Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Nanook of the North

Monday, August 18, 2008

Nanook of the North

Nanook of the North has been embroiled in controversy because of its extravagant claims to documentary realism. Supposedly it presents, without any frills, the hardscrabble life of noble Eskimo hunter Nanook, as he hunts animals spear in hand, beds down in insulated igloos with his family, and ekes out a survival in the isolated wilderness, where he and his kin are constantly on the verge of starvation. Of course, the presence of a camera crew ensures that no one is lost in the isolated wilderness, and that food is accessible, and even that those igloos aren't so insulated: they have three walls and are open to the air so that director Robert Flaherty's camera can capture the images "inside." Furthermore, Nanook and other Inuit hunters use guns, not spears, to hunt, Nanook's family isn't actually his family (they were selected by Flaherty for their roles) and to top it all off Nanook isn't actually Nanook. His real name was Allakariallak - not quite as catchy.


But if the silent film's intertitles and Flaherty's breathless press hadn't been proclaiming absolute authenticity, if the film had been presented as a slightly fictionalized account of Inuit life (as it eventually was) we would be talking about how close to reality the story lies. After all, Nanook and others like him really did hunt their own prey and the walruses and seals we see being hunted weren't in on any joke. Details of Inuit life, even if staged or slightly exaggerated, ring true and Allakariallak himself died several years later; life in the Arctic regions was no picnic. But the film's realistic texture goes beyond the factual accuracy. Nanook is one of those films that dances on the border between documentary and narrative, yet ultimately the genre it feels closest to is that of the home movie.

In interesting special features on the Criterion Collection DVD, we see a television interview with Flaherty's widow and a series of photographs that Flaherty took in the Arctic preceding the Nanook shoot. In the interview, Mrs. Flaherty is clearly reading a pre-written digest of her husband's legacy (ironic since the interview mimics the film's pretenses of realism); she presents a seemingly misleading portrait of Flaherty as being concerned with complete authenticity, saying that audiences would lose interest the moment "acting" had replaced "being." The photographs show Flaherty practicing different poses with his subjects, and experimenting with glances away from the camera and directly at it. In the film, it is the shots in which Nanook stares into the lens and grins that are most exhilarating. And indeed, whether or not Flaherty was staging sequences and essentially directing his subjects as actors, there is a sense in which he was only cultivating that state of being which he wished to capture.

The Inuit subjects were delighted to be photographed, especially after Flaherty showed them some early footage. They are enthusiastic collaborators in Flaherty's process and the film is always at least half true, because even if the actions are pre-determined, the people are real, in their attitudes and appearances. And don't home movies always have this element of "best foot forward," a concealment of fissure as much as an exposure of reality? This is not just the face that Flaherty wants to expose to the world, but the face that the people onscreen want to expose as well and hence Nanook of the North is an accurate statement of their self-image.

The style of the film adds to this realistic, home movie feeling. Unlike most narrative films of the time, Nanook's "scenes" plop down onscreen like the chunks of blubber Nanook cuts from the walrus: it isn't streamlined, it isn't pretty, but it's ineffably "there." Actions go on and on, even after we've gotten the point; they seem to be unfolding in real time even when there are cuts. Even if Flaherty was contriving or restaging set pieces, he was not making them easier to digest. The movie can seem long-winded at times, but the upshot is that it doesn't feel forced and there's the sense of discovery Flaherty wished to convey. In some ways, by sidestepping strict documentary realism and placing the sequences within a loose structure, Flaherty has brought into focus the elements which are unfakeable: those black figures against the white snow, the painstaking construction of an igloo window out of an ice chunk, the recently slaughtered animals as they're cut open and picked apart, and of course the hard-bitten but smiling face of Nanook, ready for his close-up, fully aware of what Flaherty is doing and enjoying every minute of it.

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