CLASSIC DOCS MARATHON: ‘Nanook of the North’ (1922)

It’s always irked me slightly to hear folks distinguish fiction films from documentaries by referring to them as “narrative films.” While I understand the logic behind those particular naming conventions, it’s a pretty obvious misnomer; on the whole, the documentarian is every bit as interested in trimming a compelling narrative from the glut of shot footage as the John Fords and the Sergei Eisensteins of the movie world. So critical is narrative to the nonfiction film, in fact, that some filmmakers working within the genre get in trouble for the way they contort reality to fit around a narrative. Two filmmakers we plan to review during this marathon, Michael Moore and Errol Morris, get in trouble for this all the time. But if the way fact is reflected in Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North is indicative of anything, it’s that the drive impulse to contrive a narrative is as old as the genre itself – if not much older.

Nanook of the North is widely credited as the first documentary feature film, and is cherished by many film historians as a critical step forward in the history of the medium. It tells the story of an indigenous man – the eponymous Nanook – and his family struggling for survival in the North Canadian tundra. Nanook is a simple man of simple ambitions. He struggles every day to find food, using primitive tools like spears and knives to hunt walrus and fish. A nomad, he builds igloos for his family, working with utmost skill and efficiency to keep up his shelter. He also marvels at new technology, at one point so bemused with a gramophone’s recording of his voice that he humorously bites down on the mystery record. Nanook’s story is also a tragic one; the film’s opening titles reveal he had died two years after shooting of starvation.

Nanook is also, to put it bluntly, a lie.

The “Nanook” we get to know throughout Nanook, it was eventually revealed, was actually a man named Allakariallak. His wife “Nyla” was not actually his wife, but one of Flaherty’s two common-law wives (another character, “Cunayou,” is depicted by his other wife). “Nanook” might have been Flaherty’s personal bon sauvage, amusingly ignorant to the developing world around him, but Allakariallak in fact knew perfectly well what a gramophone was, and long ago eschewed his hunting spear for a rifle. That igloo Nanook made was indeed real, but in order to obtain some necessary interior shots of the shelter, a special 3-wall igloo had to be constructed. Many of the riveting sequences featuring Nanook struggling with walruses and seals were in fact staged for the camera. Finally, we are told “Nanook” had died of starvation by 1922. It is widely understood, however, that Allakariallak was not similarly fated.

All these choices to transform the life of Allakariallak were done for the express purpose of turning Nanook into a more exciting, cinematic experience. But if one allows the facts to sober the viewing experience of this movie, one that purports itself as some kind of real-life document, Flaherty’s work comes off as undeniably disingenuous. It is hard to imagine any work of storytelling falsely operaterating under the guise of a factual and/or journalistic accountability not to have endured kind of flack Flaherty received once his lies are uncovered (anybody remember the Mike Daisy scandal on This American Life?). Flaherty could be accused of breaking a fundamental rule of nonfiction filmmaking: It is clear that the footage in his movie is engineered to fit a narrative. It is not the other way around, as perhaps it should be.

Problematic as it is, here’s the thing about Nanook: as a movie, it is downright riveting. It is transfixing to watch Allakariallak as he skillfully builds that igloo brick by brick. Watching him wrestle (albeit unnecessarily) with the walrus and the seal is as exciting and nerve-wracking as any staged action sequence in a fiction film of the time. Flaherty, for all his behind-the-screen conniving, admittedly succeeds in creating a fascinating subject in Nanook, even if his “noble savage” portrait is a culturally condescending one. The Inuit patriarch is consistently compelling and likeable, and Flaherty does superb work in getting the audience invested in (what he wants us to believe is) his every-day life.

So what can we possibly make of conflict inherent to Nanook of the North, which succeeds as cinema yet fails as document? Though Flaherty’s film may be an extreme example to use, it at least frames an interesting polemic that will continue to plague documentaries for as long as the genre exists: in using the camera to accomplish two frequently contradictory goals – documenting fact and rendering great cinema from it – how much should one goal be expected to kowtow to the other? People with a more journalistic attitude might likely declare it is the former goal that deserves priority, while I imagine many filmmakers and cineastes would contrarily stress the latter, affirming the importance of utilizing the medium for the intended message or agenda to come across effectively.

I am not so sure a cut-and-dry case can be made in either case. There is no doubt that Flaherty conveys a potent, melancholy fable about a man and a way of life that died long ago (in some ways, it even died before Allakariallak’s time). As a time capsule, as an entertainment and as an historical lesson of the medium, Nanook deservedly endures. But it doesn’t take an ethicist to understand that Flaherty’s overall representation of Allakariallak is ultimately untruthful and, when purported as nonfiction, renders the film a spurious document. I don’t pretend to be smart enough to know the best way to reconcile such a difficult, abstract dichotomy. But I do know that, as we proceed with this Classic Docs Marathon, the question of how the subjectivity of the camera is used to represent reality will continue to permeate throughout our discussions. When we begin to talk about what constitutes a “good” documentary or a “bad” documentary, our dialogues will consistently be informed by how well the facts mesh – or clash – with the art of moviemaking.

For the sake of those dialogues, perhaps it was good for this Marathon – and good for the nonfiction film in general – that we all started out with Nanook of the North.

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