Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Nanook of the North (1922)

An excerpt from Nanook of the North (1922).

This first cinematic documenatry, 1922's Nanook of the North by Robert J. Flaherty, is a fascinating piece of film. There are many layers upon which it can be appreciated, including layers it has acquired over time.

Flaherty himself expounded on the creation of this remarkable vision of the struggle between man and nature in the high north:
In August 1910, Sir William MacKenzie whose transcontinental railway, the Canadian Northern, was then in the initial stages of construction, commissioned [me] to undertake an expedition to the East Coast of Hudson Bay to examine deposits of certain islands upon which iron ore were supposed to be located.

All told I made four expeditions on Sir William's behalf, during a period of six years, along the East Coast of Hudson Bay, through the barren lands of the hitherto unexplored peninsula of Ungava, along the west coast of Ungava Bay and along the southern coast of Baffin Land... As a part of my exploration equipment, on these expeditions, a motion-picture outfit was included. It was hoped to secure films of the North and Eskimo life, which might prove to be of enough value to help in some way to defray some of the costs of the explorations. While wintering in Baffin Land during 1913-14 films of the country and the natives were made... The film, in all, about 30,000 feet, was brought out safely, at the conclusion of the explorations, to Toronto, where, while editing the material, I had the misfortune of losing it all by fire. Though it seemed to be a tragedy at the time, I am not sure but what it was a bit of fortune that it did burn, for it was amateurish enough...

New forms of travel film were coming out and the Johnson South Sea Island film particularly seemed to me to be an earnest of what might be done in the North. I began to believe that a good film depicting the Eskimo and his fight for existence in the dramatically barren North might be well worth while. To make a long story short, I decided to go north again- this time wholly for the purpose of making films.

Nanook of the North is a rousing tale of nature and survival in the vast, endless expanse of the Canadian Arctic. The footage captured by Flaherty is astonishing in its grandeur, despite the limitations of silent film and monochrome stock. There are fields of snow, floes of ice and herds of walrus that can fire the imagination of the armchair explorer warm at home in front of the fire. Then there are the stories of Nanook himself, and his family, charting out across those expanses on their hunting expeditions, skimming the water in kayaks and hitching up their dogsleds. The Inuit cut a romantic figure against the desolate, subfreezing landscape. A title card from the film describes it poetically:
The shrill piping of the wind, the rasp and hiss of driving snow, the mournful wolf howls of Nanook's master dog typify the melancholy spirit of the North.

The film is also the first feature length documentary, and therein forms a remarkable document of salvage anthropology. Nanook of the North captures those last aspects of Inuit culture in the 1920's that were deemed "authentic" by white anthropologists. This is also where the film is at its most controversial.

It is well-known at this point that large sections and elements of Nanook of the North are contrived for the camera. "Authenticity" is a negotiable characteristic dependent on the gaze of the observer: the person doing the watching, doing the chronicling, decides what aspects of a culture are "authentic." In the case of Nanook, Flaherty set out to chart Inuit culture as it was before European colonization even as the fruits of 500 years of colonization and trade had already made its impact.

The most direct, visible European presence in the film is the trading post that Nanook (whose name was actually Allakariallak) and his wife (who wasn't actually his wife) visit in the first quarter. There they are shocked and amazed at newfangled European inventions like the gramophone before heading off to hunt walrus and seal with spear and lure. Behind the camera, Allakariallak hunted with a gun and this desolate corner of northern Quebec was populated with several Euro-Canadian settlements. The most significant influence is not what the camera discreetly turns away from, but that the camera turns away. The greatest European presence is not before the camera, but behind it; it is the European gaze that dictates what shall be seen and how it shall be seen.

The matter is complicated, however, and does not make Nanook of the North an objectionable piece of cinema history. (In the vein of, say, a Birth of a Nation or a Triumph of the Will) The fact remains that authenticity will always be dictated by the observer, and that is no less true, even amongst the most well-meaning. Some Native American commentators regard white North American fetishism of "traditional" Native cultures to be a form of racism in itself. Flaherty's goals were certainly noble and ambitious, to make a visual document of what he felt was traditional Inuit culture before it was irrevocably "damaged" by colonization.

Standing back even further as observers of Nanook of the North, the film can also be appreciated as a historical subject unto itself. In the words of aesthetic philosopher Walter Benjamin, "The grey film of dust covering things has become their best part." Or in this case, the grain of dust on the grey film. It can be looked upon and enjoyed not only as an aesthetic narrative of the Canadian North or as a historical document of Inuit culture, but also as a 1920's silent film. It takes the armchair explorer not only into ages past in the high Arctic, but into the main street nickelodeon and then into that snowy wilderness of a time before colonization.

1 comment:

MIke Hood said...

Just read and viewed the whole page..what a treat! Also, your writing about these films and about Melie in particular is truly first rate. It's downright excellent! PLEASE keep up the great commentary!