Nanook of the North

Nanook of the North ★★★★

Often referred to as "the first full-length, anthropological documentary in cinematographic history," this docudrama is certainly a classic. As an explorer and prospector for the Canadian Pacific Railway, director Robert J. Flaherty made several trips to Hudson Bay in the Canadian Arctic between 1913 and 1921. That's where he met Allakariallak, the celebrated hunter of the Itivimuit tribe, and decided to record a "year in the life" of an Eskimo family.

From salmon fishing, fox trapping and walrus hunting to how to repair a kayak with seal skin and build an igloo from packed snow, the film gives us great insight into a way of life hardly known in the early 20th century and fast-disappearing a hundred years later. We see the close relationship of the Inuit people to their environment, their dogs and their rudimentary tools, such as knives and harpoons made of bone or tusk. We also get a feel for the harsh reality of winter in a barren land of snow and ice, where survival is a day-to-day challenge.

Of course, we now know that Flaherty staged many of the scenes he shot. For example, he apparently asked the tribe to use older weapons in place of the guns they would normally carry for hunting. The director also created fictional characters, including Allakariallak as Nanook "the Bear" along with the two women who represent his wives Nyla and Cunayou; they were actually Flaherty's own mistresses at the time.

Nevertheless, if we watch the film as an experiment in cinematic expression, it really is quite phenomenal, especially for 1922. It makes us feel empathy. We laugh, we fear. We are curious, we are surprised, we are transported. And any film with the ability to arouse such powerful responses deserves all the praise it has ever received. Let the haters hate, but this is a wonderful piece of movie heritage.

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