Robert Flaherty’s first film is also a pioneer of the documentary form. This is about as pure and revelatory as the documentary form could get in the days of bulky camera equipment. Flaherty took repeated trips to Baffin Bay in northern Canada where he tried to document the daily hardships of an Eskimo family. It was only after a good 7 or 8 years on the project that Flaherty thought he had the makings of a coherent and effective film. His technique was painstaking and, because of technical limitations, he had to re-stage and re-create the movie’s events just so he could capture them on film properly. Before the age of hand-held cameras, this was really the only technique available to the documentary maker — who we must distinguish from the so-called “actuality” makers from the turn-of-the-century who would shoot travelogues of exotic locales for mass consumption; unlike Flaherty, they did not have an educational component to their work. Flaherty wanted to transcend this simple point-and-shoot entertainment aesthetic and delve deeper into the cultures he was exploring as well as the possibilities of cinema itself.
Nanook is absolutely brilliant not just for the incredible bravery and tenacity it took to make it, but also for the inspiring resilience of its titular Eskimo subject and his clan, struggling against nature to survive. The Criterion DVD of Nanook also features a gorgeous music score to accompany this lyrical and haunting film, perfectly underscoring what is a real milestone in the evolution of cinema. If you like Flaherty, I also recommend Man of Aran and Tabu (the latter being a pseudo-narrative/ethnography about South Seas islanders, and a project he collaborated on temporarily with F.W. Murnau).
Directed by: Robert J. Flaherty
Written by: Robert J. Flaherty