The world used to be very small. Most people lived and died within just a few short miles from where they were born and lacked opportunities to encounter people different from themselves. But then we had movies, full of not just storytelling possibilities, but the ability to serve as a window to the world and bring, for example, the traditional lives of Inuit hunters from the far reaches of Canada to a small town in Kansas, as we see in the 1922 non-fiction film Nanook of the North. As it would come to be called, this burgeoning field of documentary was accompanied by some unique challenges. We begin to question how much of the assembled footage was staged, if it gives an accurate representation of Inuit lives, and is it exploitative for a filmmaker to use them in this way? Nanook of the North should probably more accurately be referred to as a docu-drama rather than a documentary: its most celebrated sequences highlight traditional skills genuinely possessed by the subjects of the film, but there’s also plenty that appears likely to have been embellished or made up altogether.
Robert J. Flaherty went to great lengths to capture the footage seen in Nanook of the North, making many journeys to northern Canada with massive, cumbersome film equipment, much of which was still in its infancy. He tells the story of Nanook, an Inuit, who is constantly seeking ways to feed his family amidst the harsh wilderness of ice and snow. We see him use traditional tools and practices for hunting walruses, building kayaks, and constructing igloos, amongst other things. But how much of this is reality, and how much was staged to give audiences the novelty of the exotic? It’s difficult to tell exactly where the lines are.
Nanook is played by a man named Allakariallak. His wife Nyla is actually an actress (there’s some evidence to suggest that she was romantically involved with the director, but that’s tough to confirm.) So right from the beginning, it’s clear that Flaherty is playing fast and loose with the truth. And perhaps most egregiously, he attempts to portray the Inuit featured within Nanook of the North as primitive and backward for their Western audience. Nanook and his fellow hunters generally used guns at this point rather than the simpler weapons shown in the film.
There’s a particularly offensive sequence when Nanook meets with a white trader, who introduces him to a gramophone. Nanook is astounded by the technology and, puzzled, attempts to bite down on one of the records. This is clearly a scene that was staged for a condescending white audience: Allakariallak was perfectly familiar with the gramophone and how it worked.
And a title card mentions that Nanook died a few years after the film was made, allegedly starving to death on a hunt. Nothing quite so romantic and exotic: he died of tuberculosis, which was still plaguing both remote Inuit and American communities alike. Throughout the film, there are choices to be made about how to depict Nanook and his family. And at every turn, Flaherty opts to make them an oddity, rather than emphasizing the human essentials that allow us to see elements of our own lives in them.
That said, Flaherty includes a handful of sequences that are intended to be educational: an up-close look at the traditions and customs that color the daily lives of the Inuit. They may be staged, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that Allakariallak and his companions are actually building an igloo themselves, or hunting a walrus, or waterproofing a kayak. It is a fascinating look at a way of life that was already rapidly fading away even at the time of filming.
And when we look at the pristine glaciers and remote tundra, it serves as a sobering reminder of all we have to lose. These harsh and unforgiving landscapes were beautiful and alive when Nanook of the North was filmed in the early 1920s. It is less so now and may not be at all tomorrow. This film may not be a documentary held to the modern definitions of ethical journalism, but it is a time capsule, capturing a brief, poignant moment that would not last forever.