Often hailed as the first documentary — though both the “first” and “documentary” parts of that are up for debate — Nanook of the North is a watershed moment of cinema. Unlike plenty of historic firsts of early cinema, Nanook remains a compelling watch a century later.
The story of the making of Nanook of the North is nearly as famous as the film itself: Robert J. Flaherty filmed a bunch of footage in the frigid Canadian cold, only to accidentally burn all of his negatives with a cigarette butt. His editing print survived, but he disliked the footage enough to return north and film for another year, this time focusing on a specific Inuit family.
(Incidentally, I learned while watching why the story is so well known: The film opens with intertitles explaining this.)
The resultant film is imminently watchable for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the footage is incredible. You can feel the bitter cold popping off the screen, with some thrilling moments of true danger. The numerous hunting sequences are tense and kinetic, and even the lower-key segments like building an igloo are fascinating. All of the episodes flow quickly, never leaving room for boredom.
Better yet, there’s tremendous humanity in the film. Nanook, as he’s called (Allakariallak was his real name), and his companions form a family full of personality. Even in 80 busy minutes, the film makes space for us to get to know the characters and their tics.
All in all, it gets a recommendation from me as a pleasant historical artifact, but there are some reasons to come in with some healthy skepticism.
First, the film is heavily staged and misleading. Nanook’s family isn’t really his family; many of the claims in the intertitles are exaggerated or fabricated; and Flaherty coached Allakariallak to avoid using some guns and other technology he normally would have in order to appear more untamed. There are some thorough write-ups of the inconsistencies if you’re curious (here’s one take). Ultimately, it doesn’t diminish how good the final footage is, but it does violate plenty of documentary no-nos in 2021, cheapens the film, and dehumanizes Allakariallak for supposed entertainment/fascination value.
Secondly, the film is unsurprisingly framed from a very imperalist view that frequently borders on racism. The film celebrates the “savage” and makes fun of his disconnection with the modern society we know. Then again, it’s 1922, and I found it less demeaning towards Nanook and his family than it could have been for much of the duration (minus some tacky segments where Nanook does some dopey bartering with a white man). Certainly, Flaherty conveys respect towards the film’s subjects and captures them with dignity most of the time.
Overall, Nanook is an influential film that manages to be thoroughly enjoyable, too, and given the time period, I’ll definitely take that.
(I’m attempting to watch 1001 Films to See Before Your Die in chronological order. This is film number 14. Up next is seminal horror film Nosferatu.)
Note: This review was originally published elsewhere. Please excuse brevity or inconsistencies in style. If you have questions or feedback, please leave a comment or contact me.