Nanook listens to a photograph for the first time. Image: jf sklfjsdj

Nanook listens to a recorded voice for the first time. Image: kurungabaa.net

Q: How many people can you fit in a kayak?

If you said one or two, then you’re not trying hard enough. We just watched a 1922 documentary about an Inuit man who was able to transport himself, his wife, two pre-adolescent children, a baby and a puppy in a kayak. Yes, in one kayak.

Perhaps you’ve heard of this man. His name was Allakariallak, but he’s more famously known as Nanook – as in, Of The North.

Nanook of the North is considered to be the first feature-length documentary. It focuses on an Inuit man and his family who lived in the Canadian arctic. This photogenic family allowed a crew to film them while they lived their everyday lives – caring for their children and hunting down food.

(Oh. A word of caution before we continue: If you’re squeamish at the sight of people eating raw, fresh walrus meat, then today’s movie may not be for you. Please proceed immediately to another website and forget we ever had this discussion.)

Director Robert J. Flaherty, who spent months in the harsh arctic climate, has given us a fascinating account of life in the far north. We, as an audience, watch the film slack-jawed and bug-eyed, amazed that people could live – no, thrive – in this environment. These remarkable people endure subzero temperatures for months at a time; they walk for miles to find food; and they always seem to know exactly where they are, even though the landscape all looks the same to us.

And get this! Nanook can build an igloo, complete with an ice-pane window, in an hour! An hour!

Even though this film is considered important and culturally significant – it was one of the first films to be preserved by the United States National Film Registry / Library of Congress – it is not without controversy. As in, Nanook of the North may not be a “real” documentary. Critics say Flaherty staged some of the scenes, and claim that the woman who appeared as Nanook’s wife was actually someone else’s wife. Or maybe Flaherty’s mistress. (It’s all a bit murky. You can read about it here, and then explain it to us.)

Nevertheless, the footage is still riveting. You start to wonder about the film crew themselves. What kinds of problems did the cold weather cause the primitive cameras? And how many times did the glare from the ice wreck once-in-a-lifetime shots?

Then there’s Nanook himself, who became a global celebrity in the 1920s. He is as compelling a character as any on screen. But, sadly, it wasn’t enough to save his life.

Within two years of filming, Nanook was dead. The film says he died of starvation but he may, in fact, have died of tuberculosis. Regardless, it’s a bit eerie to watch a healthy, vigorous Nanook on the screen with the knowledge that time for him was to be soon cut short.

If you want to immerse yourself in a world that is completely different than our own, or if you have an interest in documentaries, we recommend Nanook of the North. We feel it is a film you ought to see at least once.

Nanook of the North: featuring Nanook, Nyla, Allee. Directed by Robert Flaherty. Revillon Frères, B&W, 1922, 78 mins.

Happily blogging about old movies and using the royal "We".

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