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100 years ago, the world’s first documentary, Nanook of the North, shared life in the arctic with the rest of the world

Although some elements of this movie are fictional, it is a vivid representation of the Inuit way of life prior to European contact.

 Robert J Flaherty, an American filmmaker, was destined to capture the life of an Inuit family of five in Ungava, Canada in the early 1920s. The silent film was made to educate people about the rugged terrain that as few as 3000 people live on. Although some elements of this movie are fictional, it is a vivid representation of the Inuit way of life prior to contact with Europeans. Although the film’s central figure actually hunted with a gun in his daily life, the viewers are presented with ancient strategies of acquiring food and other goods to help the group survive. The film was first shown to audiences on June 11, 1922  in New York City and all around the world later that year.

 When Nanook of the North was made, there was no such thing as a documentary film. Dean Duncan, writing for the Criterion Collection, says that Flaherty did not set out to document reality, but since he assembled his narrative out of so much real material, the result is a detailed portrait of life in the arctic, even though it has been fictionalized, notably by removing all traces of European clothing and tools.. 

The narrative shows a loving family of five that hunts and travels together in the barren landscape struggling to survive but are still able to make the most of it. We watch their journey of everyday life in the freezing north. The movie was filmed on two cameras and occupied thirty thousand feet of film. It took one year to film and two years to edit, all done by Flagerty.

After eating, the family packs what’s left of the animal on a sled and they pull it through the icy landscape. After searching for the ice house for hours the family decides to build an igloo to stay in for the night. Nanook quickly creates an igloo that the whole family can sleep in. The igloo has to stay below freezing or it could start melting.

After returning home, Nanook goes out seal hunting again. He finds a small hole in the ice and spears the seal. He fights with the animal until his family comes to help. Although this scene was staged, it brought humor into the movie. In one clip, Nanook fights with the line attached to the seal and sits down and he immediately gets pulled back to the hole. The scene was staged with his friends on the other side of the ice pulling and fighting Nanook.  

Flagerty was an American filmmaker. He started in photography but sold all of his still cameras to have the money to film Nanook of the North. He did not regret that decision after the fame the film received.

30,000 feet of film was taken out of the arctic. Flaherty used two Akely cameras and a Halburg electric light plant, projector and printing machine.

While editing the film in Toronto, Flaherty was smoking a cigarette and some ash landed on a pile of film causing it to burn so he lost some footage. Flaherty said, “ hough it seemed to be a tragedy at the time, I am not sure but what it was a bit of fortune that it did burn, for it was amateurish enough.”

The 1922 documentary is still stands as one of the most famous films ever made, and marks the beginning of “documentary” film, however, Flaherty staged many parts of the movie, including the characters. Nanooks real name is Allakariallak and the two women who portrayed his wives were not. The group is seen using harpoons but they would have been using rifles if the cameras weren’t there. While Nanook was fighting a seal he has just spears, Nanook yells for Flagetry to use the rifle and shoot the angered seal but Flaherty pretends not to hear Nanook and kept the cameras rolling. 

“Sometimes you have to lie to tell the truth,” Flaherty said.

Image Credit: Nanook of the North / Robert J Faherty

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