I first saw Robert Flaherty‘s documentary film about life among the Inuits, Nanook of the North (1922), in college. A small liberal arts school like Allegheny College offered no film courses in those ancient times, but we had something nearly as good – a free Sunday-night film series that brought us Bergman movies; French classics like Grand Illusion, Beauty and the Beast, and Children of Paradise; Cagney and Bogart flics directed by Howard Hawkes, and the occasional landmark documentary. In those days I was an ironic and callow fellow who found the Nanook movie a hoot.
There’s the scene where Nanook lands a very long kayak on shore, climbs out, and is followed one by one, in the fashion of a gang of circus clowns exiting a tiny car, by his entire family who had been lying flat under the skin of the kayak. There are multiple gross-out scenes: Nanook and fellow hunters landing a harpooned walrus on shore after an epic tug of war and then cutting off bits of blubber to eat right there on the beach. Nanook catching some big fish and killing these flip-floppers with a quick bite to their necks.
Flaherty, often called the “father of the documentary,” was a natural-born visual story-teller with a great eye for the telling scene. He went north as a young man to Hudson Bay originally on an exploratory mining expedition. On this trip he became fascinated with the Inuit people who lived along the Hudson Bay and used the camera he brought to take visual notes. Eventually, he conceived the idea of making a feature film on the Inuit to tell the story of their heroic, barely subsisting existence.
These days I’m catching up on all those film history courses I missed by taking an occasional course at the local community college. This semester it’s the documentary, so I saw Nanook again the other day and read up about Flaherty and Nanook’s story. What’s fascinating is that all the big ethical issues of documentary film-making today are right there in Flaherty’s approach to Nanook.
There’s the matter of re-enactments. Is it kosher for a filmmaker to stage scenes? For example, Flaherty’s main story line is the struggle for existence of these tough and resourceful people, the Inuit. Food is always an issue for them. So most of movie involves the elaborately detailed hunts or fishing efforts of Nanook and his band. Only one significant problem: when the film was made, the Inuit were using rifles to hunt, but Flaherty had them stick to harpoons – a much more dramatic way to round up food.
A similar issue arises over life in an igloo. Flaherty shows Nanook and his family constructing an igloo and then settling down for a cold night’s sleep under a pile of furs. It would have been too dark in a real igloo to shoot film, however, so Flaherty had Nanook build half an igloo exposed to the air so he could get this sequence.
And one more thing. Nanook was not really Nanook. He was a jolly, photogenic Inuit named Allakariallak whom Flaherty cast in the part of Nanook (the Inuit word for bear). It is true, though, that two years after the film became a worldwide box-office hit, the real Alla K died of starvation while on a hunt for food.
I felt cheated somehow when I learned of these deceptions because much of the appeal of Flaherty’s film is its authenticity. The uneducated film-goer sees these scenes as amazing but real happenings. Flaherty, who was a great raconteur and later in life a very articulate theorist of the documentary, offered a famous response worth pondering to this type of criticism. “Sometimes you have to lie. One often has to distort a thing to catch its true spirit.”
Flahery has also been criticized for perpetuating the myth of the “noble savage” – that is, presenting a false and, ultimately, patronizing white man’s view of a different culture. It’s true that Flaherty admired the Inuit enormously. But he did not approach them from a stance of superiority. In fact, he made a point of living with the Inuit, getting to know them and developing a sense of trust, and even involving them in the conception and editing of the film.
Last, there’s the issue of who bankrolled Nanook? It was the Revillon Freres, a French fur-trading company in the area. The question of corporate sponsorship became dicier later in Flaherty’s career with his 1948 documentary Louisiana Story, in which a stunningly beautiful oil derrick gets built in sync with nature down in bayou country. It’s no surprise to learn Standard Oil was the producer of that film. But in Nanook, the trading post appears in just a few scenes in the background; it’s hard to detect any corporate, pro-fur-trading point of view in the movie.
All this is a backdrop to a new documentary written by British film scholar Brian Winston called A Boatload of Wild Irishman. The title comes from a Flaherty remark about his 1934 film Man of Aran, in which some fisherman from the rocky island of Aran off the Irish coast risk their loves in heavy seas at the behest of Flaherty, who wanted a dramatic shot of danger for his documentary. “I’ve been accused of attempting to drown a boatload of wild Irishman,” Flaherty once said. “I should have been shot for what I asked these people to do for the film.”
In my book you have to appreciate a guy with the wit, bravura, and self-directed irony to dash off a remark like that. My other thought is that Flaherty was making up his career as he went along. No film school for him. No Silverdocs festival with a rapt audience for Q&A afterward. He began as a pure amateur, fascinated by the Inuit, and he learned his craft by doing it. It seems a nice storybook ending when I find out that after Flaherty’s death in 1951, his widow Frances established the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, a place where documentarians meet to discuss the ethical issues of their craft.
But wait. A Boatload of Wild Irishman offers one last turn in the saga of Flaherty and Nanook. Nanook’s wife in the 1922 film is a pleasant Inuit mom named Nyla. It turns out that Flaherty fathered a son with Nyla, a son whom he never acknowledged. A Boatload contains an interview with Flaherty’s grand-daughter, who still lives the Inuit life. Can’t wait for this new documentary to show up on Netflix or at Silverdocs.