Blindspot: “Nanook of the North: A Story of Life and Love in the Actual Arctic”

April 29, 2015 § Leave a comment

If anyone has ever wondered how on earth one constructs an igloo, they should be directed to Robert J. Flaherty’s 1927 proto-documentary, a film which will rectify this knowledge gap while magnifying the sense of wonder that this level of craftsmanship deserves. Watching the titular Nanook, the patriarch of a small Inuit family living in the Ungava peninsula of Quebec, Canada, gracefully slicing bricks of snow until they fall into place to create a marvellous snow dome (which he crowns with an ice window, almost showing off by this point) feels surprisingly revelatory; especially considering this film is an 80-year old bona fide landmark of silent cinema whose impact should surely diminish with age, surely. “Nanook of the North” is – to recycle the word once again – wondrous on various levels, not least for the industriousness displayed by Nanook, his family and the few others who have honed (perhaps without choice) the kind of skill and resilience required to survive year-round sub-zero temperatures, single-handedly slay polar bears and finding a version of ‘home’ in the midst of unforgiving desolation. In fact, Flaherty’s picture may be enough to convince some short-sighted fool that living in the arctic isn’t so bad (or, at least, not so hard) and this is partly because of how warm-hearted, sincere and genuinely happy Nanook, Aye his wife (or one of two, it sometimes seems) and their fellow Itivimuits appear to be as they go about their business of hunting, trading pelts and being generally nomadic. In fact, the film’s main conflict (apart from that which exists between man and his natural surroundings) occurs when two dogs in Nanook’s sled pack become quite snappy with each other.  As for Flaherty as a filmmaker, the practicalities of shooting this picture with early (which is to say, not particularly compact) film technology in a relatively uncontrolled environment (apart from the handful of scenes shot within the igloo which look suspiciously more spacious than one would expect i.e. shot in some sort of studio) is technically impressive, and would be in any instance let alone a feature debut.

The term ‘verite’ is often bandied about when “Nanook of the North” is mentioned in the context of the documentary lineage and this film’s place within it. While “Nanook” very deftly eliminates – whether inadvertently or with intent – the confected veneer of commercial studio films from the period, it’s not a Frederick Wiseman film void of narration or extra-diegetic interferences other than editing. Flaherty himself is present in the film in the form of title cards, as an omnipresent observer and guide, and he constructs something of a loose, schematic narrative within which to frame the lives of Nanook and his clan. In addition, the simplistic beauty of Flaherty’s photography, while being staged and artful in a mythical, John Ford kind of way, only serves to highlight the subject of the image and not just the poetry of the image itself. But even more impressive, perhaps, is the light touch with which Flaherty handles ethnography: the relative absence of western condescension or exoticism for the sake of commercial draw. For a film made in a period during which casual racism was somewhat more openly institutionalised than it is now, Flaherty displays a seemingly unprecedented degree of respect for the Inuit way of life and there is little evidence of him making a case for the ‘otherness’ of Nanook and his kin, despite the (now)outdated use of the term ‘eskimo’ and the instance in which Nanook – and by association, his fellow Inuit – is characterised as ‘happy-go-lucky’ and ‘simple.’ Despite these regrettable inclusions, “Nanook of the North” remains impressible progressive in its sociocultural outlook. Besides, after witnessing Nanook and Co at work and at play, making a case for their inferiority would take a little more effort than the word ‘simple’.

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