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With: Nanook (Allakariallak), Nyla, Allee, Cunayou, Allegoo, Camock
Written by: Robert J. Flaherty
Directed by: Robert J. Flaherty
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 79
Date: 10/06/1922

Nanook of the North (1922)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Eskimo Pry

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Robert J. Flaherty is the father of the documentary for many reasons. The first is because he approached his subject with curiosity, following the stories that already existed, rather than imposing his own story upon his subjects. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Flaherty realized that there was no such thing as a completely objective documentary. As soon as a camera was introduced into any situation, the natural flow of things changed. So not only did Flaherty embrace this idea, he celebrated it, bringing his own personality into his films.

Nanook of the North was Flaherty's first feature-length film, and is also regarded as the first feature-length documentary. It simply follows Nanook, an Inuit in Northern Quebec, as he and his family search for food, trade, and build shelters. There are no bad guys or Hollywood plots; the movie simply uses the struggle to survive as its main dramatic thrust.

Over the years, the film has become somewhat controversial over some of Flaherty's "cheating" techniques. The famous one depicts the building of an igloo. A regular-sized igloo was both too small for Flaherty's camera and too dark to film inside, so a fake, three-sided one was built for the camera, just to show the process. In another clearly staged scene, a walrus is pulled out of the water, already dead. Also, a comical scene with Nanook listening to a gramophone at the trading post was added, played as if Nanook was completely ignorant to new technologies. (Admittedly, this could be slightly insulting, if looked at a certain way.)

But the main thing is that Nanook comes through as a person, brave, optimistic, dedicated. His spirit is captured on film. In one famous shot, he smiles at Flaherty, the camera, and at the audience. His filmed image is unforgettable, long after the real man is gone.

Though this seminal film is still available on a Criterion Collection DVD, Flicker Alley has released a super-deluxe new two-disc Blu-ray set with a high-def transfer. It comes with lots of amazing extras, including a second, feature-length film, The Wedding of Palo (1934). Other bonus films include Nanook Revisited (1988), Dwellings of the Far North (1928), Arctic Hunt (1913), excerpts from Primitive Love (1927), Eskimo Hunters of Northwest Alaska (1949), and Face of the High Arctic (1959). A liner notes booklet includes writings by Flaherty.

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