Nanook of the North

The Nanook Day Thread (January 9, 2022)

Robert J. Flaherty’s 1922 silent documentary Nanook of the North entered the public domain this year, seventy years after the director’s death. It is considered one of the most important documentary films of all time, not least because of the debates regarding authenticity and ethics in film-making it has engendered over the past century.

The son of a prospector, Flaherty was a photographer who began shooting film of the Inuit in northern Canada in 1914. Determined to make a full-length work, he returned in 1920 and filmed natives of the Ungava Peninsula over a period of two years. The film follows the titular Nanook (who was actually named Allakariallak) and his family hunting walrus, trading furs, and surviving the harsh winters of Northern Canada.

Flaherty has been described as a pioneer of documentary film-making, and claimed his goal was complete authenticity. In parts however Nanook of the North has all the racial and cultural sensitivity you would expect from a documentary about native peoples in 1922. The director was criticised for staging hunting and igloo-building scenes, although in his own words he was more concerned with recording the Inuit’s “former majesty […] before the white man has destroyed not only their character, but the people as well.”

Pathé released Nanook in New York City on 11 June 1922. The film was an enormous box office success, making a quarter of a million dollars. The film inspired a Broadway song, “Nanook,” and in Germany an ice cream was named after the film’s star: ‘Nanuk’. It’s an interesting artefact of a film which probably says more about the culture in which it was made than the culture it aims to record.

Have a super Sunday everyone, and take care of yourselves.