Weekend Film Recommendation: Nanook of the North

I admire Robert Flaherty and Neil Sheehan for the same reason: Their persistence in the pursuit of creation. Sheehan’s Pulitzer Prize winning book A Bright Shining Lie was almost never published because he lost 8 months of work in a computer hard drive crash and was so depressed that he nearly quit. Flaherty shot 30,000 feet of film in the Arctic in 1914 and 1915, but lost it all when he dropped a lit cigarette (This was in the days of nitrate). He too somehow persisted, returning to Northern Canada with a Bell & Howell camera and making one of the most influential films of the 20th century: 1922’s Nanook of the North.

The story: In an area of land as large as England that abuts the Hudson Bay of Canada, only a few hundred human beings scratch out an existence. Nanook and his family are among the Inuits who live in this bleak, deadly, yet beautiful environment. We see them fishing, hunting walrus, building igloos and interacting with white traders. We also see them laughing and playing and being a family. The tone is partly anthropological and partly human drama, and viewers find themselves fascinated by the lives of the Inuit family as well as rooting very much for their survival.

Generally hailed as the first documentary, it might better be termed the first docu-drama because it is assembled in a narrative form and because some of the sequences were staged. The family were not really a family; indeed the wife Nyla was Flaherty’s wife. The amazing walrus hunt sequence is real, but Flaherty asked the Inuit to use traditional spears when by this point in history they had firearms.

Cinéma vérité enthusiasts have raked Flaherty over the coals for the above and many other liberties he took with the “documentary” form. But in fairness to him, there was no documentary form at the time, so it’s not as if he overturned conventions upon which the audience had long ago come to rely. And whatever sins he committed as a story teller, it was a remarkable feat with 1916 technology to be shooting and developing film in such an unforgiving place.

Despite being known mainly for its historical significance, this movie is not “film school medicine” (in contrast, say, to the first 15 minutes of Häxan). There is something extraordinarily moving about watching fellow members of our species hanging on by the skin of their teeth yet also finding joy and love in an unimaginably remote, dangerous part of the planet. It is hard to imagine the sensation the film must have caused when it debuted, and it still has psychic weight today.

Nanook of the North is in the public domain and you can watch it for free here. This version has a lovely soundtrack which the original print did not (music was added in 1939).

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

7 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: Nanook of the North”

  1. Awesome pick! Those lucky readers who take your advice on this one will be surprised — it holds up extraordinarily well.

  2. Now take a stop watch and time the entire time that the natives spent on hunting food, building shelters and other “work.” Surprise, it comes to less than 15 hours per week. The primitives weren’t as ignorant as people believe. Like your 40 hour week? Envy the “savages.”

  3. “Gras” is another remarkable early documentary (1925) and its makers suffered setbacks comparable to the creators you mention admiring: after filming a nomadic tribe for months during their annual journey, (including passage on foot with all their livestock, babies, tents, and tools across roaring icy rivers and over a snow covered Persian mountain pass 15,000 feet high) the filmmakers could not pay the duty on their reels when they tried to leave the country and so they had to leave 80% or more of their footage behind.

    1. IRRC, weren’t the film-makers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Shoedsack, who went on to make KingKong?

      1. Yes, they were (thank you IMDB). Also worth seeking out; People of the Wind, a 1975 documentary that is a sequel of sorts to Grass. Narration by James Mason and music (plus some voiceovers) from Shusha Guppy.

  4. Flaherty also made “Man of Aran” about a fisherman’s rugged life on what was then the bleak island of Inishmore, at the mouth of Galway Bay, on the west coast of Ireland. Again, it was docu-drama, but it has a terrific power.

  5. I cannot resist mentioning that when my then-husband wrote a film school paper about “Nanook” he farmed it out to someone else to type (yes, it was the dark ages) and the paper came back with every reference to the film rendered as “Mammoth of the Month.”

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