Europe (Grierson coined the word “documentary” when reviewing Moana). And it demonstrated Flaherty at his most intransigent.

Filmed in the impoverished Aran Islands off Ireland, the film was also the first sound feature Flaherty made – in fact, he recorded the sound later in London, in English (as opposed to the Islanders’ Irish). Flaherty had an idea of what the Aran Islanders were like, so for the film he ‘persuaded’ three men to go rowing in a wild storm, just as it would have looked good for the cameras, almost killing the lot of them. He persuaded his actors to maintain their ‘poor’ characters in real-life. And he contrived characters and a narrative. He also leaves his films de-contextualized and de-historicised (or at least leaving it open to the audience to figure out). And as A Boatload of Wild Irishmen suggests, there was, and is still, a little bit of resentment towards Flaherty’s filmmaking approach in the Aran Islands.

However, that film, and Flaherty’s last feature, Louisiana Story (1948), also demonstrate some of Flaherty’s strengths. His cinematography is absolutely stunning, and his conceptions on how to construct a scene visually were way ahead of his time (his use of cutting to create tension in Nanook of the North arguably matched the Soviet innovations of the same time). These two films also feature Flaherty’s almost trademark naïve approach (if that’s an excuse for his treatment of his subjects), which give his films a rare kind of energy and intrigue. His ideas also had a distinct influence on the 1950s and ‘60s cinéma-vérité filmmakers in France and the direct cinema filmmakers in the United States. He died a few years after Louisiana Story, with his reputation only becoming recognised following the increased visibility of documentary filmmaking in later years.

A Boatload of Wild Irishmen, made by Brian Winston, utilises a variety of sources to capture Flaherty, including his Inuit granddaughter, his cameraman on Louisiana Story, pioneering documentary filmmaker Richard Leacock (who died a few months ago) , and Irish and Samoan commentators. It’s also a fascinating account of a flawed pioneer of documentary film, one whose influence has been immense, for better or worse.