Home Video Hovel: Nanook of the North, by David Bax
Robert Flahertys’ Nanook of the North is considered one of the greatest films of all time for a number of reasons. First off, because it’s one of the greatest films of all time. Flaherty both wielded and helped define the construct of cinema to make a film that is insightful, informative and a whole lot of fun. Also, it’s not quite as racist as you’d fear, which is not to say that it’s not racist at all. In addition, Nanook is generally credited with being the first feature-length documentary film, which is obviously noteworthy despite the semantic difficulty of referring to a work so filled with staged recreations as a documentary. What’s truly important about the film, though, is the way – in its straightforward and simple ability to translate a distant, remote culture to anyone in any other part of the world – it went a long way toward defining cinema as the most powerful mass medium until the proliferation of the internet the better part of a century later.
Shot mostly in 1920 and 1921, Nanook follows an Inuit (not named Nanook in real life) and his family as they live, hunt and trade in north Quebec the way their ancestors have for centuries. Flaherty originally shot a more expansive look at the community in 1914 and 1915 but, when an errant cigarette reportedly led to 30,00 feet of nitrate going up in flames, he decided to return and refocus on just one family. Flicker Alley’s two-disc Blu-ray not only features a beautiful presentation of the film but also a semi-fictional work from 1934 called The Wedding of Palo, in which director Friedrich Dalsheim employs non-professional Inuit actors against a stunning backdrop of nature cinematography. Additionally, the set collects numerous other anthropological and educational films about the time and region, as well as the indispensable “Nanook Revisited,” a 1988 return to the community that reflects not only on how the people have changed but on Flaherty himself.
Flaherty was a prospector who had never made a film before Nanook. He apparently just thought it would be interesting to bring a camera with him to the frozen north. Still, he shows a preternatural aptitude for not only composition but especially the assembly of images. He understands that one of the chief advantages of cinema over other forms of documentation is the ability to demonstrate process. Even The Wedding of Palo, from a more seasoned director, struggles to define itself as something more than a collection of breathtaking footage. Flaherty, in contrast, is not just documenting. He is telling a story (something which would afford him trouble; more on that later). For instance, in the section in which Nanook builds an igloo, the sequence is not just fascinating to watch. Flaherty is able to translate that this is both a mundane task for Nanook and also something vital to his very survival (In “Nanook Revisited,” Inuits ice the runners on their sleds in an instant simply by applying water to them; it’s freaking cold up there).
That igloo-building scene is presented elsewhere in the set as a standalone short film Flaherty reedited for schoolchildren to view in class. 1949’s “Eskimo Hunters of Northwest Alaska” and 1959’s “Face of the High Arctic” also are either created for or suited to that purpose. That these simple but vivid depictions were so available as teaching tools in a world that, fairly recently, made dissimilar cultures as distant as other planets makes a case for cinema as the dawn of the information age. That, in turn, more than makes the case for their inclusion on the Blu-ray.
As alluded to above, Nanook is not without its share of troubles and controversies. In addition to the change of the subject’s name from Allakariallak to the more pronounceable moniker of the title, Flaherty staged many of the sequences depicted and even denied the Inuit within his frame the use of firearms or modern Western clothing that had already been introduced to the people. This condescension to an entire way of life in the interest of perceived authenticity is, to be sure, shameful. Yet, in his depiction of Inuit life the way it recently had been, the film remains edifying. “Nanook Revisited” proves essential to the understanding of the film in the way it discusses and illustrates the differences between Flaherty’s film and his realities. The woman who looks to be Nanook’s wife in the film was really one of Flaherty’s multiple Inuit lovers and the man’s blood still courses through the area in later generations. Yet the 1988 inhabitants don’t seem angry or talk about misrepresentation or opportunism. When they watch the famous scene of Nanook comically struggling with a rope that runs into the ice and ostensibly connects to a hooked seal, they are not irritated at the ruse (director Claude Massot recreates the trickery for us). They laugh uproariously. Despite the problematic issues of the man, the film still works, no matter who’s seeing it.
In some ways, that’s how the film – any film – should be viewed: as a self-contained object, divorced from the particulars of its creation. In other ways, though, it becomes easier to enjoy the rich importance of a film like Nanook of the North in the context of its time and theme. This Blu-ray release is worth owning not only because it showcases a great work but because, by providing that context, it is an important object in itself.