‘Nanook of the North’- Robert J. Flaherty

Documentary filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty’s, Nanook of the North, is a serine intervention into the lives of the Eskimos, living in the Canadian Arctic, near the Hudson Bay. Flaherty, known as ‘The Father of Documentary’ started making the film in the year 1920, as the first feature-length documentary to be ever made.

Nanook of the North, released in 1922, is the epitome of film-making, which has not yet been achieved again, not even by Flaherty himself.

The film revolves around one particular Eskimo (inuit), Nanook, and his life in the Arctic. Nanook is the chief of a band called Itivimuits, in Hopewell Sound, Northern Ungava. His family includes his wife Nyla, and his kids. The film talks about how Nanook and his family spend each day in a region, where it seems impossible to survive and where people go hungry for days on.

The film shows how the inuits trade, how they hunt for fishes and the great walrus, how they travel, how they make their igloos, and so on. Flaherty himself stayed in this region for almost a year, to shoot the entire film. He used two Akeley motion picture cameras and only natural light to shoot the entire documentary.

In the entire film, Flaherty has given a written description about every sequence, to explain to the audience what exactly was happening on screen. The music, given by Stanley Silverman, is also kept very dramatic and for every sequence the tempo of the music changes. For instance, in a scene where Nanook and his fellowmen are hunting for the walrus, the music is at a very fast pace.

The film was shown across the globe. People were taken aback, watching it, as this was the first time that there were real heroes, real situations, and everything was being shown to them – as it was. As per Flaherty, these were ordinary people just being themselves.

However, many filmmakers criticized Flaherty for staging various scenes in the film. For instance, in the walrus hunting scene, usually Nanook and his men used rifles, since it was a dangerous catch. But, Flaherty coerced them to use the traditional style of hunting,  using harpoons, even though it was extremely treacherous. Similarly, in order to allow enough sunlight and to give proper space to the camera, the igloo was built with just three walls.

Flaherty argued that a filmmaker must involve some element of staging, as this helps in bringing out the true essence of the film. He even applied ‘romanticism’ to the film. This gave rise to one of the most crucial terms of filmmaking, known as Cinema Verité.

The film has a well defined objective, that is, to make the lives of the inuits more visible to the rest of the world. The point was to let people know that the Eskimos exist, and that their everyday survival is more challenging that any of ours.

In this regard, Flaherty was careful not to make it an all time solemn film. To overcome this issue he has added some amount of humor, to the film. For instance, the rapid and hurried movements of the people and the kind of music given to these shots have a bit of wit attached to them. Similarly, he has shown how Nanook’s son is trying to use a bow and arrow, and how he is constantly failing in this task.

After two years of its release, Flaherty got the news that Nanook had died of starvation, when he had ventured into the interiors, to hunt a deer. Due to the huge success of the film the news spread across the globe. and was covered by the popular media.

Overall, even after more than 80 years of its release, Nanook of the North, still stands to be a remarkable film. It is still one of those films which is shown to all film-making students, by the leading film-makers, as an exemplary film.. With this film, Flaherty brought to the world a whole new concept of filmmaking.

It is definitely a ‘must watch’ for all avid film fanatics, as this is one film which you would not want to miss!

Aditi Ananthanarayanan

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