Nanook of the North

Nanook of the North ★★★★

Nanook of the North is Robert Flaherty’s genuinely pioneering documentary which chronicles the day-to-day struggles of life and other hardships of an Inuk man named Nanook and his family in the Canadian Arctic.

It can sit alongside Merian C. Cooper’s Grass and Flaherty’s follow-up Moana, which offers a poetic look at life in the South Seas; together they represent some of the earliest examples of documentary filmmaking. While Flaherty staged many of its sequences for the convenience of the film, it's generally impressive and persists in being an absorbing saga; his use of non-actors as his protagonists together with the remarkable on-location shooting set the standard for many documentaries to follow. 

Interestingly, this was Flaherty’s second attempt at producing the film. A few years earlier, he shot footage from around the same location, but fire destroyed the highly flammable nitrate film in the cutting room. So on the occasion of this attempt, he packed what could substitute as a portable developing lab to process the film on location together with naturally being much more meticulous during the editing process.

It withstands the test of time quite well, and the drama which emanates from Nanook’s ceaseless crusade against the elements as he merely strives to endure from one day to the next proved to be an enormous commercial success. The finished film was distributed internationally to critical acclaim; ironically, Nanook himself perished from starvation not long after the film was completed.

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