Nanook of the North (1922)

Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North is nothing if not a memorable viewing experience. Its position in film history as one of the first documentaries adds weight to the analysis of its techniques: they will recur in every documentary in some form or another, and no new method will emerge which wasn't at least pointed to by Nanook.

Sophisticated viewers of documentaries, or indeed consumers of any media, may pride themselves on being able to take any particular given message and dissect it along several important lines, to determine not only what the intent of the message's creator is, but also what else is being communicated, perhaps by the nature of the medium itself, perhaps by unintended prejudices of the message's creator which have left indelible traces throughout the message, perhaps by powerful symbols contained within which have real impact beyond the scope of the message. The danger of this media-savviness and the absolute necessity of its existence contradict each other: every message must be interpreted in this way to make any kind of sense out of it independent of the message's creator, while at the same time, such an analysis must intentionally or unintentionally substitute cultural and contemporary values and standards upon works which are not susceptible to such judgments. Simply acknowledging the existence of this deficiency in analysis does not make it disappear.

To give a contemporaneous example which may illuminate the pitfalls of this necessary analysis without even the enormous time and cultural lag, Steven Spielberg's historical film Amistad has been subjected to several different major schools of criticism. One establishment interpretation says that Amistad is an important and morally vital part of the healing discussion taking place on the issue of slavery in America. Another major school, also held by many establishment writers, holds that Amistad takes a major episode of African American history and tells it from a white perspective, robbing the historical African figures of a voice in telling their own story. A viewing of the film, which, for example, translates every word that is spoken by Spanish slave-traders while leaving untranslated seemingly important statements by the African characters, substantiates the latter claim. And yet the issue is far from resolved.

In Nanook of the North, viewers are asked to separate some independent reality of Nanook from the stifling bounds of Flaherty's interpretation, imposed by his chosen camera angles, his posing of important passages, and post-production editing and title-card puffery. Indeed, examples such as the reference to "happy-go-lucky Eskimos," Flaherty's ignoring Nanook's other wife, staged walrus and seal hunts, and the absolutely abominable, from today's standpoint, encounter with the gramophone, almost tempt the contemporary viewer to throw up his hands in frustration at ever finding a "documentary truth" in Nanook. Is it now just a historical document of one white American's patronizing attempt to recreate the lives of people who were naive enough to be manipulated into performing a demeaning show about what may or may not have resembled their lives?

Perhaps the Amistad example, though Amistad is a fictional film, may prove instructive here as well. The story is told. As in Nanook, a story is told. Amistad portrays the major events of the Amistad insurrection and subsequent developments. Nanook is actual footage from "Northern Ungava," actual Eskimos on film. What imprisons both is their viewpoint, which insists on taking sides with what Spielberg and Flaherty both seem to have assumed to be an ignorant, white, American audience incapable of relating directly to the subjects of each film. What that does not mean is that there is nothing of value in either film. The story is told. There is a version of truth, and certainly great emotional truth, in each film. There is also a frame, larger than the conclusions of the individual filmmaker, which leaves room for an intelligent reconsideration of the filmmaker's conclusions simply based upon what is there on film. But this reconsideration can only go so far.

Marshall McLuhan, in his Understanding Media, says that the motion picture "offers as product the most magical of consumer commodities, namely dreams....The film viewer sits in psychological solitude like the silent book reader." Nanook of the North, like Amistad, like A Kid in King Arthur's Court, like JFK, like Die Hard: With a Vengeance, is a construct, a vessel to communicate emotional truth. Man vs. nature, the life of a family, survival in the face of hardship, the cunning of a "great hunter"--these are the truths communicated on an emotional level by Nanook. The search for a more complete truth cannot take place in a film. It's self-evident: the only things we know are true about Nanook on a factual level come from research and journalism on the subject which exist separate from the film and the way it works emotionally.


Links for Nanook of the North

Internet Movie Database Entry

Roger Ebert Review

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