An essay about Robert Flaherty

An abridged version of this essay appears in the Criterion Collection’s 1999 dvd release of Nanook of the North.

The entire essay can also be found in The Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film, ed. Ian Aitken, Routledge, 2005.

Nanook of the North, by Robert Flaherty (US, 1922)

Nanook of the North, by Robert Flaherty, is the seminal work in the field of documentary film, and one of the most important productions in motion picture history. Hailed upon its 1922 release as an aesthetic (and anthropological) triumph, as well as being a considerable box office success, its success opened up a whole range of new cinematic possibilities.  Since then it has continued to be a touchstone and an inspiration for film pioneers and plain practitioners alike.  It may be said withjustice that “Nanook” changed permanently the way that we look at the world.

“Nanook’s” importance is undeniable, but its influence is not universally appreciated.  As time has passed and the film’s stature and influence have increased, so too have the controversies attached to it.  Concerns about its non-fiction status, doubts regarding Flaherty’s method, questions about its sensitivity to indigenous realities; all are subjects of hot debate.  “Nanook” continues to be set about by advocates and detractors both, and it is had for good or ill across the entire cultural spectrum.

This furor underlines the subject’s abiding importance: the film and its maker, in both strength and shortcoming, embodied their time.  And the subject’s relevance and even urgency remain, because discussions on Flaherty and “Nanook” continue to inform and be emblematic of our own time as well.

Flaherty was born in Michigan in 1884.  During his youth his family lived a nomadic existence, much of it in Canada, where they passed from mining camp to mining camp with their engineer father.  Flaherty frequently went along on lengthy prospecting expeditions, learning by example the outdoor arts and observing the conditions of northern life.

Much of Flaherty’s practical education was received from native teachers, expeditionary guides whose wisdom and facility he came to admire.  He also came to realize that this cultural wisdom was being encroached upon and endangered by incursions of European culture and commerce.  Flaherty came of age, and became a mining engineer in his own right.  He also grew more and more aware of his paradoxical position.  As an explorer in the north he represented a vanguard, bringing advantages of trade and technology to needy and isolated communities.  Simultaneously, he was also the agent for irreversible change, as pressures of integration and modernization forced out old ways that were, for all the disregard of white sensibilities, frequently artful and abundant.

This conflict eventually led Flaherty, an agent of destruction, to become the chronicler of that which he destroyed.  In 1910 he was hired by Sir William Mackenzie to prospect the vast area east of the Hudson Bay for its railway and mineral potential.  Over the course of several years and through four lengthy expeditions Flaherty had frequent contact with the region’s Inuit people.  As before, Flaherty found himself to be an appreciative beneficiary of native craft.  He was taken by the Inuit’s traditional survival skills, so striking and artful as to reveal a positive abundance in the Arctic’s apparent bare subsistence.  He knew these things to be vulnerable.  With a vague inclination to preserve and somehow to share, on one of his expeditions he brought a motion picture camera along.

In tracing his transition from engineer to ethnographer, it has proven easy to exaggerate the uniqueness of Flaherty’s aims and accomplishments, as well as the seriousness of his shortcomings.  A more human sized appreciation of the man and his work comes in considering the contexts out of which he emerged, and the long cultural process at the end of which a fine, flawed man, as well as his great film stand as both embodiment and culmination.

Far from emerging out of the nothing, Nanook of the North was in fact a very long time coming.  Its rejection of the corrupt artifices of man-made culture, its idealized portrayal of noble natural states as repositories of truth and goodness have many influential precedents.  The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are full, literarily and in fact, of mingled disgust with and flights from cultural corruption, full of a yearning for something better.  Robinson Crusoe, Lemuel Gulliver, Rousseau’s Emile (together with his powerful discourses on inequality, and on the moral effects of the arts and sciences), Voltaire’s Candide, are some of the most noted of many, and all reflect these common sentiments.

Of course the problem with some of these conceptual flights was the way that ideals collided with the real.  High-flown prescriptions were often difficult to fill in any practical way; “the noble savage” clashed uncomfortably with the actual facts of indigenous lives.  More tellingly, the search for a reconciliation with things natural was laid over a more prevalent pattern of conquest and colonization.  Where there was nobility in “savage” lives, this colonial influence seemed by definition to eliminate it, or at best to so change conditions that a kind of nostalgic shadow was all that remained.

