Criterion Sunday 33: Nanook of the North (1922)

© The Criterion Collection

It’s canonised as a progenitor of the documentary film, but I think it’s also now well-known that director Robert J. Flaherty made compromises in committing this story to film, ones that later documentarians would try to avoid — things like staging scenes, manipulating reality for filmic ends, even changing the names and relationships of the people seen on screen — making it more of a documentary-based drama. The story deals with “Nanook”, living in northern Quebec with two women and a daughter, as he builds an igloo and forages for food, trapping seals (an almost comic scene, if it weren’t so brutal) and hunting a walrus. There are a number of cute little vignettes — staged, of course — like him being introduced to a phonograph by a local trader, but the film is at its strongest when it depicts the simple act of living within nature that Nanook and his fellow Inuit must daily practise. Even if Flaherty has them using spears rather than (more accurately for the early-20th century) guns, it still depicts a way of life that’s far beyond the comprehension and comfort of most Western viewers.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Robert J. Flaherty | Length 79 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 24 May 2015

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