Day 27: NANOOK OF THE NORTH (Robert Flaherty, USA/France, 1922)
A great humanist classic—I can think of few other films that so directly appeals to the viewer to enter into a thoughtful and respectful engagement with a foreign culture and generate what feels like a genuine connection to an unknown “Other”—even as the ethnographic form inherently creates representational and ethical dilemmas. To be fair, Flaherty, an explorer and prospector-turned-filmmaker, made his film before “documentary” was distinguished from any other type of filmmaking practice, and the fact that elements that are passed off as reality are in fact staged and/or scripted wouldn’t have given him or original audiences pause in the way it does for us today. Some of these fabrications are relatively benign, such as Nanook’s feigned amazement over banal Western objects or the depiction of him using traditional hunting weapons instead of his gun, while others are more disquieting, such as the fact that Nanook’s “wives” were apparently nothing of the sort, but Flaherty’s own common-law wives(!). But then there is the film itself, which all these years later still manages to slice through all surrounding discourse with a startling immediacy and vitality—as is often noted, Nanook (real name: Allakariallak) is in every sense of the term a true movie star, exhibiting a charisma and photographic magnetism that would make many a manicured Hollywood star green with envy; Andrew Sarris declares the scene when he pops his head out of a just-constructed igloo and smiles directly at the camera as nothing less than “one of the most beautiful moments in the history of the cinema.”
The film follows Nanook and his (purported) family as they navigate the desolate expanses of the arctic tundra of northernmost Quebec, always, it seems, just on the knife-edge of starvation and at the mercy of the sub-zero temperatures—as we watch them fish, hunt for walrus and polar bears, travel in sleds drawn by packs of Huskies, and construct canoes out of seal hides what becomes so clear is how every aspect of their existence requires the greatest effort, often repeated daily without any reprieve. But the clear hardships are balanced by depictions of humor, and Flaherty has a lovely, understated way of staging sequences that unexpectedly turn into sight gags. The film that kept coming to mind was Patricio Guzmán’s recent documentary The Pearl Button (also, happily, currently available on Fandor and which I highly recommend), which is partly devoted to capturing the memories of the several remaining indigenous people of South America’s Patagonia region, a culture which now only exists in a small number of photographs and recollections that are quickly fading; if Nanook of the North fails as a factual document of Allakariallak’s lived life, it at least tangibly captures an evocation of a people group and a heritage that had already been permanently altered and about to be displaced. Such documentation, even in this compromised state, thus contains an aura of preciousness. But overall a tremendous achievement, and a work of great visual accomplishment made despite some of the most punishing circumstances imaginable and working with the most primitive of film technology. I was expecting an Important Film, more historically interesting than compelling: how very wrong I was.
[Watch Nanook of the North on Fandor here.]