Nanook (Allakariallak) and his family (Nyla, Allee, Cunayou, Allegoo) are Inuit, living under some to the harshest conditions you can possibly imagine. But despite the perils and hardships, they master their lives very well.
Nanook of the North is touted as the first feature length documentary and as such it is, of course, a historically important document – even though its documentary-status is questionable. Whether fiction or not, it is interesting to watch though.
Flaherty actually lived with Inuit (he still refers to them as Eskimos) for a while when he had the idea of shooting a documentary about them. After his first film and materials burnt completely in the editing process, he was determined to try again and set out once more. This second film is the film we have today and by today’s standard, some of the core rules for documentary films are broken. It starts with the fact that Nanook isn’t actually Nanook, but played by Allakariallak, and Nanook’s family isn’t Allakariallak’s family. Plus, Flaherty took a rather active part in setting up and staging scenes and even had them build a bigger igloo because in the normal ones, the camera wouldn’t really fit and it was too dark to shoot.
It’s a discussion that filmmakers also face today (eg Ulrich Seidl). But I’m a child of poststructuralism. If you accept that you can’t represent unaltered and unfiltered reality on film anyway, the question of how much was altered and how “real” a documentary is, becomes pretty much irrelevant. Instead of focussing on how true it is, you can ask the question of what truth the film is telling.
And Nanook of the North tells a truth, though it might be more revealing about the way the Western world saw (and to a certain extent certainly still sees) the Inuit rather than how they actually lived. Wenn Flaherty lets Nanook hunt with spears and marvel at a grammophone, despite the fact that spears were outdated already at the time and grammophones known to the Inuit as well, it all serves the grander narrative of a proud, but uncivilized, honorable, but naive people. And that’s the way the West always liked to see the “others”, especially when it tried to be sympathetic towards them.
Nanook of the North is certainly not a neutral look at the culture and way of life of the Inuit at the time, but it is a fascinating historic document that still proves to be insightful – just not quite in the way it intended to be.