Still, though for years colonizers carried native trophies home as symbols of conquest, while deaths like Captain Cook’s insured a degree of take-no-prisoners antagonism between old and new worlds, there were also gentler meetings.  The improvement was due partly to a sensitizing in Europe and the Americas.  Rousseau (again) and early Romanticism, the American and French revolutions, the writings of Burns and Wordsworth, of Mill, Ruskin and Morris, and many other things besides alerted people to the importance of craftsmanship, small forms, everyday experience, and of mutual appreciation between common folk.

And these were precisely the things that some sensitive people started to find in native societies, and in native communities.  In many places, and by various means, painters like George Catlin, Paul Kane, Paul Gauguin, writers ranging from Herman Melville (Typee) to Robert Louis Stevenson (Ebb Tide, The Beach at Falésa) and Rudyard Kipling (Kim), even the odd colonial citizen, all began to paint and see more accurate, nuanced representations of native lives, filled with documentary details that revealed not just romantic generalizations, but the pace and processes of their existence.  From such details came increased understanding and appreciation, and the enlightening idea that natives were not just exotic products of a colonial age, but that native life could be a source of insight, beauty and humanity.

Given the remoteness of his upbringing, it is quite likely that Flaherty was not much aware of these precedents.  But conscious or not, Flaherty’s work reveals him to be a locus for the age’s aspirations and complications.

Flaherty inherited the sensibilities and interests of his age, and his work is a key point in the cultural continuum tracing the interaction of Europeans and natives of colour.  At one end of that continuum there is suspicion and ignorance and exploitation.  At the time “Nanook” was released, the other end had not been so fully contemplated, and certainly not in films.  In this context, the exalted reputation of Nanook of the North, much disputed and denied in more recent years, is complicatedly but indubitably justified.

“Nanook” was not intended as a documentary, a genre which not even been defined at the time of the film’s production.  As Flaherty’s wife Frances would later affirm, the film was made with an eye to commercial distribution and exhibition, and it was made for audiences that were accustomed to narrative fiction films.  Flaherty was not an ethnographer, but he was building his story out of the materials of real life.  In this he was breaking cinematic trails, and even though the tenets of anthropological filmmaking were not nearly in place, in retrospect it is remarkable how much he still managed to get right.

Flaherty had spent a good part of the last ten years with the Inuit, and so had more than a dabbler’s stake in their lives.  And yet he did not only depend on his own experience alone.  In “Nanook” Flaherty developed each day’s footage and screened it for the film’s participants, who were encouraged to make suggestions.  Since the Inuit were the authorities on their own lives, many of these suggestions were incorporated into the film.  This practice would later become a fundamental part of ethnographic etiquette.

Consistent with this substantial artistic collaboration, and contrary to a narrative and stylistic impulse that would prevail elsewhere for many more years, Flaherty does not intrude on his subject.  He is not the star of his film, and though his effaced presence causes a few unsightly wrinkles (unfortunate contrivances—like Nanook’s biting of the phonograph record—are perceived as actual and natural), for the most part it means that the credit for the film’s feats of courage and grace go precisely where they belong: to the Inuit.  If “Nanook” is Flaherty’s film, then it is his in collaboration with its subjects, who emerge as almost wholly admirable.

In ethnographic matters “Nanook” began a trend that has pushed and enhanced documentary ever since.  Its progress is seen in the Griersonian documentary, in the National Film Board of Canada’s Faces of Canada series, in films like Jean Rouch’s Moi, un Noir, in the NFB’s Challenge for Change series, and in the work of all the ethnic filmmakers who eventually managed to wrest the means of production and distribution away from power.  That trend would eventually enable the indigenous to tell his own story, to his own community as well as to the outsider, leading to a greater hope for mutual comprehension, cinematically and in unmediated social interaction.

