05 August 2008

Nanook of the North (1922)

d. Robert J. Flaherty / USA / 79 mins.

Widely considered to be the first feature-length documentary, Robert J. Flaherty's Nanook of the North is at times surprisingly engaging and informative, considering how rudimentary the filming process was. Camped out in the brutal tundra of upper Canada with extremely basic camera equipment, Flaherty constructed a narrative of the daily life of Nanook, an Inuit eskimo who demonstrates the culture's hunting, fishing, bartering, igloo-construction, and home life. The film remains interesting because, quite frankly, the Inuit are an interesting people. Nanook is telegenic, and his survival skills certainly provide substantial fodder for Flaherty.

One problem with the film is that it has occasionally stretches that are less interesting than other portions. The second problem – more universally agreed upon – is that the film's truth is relatively pliable. Flaherty staged particular scenes for the narrative to function better, and Nanook's on-screen wife isn't really his wife and his on-screen children aren't really his children. It seems perfectly fair to me whether people are apathetic to or troubled by Flaherty's impure documentary methods, and they're certainly up for debate in reviews of the film. Some have argued there were no rules for documentaries in the early 1920s so Flaherty made the rules up as he went along; Roger Ebert wittily notes that "if you stage a walrus hunt, it still involves hunting a walrus, and the walrus hasn't seen the script." Others contend if Flaherty set out to document something meant to seem real and serve as an educational tool for people who have not seen eskimos, then it's unfair to stage particular elements in order to get the best or most compelling version for your film. Personally I don't have any overwhelming issues with documentaries that incorporate staged elements as long as it's spelled out clearly in the beginning. (Which is why I'm still slightly irritated by the otherwise great 1989 documentary For All Mankind, which edited together footage from the Apollo space missions to create the illusion of one singular mission.)

We know today that portions of Nanook of the North were indeed staged because Flaherty admitted in the 1920s that they were, but aside from his confession we only know the fact through essays, reviews, and classroom discussions. The film itself doesn't mention it, and even re-releases don't preface it with that fact. It's easy to say the film might be rated more highly if it were amended with a disclosure statement, but even a disclosure statement might not do much to help counter the patches of boredom. When the film is interesting, it's really interesting; when it's dull, it's really dull – first feature-length documentary or not.


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