Documentary

Nanook of the North

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.

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26 thoughts on “Nanook of the North

    1. In my part of the world, it gets very cold in the winter. If someone dresses in tons of winter layers, someone will ALWAYS say, “Well, if it isn’t Nanook of the North.”

      This really is an interesting film. You almost can’t believe anyone could survive in that environment.

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  1. I’ve heard about this film for years, but was never really interested… until now. What an undertaking this must have been for everyone involved. I suppose I’ll have to bundle up and watch this one soon.

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    1. Yup, make sure you’ve got a big sweater on when you watch this! There’s one scene where Flaherty talks about the frigid weather and how it goes on for “days and days and days”. To his credit, this is the most he complains about the bitter cold.

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  2. I watched Nanook of the North earlier this year, and I too was amazed at how many people could fit into the kayak! I found it beautiful and awe-inspiring, though admittedly problematic for its staging of shots and situations. It makes for a great discussion about documentary’s supposed “truth.”

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    1. Yes, some of the scenes are obviously staged, but still an interesting film nonetheless.

      The kayak! I know, right? I was dumbfounded when more and more people climbed out of it. I would never have thought it possible.

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  3. Ruth, you and SILVER SCREENINGS always have the most fascinating movie blog posts, and your review of NANOOK OF THE NORTH is among your best! I feel sad for the short-lived Nanook; with or without cameras and perhaps a tiny tweak or two to ad more drama, which pretty much most filmmakers do; it’s the overall film and the audiences’ feelings about it that count, if you ask me. Fun Fact: The first time I ever heard of NANOOK OF THE NORTH was on an episode of the Hanna-Barbera cartoon, and my mom explained it to little me! History comes in the funniest places sometimes, doesn’t it? 🙂 You did a wonderful job, pal, as always — BRAVA, and stay warm! 😀

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  4. very interesting, never seen it even though I’ve referenced it so many times and as you say, the concept is very much a part of our everyday life, ha. the other thing is how early in film “reality” was already being manipulated for entertainment. sometimes you think that’s just a modern phenomenon, but no. thanks!

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  5. I read your reply to Sarah and that was how it was when I grew up. Someone bundled up for the coldest of days was “Nanook of the North.” I”d no idea that the appellation was based upon a documentary, and such an important one, at that. Thanks for the heads-up. I really do want to find a copy and watch this.

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  6. I am a Florida girl (currently living in the mountain West). I hate snow, and I can barely tolerate temps below 60 degrees. I am always amazed that people actually love Arctic climates. Knowing my son’s sense of humor, if we watched Nanook, he would turn the thermostat down as low as it could go…just to give us a little taste of the Arctic.

    I don’t have a problem with some of the footage being staged…provided it was an accurate depiction of an act he would have done. It definitely sounds like an interesting piece.

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    1. It’s mind-boggling to see how Nanook & Co. can live in such a cold place and survive. And they all look so healthy! (Must be that walrus meat.)

      Oh boy. If you’re a Florida girl who loves warm temperatures, then you made a great sacrifice indeed to live in the mountain west. Hats off to you, Patti!

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  7. I love that you reviewed this film! It seems like all celebrated documentaries sport a controversy or two and NANOOK is no exception. Still, it was a landmark in documentary films and has become a staple in introductory film classes.

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  8. I had heard the expression “Nanook of the North” when someone is dressed in warm layers, but had no idea where it came from. This sounds so interesting. I agree with Patti that I don’t mind the staging as long as it is based on something he really does. As a person who does not like to be cold, it would probably be painful to watch, but fascinating. I am going to see if I can find this one. Thanks, Ruth!

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    1. Shari, the cold temperatures notwithstanding, I think you`d really enjoy this. It is such a different way of life that it is utterly fascinating. Just make sure you have a warm blanket handy when you watch it! 🙂

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