Commentary has keyed on the film’s place in a trajectory of ethnic relations and representations, but Nanook of the North is also important for a contribution that crosses borders and reduces divisions.  In its earliest years (1895-1902) film production was dominated by actualities, short pictures of actual people in actual places.  These films favoured a largely unmediated view of the world over arranged spectacle, and though they gave place in popularity to the narrative fictions of the likes of Georges Melies and Edwin Porter, they continued to be produced in great number.

However, there was a reason for their commercial eclipse.  The early actuality basically evolved into two types of film production, both valuable and yet both somewhat lacking.  The first category, the travelogue, took the viewer to faraway places with strange sounding names.  There was an inherent appeal in the journey, but the spectator’s visit seldom provided more than a superficial glimpse of the picturesque.

A second type of actuality film flourished, for the most part, in Britain.  These were more substantial portraits of industrial processes—also valuable for the way they revealed the rhythms of workers’ lives, the conditions of their labour, and the superb skill that in some ways shone through the difficult conditions.  However, given the escapist impulses that already held audiences in thrall, the commercial appeal of these industrial films was limited.

Robert Flaherty’s great innovation, probably most clearly and successfully articulated in Nanook of the North, was simply to combine the two forms of actuality, infusing the exotic journey with the details of indigenous work and play and life.  By so doing Flaherty transcended the travelogue, as now the picturesque became a real and respectful portrait.

That portrait contained two things that remain, even today, at the very core of the documentary idea.  These are process and duration, or the detailed representation of how our everyday things are done (burning moss for fuel, covering a kayak, negotiating ice floes, hunting, caring for our children, etc.), and how long the doing takes.  In “Nanook” this combination leads to a number of lovely moments, most particularly in its stunning igloo sequence.  Here labour is not only revealed in its social context, but emerges, through Nanook’s skill and Flaherty’s cinematic sensitivity, as an ideal of beauty and even spirituality.  First there is shelter, then warmth, and finally light (the window!); here and elsewhere, by giving real processes a human dimension, craftsmanship and artistry, life and enactment and representation, become one.

Nanook of the North pioneered these ideas, and it remains exemplary in the way it executes them.  The profundity of process and duration in the documentary film is in the way that they can replace alienating fantasy (as in much Hollywood melodrama) with empowering reality.  If cinematic escape, or rather escapism, which makes an occasional respite into a life’s strategy, can take the spectator from and make her despise her own realities, then these documentary ideas can reveal the banal everyday as being full of drama and beauty.

“Nanook” is a film of great beauty and accomplishment, but it contains difficulties as well.  Many of these relate to its perceived documentary claims.  Flaherty’s film is full of faking and fudging, in one form or another.

The family at the film’s centre was not really a family.  These were photogenic Inuit, cast and paid to play these roles.  The characters’ seemingly authentic clothing was actually a nostalgic hybrid; the Inuit had started to integrate western wear some time previously.  This integration was in fact quite general: igloos were giving way to southern building materials, many harpoons had been replaced by rifles, many kayak paddles by motors.

Given that all this was true, observers (starting with John Grierson) would come to accuse Flaherty of ignoring contemporary realities and real crises (cultural integration, unemployment, various modern social ills), in favour of romances which were, for all their documentary value, irrelevant.  (This complaint would be applied even more vigourously to some of Flaherty’s later films—i.e., Moana, 1926, Man of Aran, 1934.)

Other fabrications have caused more serious concern on social and even ethical grounds.  The seal that appears to be engaging Nanook in a delightful tug of war is actually dead; Nanook is in fact being pulled around by some friends who are at the other end of the rope, standing just off camera.  During the famous walrus hunt the hunters desperately asked Flaherty to stop shooting the camera and start shooting the rifle.  For his part, Flaherty pretended not to hear, and kept filming until the prey was taken in the old way.  (It might be added that this celebrated sequence is rendered in fragments, and not quite coherently.  On the other hand, this affirms that, however contrived the preparations, the event itself, to use a perilous word, is real.)  A failed bear hunt (not appearing in the film, but related in Flaherty’s northern memoir, My Eskimo Friends) left its participants, Flaherty included, stranded and nearly starving for weeks.

