As darkness falls on a Montreal evening and stars begin to appear, two Inuit woman take their places on stage under a giant wigwam. They face each other, join arms and the haunting sound of traditional throat singing silences the crowd who have gathered in the square. Accompanied by a small orchestra performing an original score by Gabriel Thibodeau, the musicians are providing the soundtrack to Robert J Flaherty’s silent 1922 documentary, Nanook of the North.
I’m lucky enough to be present at the First People’s Festival in Montreal, Canada. Begun 20 years ago as a small gathering of First Nation’s people, the festival is now a huge event, encompassing indigenous nations from all over the Americas and the wider world. The outdoor screening marks the culmination of weeks of indigenous theatre, dance, film and music. It’s a poignant choice – Flaherty’s depiction of a few weeks in the life of an Inuit family highlight the dying out of traditional First Nation’s traditions that the remaining communities are so desperately trying to keep alive.
Flaherty’s snowbound epic, thought to be the very first feature-length documentary, is still a moving, dramatic and often funny tour de force.
The explorer and prospector, who is often called ‘the father of the documentary’, had already made several expeditions to the sub-Arctic regions before embarking on Nanook, and knew a great deal about Inuit society. The only thing he didn’t know much about was filming itself. He had made an earlier film of the Inuits, now unfortunately lost, but was unhappy with his technique. Returning in 1920 with expensive equipment and a burning desire to get it right, Flaherty tried again.
There were no rules back in 1920. Flaherty freely admitted that he manipulated his subjects and that just about all of Nanook was staged. However, experts begrudgingly agree that give or take, Flaherty’s depiction is accurate – probably because of the filmmaker’s intimate knowledge of Inuit life. The filmmaker’s approach also meant that the film’s subjects were chosen for their visual appeal: Nanook, his wife and children were not a real family. Nanook wasn’t even the protaganist’s real name – it was changed from the less catchy Allakariallak.
In a way it doesn’t matter. The film is visually arresting and endlessly fascinating. A scene where Nanook harpoons a seal is particularly suspenseful. Filmed in one take, it shows the Inuit leader poised above an air hole in the ice, knowing that the seal will have to come up for air every 20 minutes. The seal breaches the hole and Nanook strikes. What ensues is a struggle between the huge seal and the man, who calls urgently to the other hunters to help him. When the mammal is finally dragged onto the ice, the men fall upon the creature, feasting on its blubber.
The lasting images of the film are the long, sweeping shots that show just how hard life is for Nanook and his family. Their days are an endless struggle against hunger and the brutal elements. This is why it’s so touching to see how Flaherty’s Inuit family laughs, jokes and plays with their puppies during the brief respite from blizzards and hunger.
Flaherty knew as he filmed that the traditional Inuit way of life was dying. His documentary, despite its staged scenes and calculated casting, is a gift to anyone who is curious about the old way of life in the Arctic circle.