Arguably the most famous film ever shot in Canada, Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North was first shown to the public 90 years ago in New York City and then around the world in the summer of 1922. It caused an immediate sensation with its real-life depiction of the people and their struggle to survive the harsh landscape of Canada’s Far North. The film went on to exert considerable influence on the development of documentary films worldwide, although the word “documentary” was not in use when the film was made. It came later, in 1926, when Scottish film critic John Grierson, the man who would go on to create the National Film Board of Canada in 1939, coined the word to describe Moana of the South Seas, another Flaherty film.
Nanook of the North is an important cinematic milestone. The sensitivity of its director and his selection and arrangement of material made the film utterly different from, and far superior to, the travelogues of its day. Flaherty was the first to successfully combine documentary footage with the art of storytelling in cinema. The man who played Nanook (whose real name was Allakariallak) became internationally famous to the extent that when he died two years after the shoot, his obituary ran in newspapers worldwide. In 1989, when the U.S. Library of Congress began preserving “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” films in a National Film Registry, Nanook of the North was among the first 25 to be chosen.
Technically, Nanook of the North is not a Canadian film, although in spirit it certainly is. The American-born explorer and anthropologist Robert Joseph Flaherty (1884-1951), who was educated at Toronto’s prestigious Upper Canada College, spent six years (between 1910 and 1916) exploring northern Canada on behalf of Sir William Mackenzie, the wealthy railway tycoon and entrepreneur. On one of those expeditions, he travelled to the barren lands of the hitherto unexplored Ungava peninsula, on the eastern shores of Hudson Bay. That trip culminated in the discovery of the Belcher Islands archipelago in the Bay. At the insistence of Sir William, Flaherty took along a Bell & Howell camera and filmed nearly 3,000 feet, but while editing the footage back in Toronto it was destroyed in a fire caused by a careless cigarette butt. Fortunately, Flaherty preserved a rough cut, which he used to attract investors to a much bigger project he had in mind.
The French Révillon Frères fur trading company, founded in 1723 and the main rival of the British Hudson’s Bay Company, had built a post at Port Harrison (now Inukjuak) in the early part of the 20th century. On August 15, 1920, Flaherty arrived to shoot his film. Determined to do it right this time, he brought with him a professional team and two cameras. His equipment included a generator, developing equipment and a projector. He and his crew lived in an attached cabin to the trading post. In the notes from his 1922 journal, “How I Filmed Nanook of the North,” Flaherty wrote, “The resources of Révillon Frères fur trade post were at my disposal. One of the two living quarters, which comprised the Post, was mine as living quarters and film laboratory combined. My equipment included 75,000 feet of film, a Haulberg electric light plant and projector and two Akeley cameras and a printing machine so that I could make prints of film as it was exposed. This also meant their wives and families, dogs to the number of about twenty-five, their sledges, kayaks, and hunting impedimenta.”
In Inuit mythology, Nanook is the Master of Bears, the one who decides if hunters deserve success in finding and hunting them. The gregarious Nanook was chosen as a film subject because he was the best hunter in the district. But the two women playing his wives, Nyla and Cunayou, were not his, and the children – a small boy named Allee, and a baby, Rainbow, four months old – were not his children.
This fabrication goes to the heart of the most persistent criticism of the film – that Flaherty staged many of the scenes of Inuit life. One of the film’s famous sequences shows the construction of an igloo. When it came to shooting inside the structure, a second igloo had to be built with a wall removed to accommodate the camera and operator. Another equally famous scene is the seal hunt, with Nanook patiently standing over a hole in the ice with his spear ready to strike. Watching the film, it’s evident that this scene was also staged, as close viewing of the cuts makes it obvious.
It is worth noting, however, in Flaherty’s defense, that filmmaking equipment in 1920 was heavy and cumbersome. The film is not technically sophisticated, but it has a palpable authenticity that prevails over any complaints of staging. Flaherty’s first footage was of a walrus hunt on the Belcher Islands. We see the hunters creeping inch by inch upon a herd of slumbering walruses – all in one take, no cuts. Then, Nanook springs up and harpoons one – again all in one take – and a fierce struggle continues for at least 20 minutes in which the mate of the huge beast joins the battle. Behind the camera, Flaherty’s crew feared for Allakariallak’s life and urged Flaherty to use a rifle to finish off the walrus. He resisted and kept the camera rolling, creating one of the most acclaimed sequences in all of silent cinema.
Nanook’s legacy continues to this day. In 1999, the film was re-mastered and released on DVD. It can also be found on YouTube, and in 1994 saw the release of Kabloonak, a Canada/France co-production starring Charles Dance as Flaherty and Adamie Quasiak Inukpuk, a relative of Allakariallak, as Nanook. The largest island in the Belcher archipelago, the southern most part of present-day Nunavut, is known as Flaherty Island, and the Canadian Armed Forces’ annual Arctic training exercise, now in its 12th year, is known as Operation Nanook.