Review of Nanook of the North (1922)

Moving picture, 78 minutes

The first documentary for the purpose of “salvage ethnography”, literally creating a document of a threatened way of life.

It took Robert J. Flaherty some 8 or 9 years to make a film about the natives of the Canadian Arctic and then get it distributed. In Documentary (1974/1983), Erik Barnouw provides a vivid account of its creation, as the main subject of his chapter on the documentary filmmaker as explorer.

It started with increasingly interested filming on 1914 and 1915 expeditions for minerals, continued with the accidental explosive destruction of an entire negative in 1916—landing Flaherty in a hospital—and years of fundraising to remake it with a “thread”, a coherent narrative. The result was not a documentary in the basic observational sense of the very earliest works, like “L’arrivée d’un train à la Ciotat” (1896). Much in Nanook is clearly staged with the methods of the fiction film, but staged for the purpose of conveying the reality in the idiom of the screen. One of the first words Flaherty learned from his subjects was the one for “again”. Barnouw speculates that Nanook himself, already ill during the filming, suggested and participated in daredevil maneuvers because he knew he would soon be dead, and wanted a record of his people’s way of life. Perhaps.

Five big US studios screened the finished work for possible distribution and rejected it. It wasn’t what Paramount was already selling. As Barnouw puts it, each studio’s “worldwide distribution records held the answers”; in 1922, Hollywood bosses were already locked into box-office history and throwing away the innovations offered directly to them. Barnouw again: “One executive explained that the public was not interested in Eskimos; it preferred people in dress suits.” 100 years later, in 2022, a similar executive somewhere was saying: “The public prefers people in superhero costumes.”

Rescued by a French distributor and adoring critics, Nanook became a hit. Paramount, seeing profits already made, reconsidered its original rejection. I wonder if the film’s popularity had anything to do with the fame of “Eskimo kisses” in my childhood. It must have. It inspired everything from “Nanuk” brand ice cream sandwiches—which amused Flaherty in Berlin—to Frank Zappa’s “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow Suite”.

References here: Moana (1926), “Drifters” (1929), “Land Without Bread” (1933), Human Planet (2011).

moving picture non-fiction