The Eskimo Family: Nanook Revisited

The Eskimo Family: Nanook Revisited

One of my top movies is Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922). I consider it a masterpiece but I especially like it because I discovered it in my teen years. It’s a cross between a rugged documentary portrait of the life and traditions of Eskimos in the beginning of the twentieth century and an incredible adventure story.

It formed part of my education along with other films, books and works of art that today would be called “noncommercial”.

Explorer, geologist, and cartographer Robert Joseph Flaherty had his first contact with Eskimos while exploring Hudson Bay (Canada) for the railroad entrepreneur William Mackenzie.

Mackenzie encouraged him to document his third expedition with a novel device: a Bell and Howell cinematographic camera with which Flaherty rolled 10,000 meters of film to record landscapes and the inhabitants’ customs that interested him more and more. Subsequently, the film was lost in a fire in the editing room in Toronto. Flaherty, however, saw the disaster as an opportunity to shoot a new film since he wasn’t fully satisfied with his first recording of the Inuits. So with new ideas, a new focus, and funding from the fur company Révillon Frères, Flaherty returned to the Hudson Bay to film a new movie.

As he himself stated, Flaherty tried to “show the antique majestic character of these people while it was still possible, before the white man destroys no only their culture, but the people themselves”. He thus decided to focus on the life of a particular Eskimo, Nanook the hunter, and his family, in order to narrate the authentic life of the inhabitants of Port Huron. In his first film, he shot people and actions, but this time, he was to capture the actions of a specific person. Furthermore, he even brought with him a portable laboratory to reveal and copy in situ so that Nanook and his family could see the filmed material and understand the film process step by step. People say that Flaherty didn’t make a film on Nanook but with Nanook. I believe it was this decision that transformed Flaherty into a true filmmaker, giving meaning and direction to his films. It’s an ancient idea: “man is the measure of all things created”.

Flaherty lived with Nanook and his family for over a year. He filmed how they hunted, how they fished, how they traded, how they ate, how they built their igloos and kayaks, how they played and had fun, how they taught and learned, how they lived and how they loved. With scarce technical resources, he managed to create a fresh, vivid, complex, unusual and beautiful story about the survival of a group of human beings in extreme conditions, their solidarity and their ingenuity.

As it often happens with masterpieces, Nanook of the North generated a plurality of readings and analyses that relate to particular aspects, such as the Flaherty’s filming methods or the influence of his film in the Weltanschauung of his contemporaries among others, according to the paradigm of his time. Fans and critics with an innocent love for film have given thousands of varying opinions, from judging it to be without doubt a truly beautiful film to attributing to it perverse effects such as colonization, since in certain sequences it gives hungry Western eyes a chance to feast upon images of Inuit life in the Artic.

This is not the place to provide a catalogue of interpretive logomachies, describe the genesis of the film, or expose wary speeches. My aim is to affirm the values that Flaherty’s film can bring to the family and the community in our age. Nanook demonstrates positive values such as solidarity, cooperation, affection, good sense of humor, parents educating their children, the conscious struggle for survival. I think Flaherty made a very sensible film as his portrayal of the family had a global reach. I won’t hide my admiration for it. I’ve already made it clear that I consider it a masterpiece.

In my opinion, the idea that the beautiful and the good always go together in works of art is false. Just look at The Birth of Nation (David Wark Griffith, 1915) or The Triumph of the Will (Leni Riefenstahl, 1935). Both inspire catastrophic social processes with harmful discourse, though its cinematographic construction is prodigious.

Win Wenders opens his extraordinary documentary film Tokyo- Ga (1985) about the work of the Japanese filmmaker Yasujirō Ozu with the beautiful, and in my opinion, good words, “For as much as these films are typically Japanese, they are at the same time universal. I have recognized in them all of the families in the entire world, and also my parents, my brother, and myself. For me, neither before nor after has film ever been so close to its essence and its purpose: to offer an image of the man of our century- a useful, true, and valid image in which one can recognize himself, but above all, one in which he can learn something about himself.”

I think that something similar happens with Nanook of the North. Flaherty believed that the success of his documentary is due to the viewers worldwide: watching the Eskimo family with the privileges that film grants, they were able to recognize their own lives. Apart from all of the contradictions that exist in any work of art, I think that Flaherty offers this useful, true, and valid image in which we can all recognize ourselves.

Reflecting upon the landscape of current films, it would be a good idea to “rescue” Nanook from the film lover’s archives. Project it in children’s classrooms dosed in small capsules, or project the entire film and properly explain it, given the aversion that teens and the younger generations have towards black and white films. Some schools have already been doing this, though in a way that I think is too reticent, almost always as a mere support for certain humanistic subjects. For me, the reason is obvious: no parent would question the student of mathematics, language or physics. But cinema, with a long history and a great number of significant works, continues to be seen as a hobby that, at best, reaches a postmodern film junkie or is lost in a mere myth-mania.

Meanwhile, children and teens continue to be parked for hours and hours in front of television and computer screens with “parent control” because we don’t take seriously the audiovisual image that transmits values and molds behavior. More sensitive eyes can be educated through the lens of the filmmakers that illuminate our reality and detach our conscience from the most immediate messages.

(*) Bosch Javier Azcona is a professor of screenwriting and documentary filmmaking at the Catholic University of Valencia.