First Documentary Essay
Robert Flaherty’s classic film tells the story of Inuit hunter Nanook and his family as they struggle to survive in the harsh conditions of Canada’s Hudson Bay region. I’d say that the vast majority of footage is staged, in the sense that Flaherty told the actors what to do in order to fit the frame. Yet there is a weird authenticity to what Flaherty ends up with, probably because of all the stories and local culture he had absorbed in the months preceding. Flaherty’s aim was to document a way of life, not a series of incidents that happened to occur while his camera was on.
He represents his subject to the audience, portraying staged events as real but on the other hand, the theme is the battle of humans against nature and the fight for survival in a hostile environment. Although the film is only showing a few people, it can be seen as an exploration of the world of a different people and their culture. Much of the action was staged and gives an inaccurate view of real Inuit life during the early 20th century. Nanook was in fact named Allakariallak, for instance, while the wife shown in the film was not really his wife.
And although Allakariallak normally used a gun when hunting, Flaherty encouraged him to hunt after the fashion of his ancestors in order to capture what was believed to be the way the Inuit lived before European influence. The most impressive characteristic in his way of filming is how he spent a few months in the Arctic to record the daily life of the Eskimo, Nanook and his family on camera (the hunting, fishing, building of igloos, fur-trading, child care, and the sleigh-dogs).
Its dramaturgic and narrative sophistication is by showing the daily life of Nanook and his family, Flaherty avoids a reserved or distanced position from the protagonists and allows for the audience to identify with them, although they are exotic primitives, Flaherty’s Eskimos are acting subject, no ethnographical objects . Additionally, Flaherty did not show any signs of the clumsiness of a beginner in his cinematographic abilities. Not only did he know how to take good pictures, he also knew how to tell stories with them.
He used long takes mainly, which are realized by a motionless position of the camera (with only a few pans) and the action is caught mainly using a medium close-up distance of framing. Like his models, Flaherty used a linear narrative in chronological order, mostly unedited and story-lines are not resolved. Also, following their fashion, he used dramatic effects by restricting the view with the camera to create suspense; by letting pictures run through the frame slowly, disclosing their meaning and purpose only gradually.
A good example for this is the opening sequence, introducing the dramatis personae: Nanook and his family, Nyla, his wife with the youngest baby on her arms, the children Allee, Cunayou, and Comock, and the husky. This way of filming expresses the exploration of the world of a different people and their culture. We see the hunters creeping inch by inch upon a herd of slumbering walruses, and then Nanook springing up and harpooning one, and then a fierce struggle in which the mate of the walrus joins the battle. Such scenes simplify Inuit life to its most basic reality.
In this land the only food comes from other animals, which must be hunted and killed. Everything the family uses; its food, fuel, clothing and tools, comes in some way from those animals, except for the knives and perhaps harpoon points, which they obtain at a trading post. The effects created here is the fact that a lot of the action in Nanook was initiated by the Eskimos themselves, such as the walrus hunt. This becomes clear during the take in which a fur-trader attempts to entertain Nanook with a gramophone.
Nanook plays the simple-minded wild man who uses his teeth to check how the white man conserves his voice on a record. The other example, is during the he construction of an igloo. Nanook and his friends carve big blocks of snow and stack them in a circle, carving new ones from the floor so that it sinks as the walls rise and curve inward to form a dome. Then he finds sheets of ice, cuts holes in the igloo walls, and inserts the ice to make windows. There is another igloo, a smaller one, for the dogs.
And inside the big igloo, the tiniest igloo of all, for puppies, which the big dogs would quickly eat. Conclusions Although the story of Nanook’s family is unscripted, Flaherty approached them with a preconceived idea of what he would film. Accounting for decisions about what would and would not be filmed, the notion that he has captured real life becomes vague. The Eskimos look directly at the camera, aware that they are being filmed. Flaherty even brought film processing equipment with him, so he could develop and view the reels as he shot them.
The Eskimos viewed the reels as well and understood what was going on. Furthermore, Flaherty intended to create a feature film, as features were popular in theaters at the time. He included aspects of features in his work such as dramatic narrative, characters with personalities, conflicts and resolutions. At 79 minutes, it was considered feature length at the time. He simply chose to use unscripted, uncostumed non-actors in a natural setting. References Robert Flaherty. Nanook of the North: A story of life and love in the actual arctic.
University/College: University of Arkansas System
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 28 November 2016
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