I decided to screen Nanook of the North for one reason: it was the first feature-length documentary film ever made. I didn’t expect to get much out of the screening, figuring it would be just a bunch of clips strung together predating the arrival of using the medium to tell stories. But I was wrong. In fact, as Robert Flaherty explains through heavy use of intertitles (the silent-film era’s way of explaining things), he in fact DID make a film of that kind, and was unsatisfied with the results, so he returned to visit the Eskimo people who live along the eastern shore of Hudson Bay to create a film with a story worth telling. And that’s exactly what he did.
Synopsis: Robert Flaherty spends more than a year filming one Eskimo family in northern Quebec, and introduces us to Eskimo life via their story. The family overcomes a series of hardships – lack of food, cold weather, dangerous ice – but Nanook, the “great hunter” saves the day.
Story Structure: This is much more than a simple “document” of life in the frozen north. It is a story structured as a series of life-threating obstacles which the family must overcome. Conflict comes from dramatizations of hunger, cold, and need to hunt animals to trade. The difficulty of life is sharply pictured, but at the same time a picture of a simple, solid family that lives in harmony with the Earth emerges.
Cinematography: The film opens with a tracking shot taken from a boat – moving past chunks of ice. It’s actually quite beautiful. One thing that struck me right away was the fact that this was filmed in extreme conditions! How surprising that the very first documentary film was shot somewhere so extreme. I would have thought someone would document something in their back yard first? So from the beginning, filmmaking has been about “the other world.”
There is also striking pathos in this film. For example, when Nanook harpoons a walrus, for a long time the walrus cries for its mate, which risks its own life to try and lock horns with the doomed walrus and help it to safety. It was a touching moment that spoke volumes about how close animals are to Eskimos and in fact how attached they are to one another and how brutal it is to kill them. An even more brutal scene occurs when Nanook traps a white fox, and straps it to his sled ALIVE, where the children pester it. You can’t help but feel terribly sorry for the creature, which is essentially being tortured before ultimately being killed.
Editing: There’s a lot more going on here than I would have expected for a film this early on. For example, the film opens with the entire family being disgorged from the mouth of a kayak that appears far too small for them all to fit into, which makes me think he was using some editing magic for comedic effect. Same thing in the scene where he harpoons a seal – which is followed by a lengthy scene in which he falls down repeatedly on the ice while waving madly for his friends to come help. This was almost certainly inspired by Charlie Chaplin, and totally staged.
One thing that surprised me is that this very first film contains animated maps. The animation is simple – just lines spreading out into the map to show the territory of the Eskimos. Nevertheless, animation as a storytelling device dates from the very beginning of documentary film. It’s clear that Flaherty wasn’t content to simply point his camera and document – he wanted to communicate and tell stories.
Music and sound: It’s simple, because there was no sound in those days. The music, though, is carefully cut or composed to match the on-screen action. For example, there’s a comical scene in which a trader plays a gramaphone for Nanook, who acts like he can’t figure out where the sound is coming from (also almost certainly staged). But the music interrupts to match the interrupted music on the screen, and so on. Also, plucking strings in the orchestra when Nanook is jigging for fish is nice tie-in. Essentially what was happening in those days was that the orchestra was matching their performance to what was happening on screen.
The Criterion Collection version, which I viewed, had an extras segment featuring an interview with Flaherty’s wife, who explained that Flaherty was “an explorer first and a filmmaker way after.” In fact, Flaherty was almost 40 years old when he made the film. Which gives me great confidence that 43 years old is not too late for me 🙂