Nanook of the North

Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North is arguably the most famous film ever shot in Canada. It was first shown to the public in New York City and then around the world in the summer of 1922. It caused an immediate sensation with its real-life depiction of the people of Canada's Far North and their struggle to survive the harsh landscape. It went on to exert considerable influence on the development of documentary films worldwide.

Nanook of the North is an important cinematic milestone. The sensitivity of its director and his selection and arrangement of material made the film different from and far superior to the travelogues of its day. Flaherty was the first to successfully combine documentary footage with the art of storytelling in cinema. Allakariallak, who played Nanook, became internationally famous, and in 1989, when the US Library of Congress began preserving "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" films in its National Film Registry, Nanook of the North was among the first 25 chosen.

Technically Nanook of the North is not a Canadian film, although in spirit it certainly is. The American-born explorer and anthropologist Robert Joseph Flaherty spent 6 years exploring northern Canada on behalf of Sir William Mackenzie, the wealthy railway tycoon and entrepreneur. On one of those expeditions, Flaherty travelled to the barren lands of the hitherto unexplored Ungava Peninsula on the eastern shores of Hudson Bay. That trip culminated in the discovery of the Belcher Islands archipelago. At the insistence of Mackenzie, Flaherty took along a Bell & Howell camera and filmed nearly 3000 feet, but while editing the footage was destroyed in a fire. Fortunately he preserved a rough cut, which he used to attract investors to a much bigger project he had in mind. On 15 Aug 1920, Flaherty arrived at Port Harrison (now Inukjuak) to shoot his film.

Criticism

In Inuit mythology, Nanook is the Master of Bears, and decides if hunters deserve success in finding and hunting them. The gregarious Allakariallak was chosen for the film because he was the best hunter in the district, but the 2 women playing his wives were not, nor were the 2 children his. This fabrication goes to the heart of the most persistent criticism of the film--that Flaherty staged many of the scenes of Inuit life.

One of the film's famous sequences shows the construction of an igloo. To shoot inside the structure, a second igloo had to be built with a wall removed to accommodate the camera and operator. An equally famous scene is the seal hunt, with Nanook patiently standing over a hole in the ice with his spear at the ready. Close viewing of the cuts makes it obvious that this scene was also staged.

Yet the film has a palpable authenticity that prevails over any complaints of staging. Flaherty's first footage was of a walrus hunt on the Belcher Islands. We see the hunters creeping up inch by inch on a herd of slumbering walruses--all in one take, no cuts. Then Nanook springs up and harpoons one--again in one take--and a fierce struggle continues for at least 20 minutes in which the mate of the huge beast joins the battle. Flaherty's crew feared for Allakariallak's life and urged Flaherty to use a rifle to finish off the walrus. Instead he kept the camera rolling, resulting in one of the most acclaimed sequences in all of silent cinema.

Viewing Today

A film about the making of Nanook of the North was released in 1994. Kabloonak, a Canada/France co-production, starred Charles Dance as Flaherty and Adamie Quasiak Inukpuk, a relative of Allakariallak, as Nanook.

In 1999, Nanook of the North was re-mastered and released on DVD.