Saturday 7 July 2012

Nanook of the North (1922)

Nanook, kuldens søn
Polar exploration started at as a matter of getting to places. The Northwestern passage, the Northeastern passage or the pole itself. Robert Peary took an interest in the native Inuit population, but for the purpose of reaching the pole. A purpose the Inuit found silly. There were no hunting grounds there, only ice.

Colonists, missionaries and traders had already been dealing with the native population for centuries, but their purposes were different. One can with some right claim that their purpose was to change the local population.

Only when these transformations had far progressed around the turn of the century did this change. The Inuit themselves became a target of exploration. The kick-off was The Literary Expedition of 1903 to the “Polar Eskimos” of Thule. Ethnographic studies were conducted and books on the myths and legends of the Inuit were written and circulated as popular reading, most notably by Knud Rasmussen whose books about the Eskimos would be a favorite read among teenage boys.

The revolution, the event that really opened the general populations mind and formed their opinions on the Inuit, however was not the books but a documentary movie.

Many if not most of popular cultures concepts of the Inuit hark back to Robert J. Flaherty’s “Nanook of the North” from 1922.

Of course newsreels and footage covering events and places had been made before but the popularity of Nanook of the North was unprecedented and almost overnight changed the way ethnography and anthropology was presented to the public.

Flaherty had gone north with a camera and made lots of footage of the Inuit. He then returned to Toronto, edited it into a movie… and saw it go up in smoke. He returned to the north, but this time to focus the story on a single family, telling their story. That proved to be a really good idea. Nanook became a household name worldwide and even today you can in Denmark find an ice-lolly called Nanok.

The format was to follow this family in its everyday routines, hunting, eating, building an igloo, crossing the ice on their dog sledge and trading with the white man on the trade station. Flaherty added drama by always emphasizing that Nanook and his family was living on the brink of starvation, always at risk of destruction by the elements, the cold and lack of game and only kept alive by their heroism. Yet there is also a mirth, a playfulness, like the opening scene where Nanooks entire family has apparently been traveling inside his little kayak and one after the other emerge from the opening. This can only be explained as a camera trick as of course there is no way that many people (and a dog!) can be crammed in there and that is a good clue to understand the movie.

Flaherty did not wish to film reality. He wished to portray the ideal, unspoiled Inuit, a force of nature, uncorrupted by civilization. He wanted to preserve their memory before it would disappear and show it to the world. The same agenda as Knud Rasmussen had and similar to so many other ethnographic and anthropological documentaries since of other indigenous people around the world. So they constructed a reality and made the subjects become actors. The igloo is cut open to bring in light and make room for the camera. We are made to believe the little family are on their own, but out of the blue suddenly there are too many adults. And not least, Nanook would use ancient hunting techniques instead of the gun he normally would use.

But I forgive him this because the story is beautiful and told with love for these people. Nanook and his wife Nyla are photogenic and the children are adorable. Following their apparently daily activities we adopt them and feel with them. Yes, they are different and live a very different life from us, but they are also exactly the same with many of the same worries we have. When they build an igloo and insert a window of ice I am thinking: I want a house like that and the children are sliding down the hill exactly the same as our children do in the winter.

I wonder if Flaherty was making good science, but he was certainly making a good movie that was able to reach a broad audience and work even today.

In the opening titles we learn that two years after the shooting Nanook would, driven by lack of game, move inland and die of hunger. This made me totally miserable when I saw all his wonderful children. To know that they would likely soon perish with Nanook. Only when I did some research did I find out that he actually died at home likely of tuberculosis and not on some ill-fated migration and the children might not even be his.

Flaherty, you old…            


  1. We watched this in a documentary film class and my professor raved on and on about how it really wasn't a documentary because so much of it was staged. Perhaps, but it was interesting to see the Inuit in their natural surroundings, doing, mostly at least, what they did on a daily basis.

    1. Supposedly documentaries worked with different criteria and rules at that time. I can live with that. I think it was pretty cool that he made a movie about the Inuit.