What, then, given all of these contradictions, do we make of the man, and of this work?  Flaherty’s shortcomings, as well as those of his films, are certain, and they should be acknowledged.  However, it is fair to point out that, with regard to endangerments for the film’s sake, Flaherty exposes the Inuit to difficulties that are well within the realm of their traditional experience.  As for stereotyping, if “Nanook” is not quite the perfect ideal of cultural comprehension, it still stands as a remarkable plateau, especially given the surrounding contemporary landscape.

Coming after Flaherty, the quasi-ethnographic documentaries of future King Kong producers Merian Cooper and Ernest Shoedsack either emphasize the intrepidity of their American participants (Grass, 1925), or skimp on process and duration in favour of ornamental indigenousness and Hollywood razzle dazzle (cf. Chang [1927]).  Or, compare these delightful sort-of documentaries with the contemporaneous productions of Martin and Osa Johnson (Simba, 1928, Congorilla, 1929; also featured in Ken Jacobs’ 2004 compilation, Star Spangled to Death), whose expeditionary films patronized their native subjects as they extolled the wisdom of their makers.

Given all of this, Flaherty emerges as a pretty admirable figure.  He appears even more admirable when we consider his own motivations and proclaimed goals.  Firstly, it may be repeated that partial inaccuracies and manipulations were, at least in “Nanook,” the result of a scramble against time.  Ancient traditions were jeopardized, and Flaherty’s sincere desire was to preserve a sense of them before it was too late.

A second point provides a small indemnification in the face of the mixed or even hostile feelings that Nanook of the North has engendered.  When confronted with the documentary shortcomings of his last film, Flaherty would emphasize its title, which was of course Louisiana Story.  Similarly, “Nanook’s” original subtitle is: “A story of life and love in the actual arctic.”  In making this film, Flaherty was celebrating his friends’ culture, selling a product, and telling a story.  From first to last he never claimed differently.

With and because of all of its rich contradictions, Nanook of the North holds a central place in the history of documentary film.  It has become a healthily skeptical truism that fiction documents while documentaries invent and frequently manipulate, for all, or in contrast to their truth claims.  “Nanook,” uniquely, complicatedly, wonderfully, does both.  Its strong documentary elements are set in a fine romantic story, and its romance is made profound by the loving detail which decorates and humanizes it.

Flaherty’s great film has the pretty simplicity of a children’s story, with all of that form’s virtues and dangers and reassurances.  It is stunningly photographed, with Flaherty’s compositions evoking the mystery and harmony of Inuit art and sculpture.  It reflects profoundly not only upon colonial impulse, but also upon our mortality and our humanity.  Mortality and humanity are affectingly considered; the contingency and vulnerability of northern life make the human interactions in this film—“to be a great hunter like his father”—all the more tender and poignant.  Nanook of the North is a product of its time, a set of cautions for our own, and in the final account, a document for all time.

Further Reading:

Barnouw, Erik, Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film. New York, Oxford University Press, 1974.  Revised 1983, 1993.

Barsam, Richard, The Vision of Robert Flaherty: The Artist as Myth and Filmmaker. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1988.

Berton, Pierre, The Mysterious North: Encounters with the Canadian Frontier, 1947-54. Toronto, McLelland and Stewart, 1989.

Brownlow, Kevin, The War, the West and the Wilderness. New York, Knopf, 1979.

Calder-Marshall, Arthur, The Innocent Eye: The Life of Robert J. Flaherty. London, W.H. Allen, 1963.

Carpenter, Edmund, Eskimo. Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1959.

Danzker, Jo-Anne Birnie (ed.), Robert Flaherty, Photographer/Filmmaker, The Inuit, 1910-1922. Vancouver, Vancouver Art Gallery, 1979.

Flaherty, Frances Hubbard, The Odyssey of a Film-Maker: Robert Flaherty’s Story. Putney, VT, Threshold Books, 1984.

Flaherty, Robert, My Eskimo Friends. Garden City, NY, Doubleday, 1924.

Griffith, Richard, The World of Robert Flaherty. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1953.

Rotha, Paul, Robert J. Flaherty: A Biography, ed. Jay Ruby. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.


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