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Through the everyday life of one family, Nanook of the North typifies Eskimo life in the Arctic; it uses a number of sequences that demonstrate Inuit ingenuity and adaptability in one of the world's harshest climates. Flaherty filmed his documentary during the years 1920-1921 on the eastern shore of Hudson Bay's Ungava Peninsula. He brought with him a Carl Akeley gyroscope camera which required minimum lubrication in cold climates to facilitate pans and tilts; Flaherty was something of a pioneer in the camera's use. He also brought along printing equipment to process and develop the film on location and a portable theater to involve the Eskimos more intimately in the film's production, to enable them to understand its purpose.
Despite the license that Flaherty took in portraying some events and conditions, the film's most important feature was its very basis in reality. Nanook and his family were real persons who reenacted their lives before Flaherty's camera. Not to be confused with cinema verité, Flaherty carefully selected his ''cast'' and directed them to ''play'' their own roles and to carry out tasks that would demonstrate to the outside world how they conducted their lives. Through a careful selection of details, Flaherty succeeded in conveying the drama, the struggle, underlying their daily existence.
Nanook was a significant departure both from the fiction and nonfiction films that preceded it. It departs from fiction because it lacks a plot or story. The background comes to the fore. Man's struggle to survive in this bleak environment becomes an inseparable part of the film's dramatic development. Its photographic detail was also far superior to other films of actuality. The film departs from nonfiction, newsreels and other actualities, in its narrative editing (for 1922), its ability to tell a story through images, and its use of the shot as the basis of a sequence. The film provides detailed pictorial information of the environment, narrative structure, and the filmmaker's art with its implicit emotive statement.
Nanook is a reflection of Flaherty's life-long interest in the interaction of diverse cultures. To be sure, Flaherty wanted to give the outside world a glimpse of Eskimo life as he had experienced it during his years as an explorer, surveyor, and prospector in the lower Arctic region. However, he also wanted to capture on film a way of life threatened by encroaching civilization. Nanook, like other Flaherty films, is not depicted in a particular historical setting or context; the timeless appearance was deliberate. He also wanted to capture the Eskimos' essential nobility, to portray them as they saw themselves.
The building of the igloo sequences serves to illustrate Flaherty's technique. Detail upon detail demonstrates Nanook's amazing ingenuity. He builds a shelter out of ice and snow. The sequence is not overexplained. The audience is left to discover each new step and its significance—such as the way in which the translucent block of ice is used as a window. What perhaps has sparked the most discussion is Flaherty's shooting of the interior shots inside the igloo. Restricted to camera negative stock with relatively slow speed or slow sensitivity to light, he had an igloo constructed to twice the average size with half of it cut away to permit sunlight to brighten the scene. The Nanook family goes to sleep during the day for the benefit of Flaherty's camera. This sequence illustrates Flaherty's dictum that sometimes it is necessary to exaggerate reality in order to capture its real essence.
Professor Frances Taylor Patterson of Columbia University was one of the first to recognize the documentary value of Nanook. It differed from travel exotica, she wrote, because it did not wander but used one location and one hunter to present an entire culture. Later in the decade some writers criticized Nanook for lack of authenticity. However, most modern writers have been delighted with the film's emotive powers which have made audiences identify with the fundamental struggle to survive with all its sociological and philosophical implications.
Nanook, opening to rave reviews, almost immediately was considered one of the greatest films of all times; it quickly received worldwide distribution. Robert Sherwood, for example, called it ''literally in a class by itself.'' No one called it a documentary, though, until as a result of the release of Moana (1926) and the writings of John Grierson, parallels could be seen in Flaherty's work. They became the foundation for the development of documentary film as an art form and as a new filmic sensibility. It is perhaps Edmund Carpenter, the cultural anthropologist, who best elucidated Nanook of the North and Flaherty's work in general by noting a relationship between this film and Eskimo art. To the Eskimo, he wrote, the creation of art is ''an act of seeing and expressing life's values; it's a ritual of discovery by which patterns of nature and of human nature are revealed by man.'' The drama of daily existence in the North is not imposed from the outside but discovered by exploration, a process that takes into account the natural environment and a philosophy of life.
Nanook remains the most enduring of all Flaherty's films for its simplicity of purpose, structure, and design. It ennobles its subjects rather than exploits them. It relies on a few well-developed sequences. The images, sharp and uncluttered, are still memorable.
—William T. Murphy
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