Nanook of the North (1922)
One of the first documentaries ever made, "Nanook of the North" was not a film project, nor did it have anything to do with film at first. It took a while before Robert J. Flaherty, the director, decided that the Eskimo people should have their story told in a movie. When he made the first movie, the negative caught fire and burned...some copies remained, but Flaherty deemed them unfit. He returned to the north with more cameras and equipment to document one family's struggled through the year. The result is a stunning and remarkable achievement.
Nanook, "The Bear", is the hunter of the family. He is an agile predator, and the only thing on his mind is survival.
The family lives between meals, living as far north as they do, presents one of the most dangerous environments known to man. They starves for months and then feast on seals, fish, or walruses.
Possibly the most incredible footage that Flaherty captures involves the hunt of a walrus. A man sneaks up on the huge creatures on the beach. When the animals spot him and run to the ocean, he harpoons one of them and it becomes a tug-of-war between a two ton beast and three men.
This scene exemplifies everything about the movie—harsh, brutal, surviving...the list could go on. The men need food, but the walrus wants to live. "Nanook of the North" makes you feel like Freud peering into the Id of humanity.
Once the beast is overcome, the men can't even wait until they devour the creature. The cut it up and start eating it fresh from the ocean.
Other scenes prove the peoples' ingenuity. Nanook and his family roam from place to place daily to gather food, they have to construct an igloo at night. It takes the family a little under an hour to bring the structure to completion. The cracks are sealed up, but they aren't done yet. A hole is carved from the igloo and replaced with a piece of ice...a makeshift window. Another block of ice is used to reflect the sun into the window so the family can see when the sun has risen.
"Nanook of the North" is not a film that hasn't seen its fair share of controversy. One scene has Nanook interacting with 'white men'. They show him a phonograph and he seems puzzled by the machine. He picks up a record and bites it with his teeth, testing the material out. It turns out that this scene may have been staged.
From the beginning of film, film makers were cutting corner and forging scenes to get a powerful and emotional response from their viewers...and you know what? It works with this film.
Though it may be untruthful, Flaherty assumes that there were Eskimos who didn't know what this piece of technology was and would have treated it just as he has Nanook do. So it is truthful and a lie at the same time.
In the end, some of the footage speaks for itself like the hunting of a seal. The beast remains out of sight for the entire struggle, the camera is blinded by the ice that the seal is under. The only thing connecting Nanook and his prey is a thin rope.
This family is a unit, they have to get along and survive or face the icy alternatives.
Dog fights break out at the scent of seal blood, shoes have to be bitten before being worn, and fishing is performed with ivory and sticks...the bareness of the landscape brings forth the essence of life.
It's a great movie, though it has been outdated.
It should be seen if only for the tenacity of the family.
Score: 3 and a half stars out of 4
Posted by Micah Jones