Old 07-14-2009, 02:45 PM
Robert J. Flaherty's Nanook of the North

Nanook of the North (1922)

Robert J. Flaherty is widely considered the father of the documentary with his most famous being "Nanook of the North." Before the film even begins, he gives us a history of what led him to take on this project. While he was on an expedition in the arctic, he had shot some footage of Eskimos, but due to a fire, he lost that footage. This made him want to come back and shoot an actual film about them, so around 1920, that's exactly what he did, choosing an Eskimo by the name of Nanook as his subject.

"Nanook of the North" basically follows Nanook around on his typical days in the arctic. Events in his life mainly include hunting for food, of which there is scarcely anything at all in the vast land that he and his fellow Eskimos inhabit (It is noted that only about 300 Eskimos inhabit this part of the land, which is about the size of England). Along for the adventures are Nanook's two wives, Nyla and Cunayou, and his two sons, Allee and Allegoo. These events add up to an interesting portrait of a lifestyle not known to many at the time.

An interesting fact to note right away is that the entire film was staged, and that Nanook's wives in the film are not even his real wives. However, does this make the events happening on camera any less real? When Nanook is struggling against the large creatures he is trying to procure for food, is his life not in danger? Flaherty may have staged the events, but what he was actually doing was documenting what Nanook and his people went through day after day.

It has been called great by many and has been ranked as one of the top ten documentaries of all time. I have a little trouble calling it great, but it is definitely worth checking out. Its popularity could simply be because it was one of the first films of its kind, explored a subject that most people didn't know about, and did it well. Even though most of the scenes seemed to revolve around hunting, this is what they actually did, and in focusing mostly on that topic, Flaherty kept it true to life.

The film has a few extraordinary sequences that stand out as memorable. A few of these are, of course, hunting scenes, including a scene near the end where Nanook is struggling with a seal. He has located a small breathing hole in the ice where the seal surfaces for air. When the seal does surface, he hooks it, and so begins the struggle as Nanook waits for his fellow hunters to arrive and help retrieve the seal.

Another of the hunting scenes that was memorable was when Nanook and crew are stalking a group of walruses on a beach, trying to sneak up on them. Then suddenly Nanook pops out and spears one. Everyone grabs onto the line and tries to pull it in, even as the walrus's mate attempts to free it. Eventually, the hunters are successful and immediately start breaking down the walrus for food.

There are also standout scenes that did not involve hunting, which actually includes the best scene in the film. When Nanook and his crew are stopping for the night, they must make an igloo to protect themselves from the cold, and so we get to see the creation of an actual igloo.

The process begins with Nanook cutting out blocks of snow from the ground and slowly building a wall, cutting off the excess parts of the blocks to make them fit together better. When these blocks are put together, others pack snow into the crevices to seal any holes that would allow the cold to get inside. When the igloo is finished, Nanook cuts out a block of ice to put into the side of it so that light can enter the structure. The entire operation apparently took less than an hour.

It's scenes like this that are able to bring out the interesting aspects not only of the Eskimo culture, but also of the people themselves and what they do to survive. They must hunt constantly for what little food is around them, which is almost always animals (the only exceptions being that they might get something different when they journey to the trading post). It becomes ironic to find out that Nanook died of starvation mere months after this film was completed, a film that was meant to show how difficult it was for Nanook and his people to survive. Despite the events in the film being staged, with Nanook's death, we find out just how real these dangers can become. 3/4 stars.
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