Nanook of the North

From Academic Kids

Missing image
Promotional poster for Nanook of the North

Nanook of the North is a silent documentary film by Robert J. Flaherty, released in 1922. In the tradition of what would emerge as salvage ethnography, Flaherty captured the struggles of the Inuit Nanook and his family in the Canadian arctic. It is considered the first feature-length documentary, though Flaherty has been criticized for staging much of the action and distorting the reality of his subjects' lives.



The film was shot near Inukjuaq, on Hudson Bay in arctic Quebec, Canada. Having worked as a prospector and explorer in arctic Canada among the Inuit, Flaherty was familiar with his subjects and set out to document their lifestyle. Funded by French fur company Revillion Frères, the film was shot from August 1920 to August 1921. Flaherty had done film work in the region prior to this period, but that original footage was destroyed in a fire, prompting the director to make Nanook of the North in its place.

As the first nonfiction work of its scale, Nanook of the North was ground-breaking cinema. It captured an exotic culture in a distant location, rather than a facsimile of reality using actors and props on a studio set. Traditional Inuit methods of hunting, fishing, igloo-building, and other customs were shown with accuracy, and the compelling story of a man and his family struggling against nature met with great success in North America and abroad.


Flaherty faced criticism for deceptively portraying staged events as reality in the film. Much of the action was staged and gives an inaccurate view of real Inuit life during the early 20th century. "Nanook" was in fact named Allariallak, for instance, while the "wife" shown in the film was not really his wife. And although Allariallak normally used a gun when hunting, Flaherty encouraged him to hunt after the fashion of his ancestors in order to capture what was believed to be the way the Inuit lived before European influence. The ending, where Nanook and his family are supposedly in peril of dying if they can't find shelter quickly enough, is an especially blatant farce, given the reality of nearby French-Canadian and Inuit settlements.

Flaherty defended his work by stating that a filmmaker must often distort a thing to catch its true spirit. Later filmmakers have noted that the only cameras available at the time were both large and immobile, making it impossible to effectively capture most interior shots or unstructured exterior scenes without significantly modifying the environment and subject action. For example, the Inuit crew had to build a special three-walled igloo for Flaherty's bulky camera so that there would be enough light for it to capture interior shots.

Nonetheless, since Flaherty's time both staging action and attempting to steer documentary action have come to be considered unethical among documentarians, as has any sort of re-enactment which is not introduced as or immediately obvious as a re-enactment.


  • Flaherty used two newly-developed Akeley gyroscopic cameras to make his film. They required minimal lubrication, allowing the director to tilt and pan for certain shots despite the bitter cold.
  • Allariallak, Flaherty's "Nanook" character, starved to death while on a hunting expedition two years after the film was released.
  • Parts of the film are featured on the DVD release of The Residents album, Eskimo.
  • The film has been deemed "culturally significant" by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the US National Film Registry.

See also


External links

eo:Nanook Of The North


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