Nanook of the North

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Total Count: 24


Audience Score

User Ratings: 4,862
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Movie Info

Nanook of the North is regarded as the first significant nonfiction feature, made in the days before the term "documentary" had even been coined. Filmmaker Robert Flaherty had lived among the Eskimos in Canada for many years as a prospector and explorer, and he had shot some footage of them on an informal basis before he decided to make a more formal record of their daily lives. Financing was provided by Revillion Freres, a French fur company with an outpost on the shores of Hudson Bay. Filming took place between August 1920, and August 1921, mostly on the Ungava Peninsula of Hudson Bay. Flaherty employed two recently developed Akeley gyroscope cameras which required minimum lubrication; this allowed him to tilt and pan for certain shots even in cold weather. He also set up equipment to develop and print his footage on location and show it in a makeshift theater to his subjects. Rather than simply record events as they happened, Flaherty staged scenes -- fishing, hunting, building an igloo -- to carry along his narrative. The film's tremendous success confirmed Flaherty's status as a first-rate storyteller and keen observer of man's fragile relationship with the harshest environmental conditions. (In a sadly appropriate footnote, Nanook, the subject of the film, died of starvation not long after the film's release.)

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Berry Kroeger
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Critic Reviews for Nanook of the North

All Critics (24) | Top Critics (4)

  • Flaherty wasn't much of an ethnologist -- he routinely staged scenes for his camera and insisted that his subjects return to traditions they'd abandoned generations before -- yet he was a master dramatist.

    Jan 22, 2008 | Full Review…
  • Despite the comparatively primitive technique and the natural difficulties of shooting a film in the frozen Hudson Bay wastelands, every minute of Nanook lives up to its reputation.

    Jan 22, 2008 | Full Review…

    Variety Staff

    Top Critic
  • These characters are plainly 'playing' themselves, and scenes such as the igloo-building manifest a sage grace and skill.

    Jan 26, 2006 | Full Review…
    Time Out
    Top Critic
  • Nanook is one of the most vital and unforgettable human beings ever recorded on film.

    Jan 20, 2006 | Rating: 4/4 | Full Review…
  • Nanook enters our consciousness from within the white of the frame. He pushes himself out from inside an igloo he has just built. The film ends in a nighttime so real it's like science fiction.

    Nov 26, 2018 | Full Review…
  • Flaherty's great achievement is not documentary objectivity but something else, a sort of reconstructed rawness that illuminates the human struggles and explorations on both sides of the lenses

    Jun 6, 2015 | Full Review…

Audience Reviews for Nanook of the North

  • Oct 17, 2018
    Say what you want about the footage director Robert J. Flaherty gives us of this Inuit group in a rugged part of the Canadian Arctic, that elements of it were staged and it wasn't a pure documentary, but he gives us a pretty incredible insight into a completely different world. Highlights include seeing them build an igloo, complete with window and a light reflector, hunt and kill using traditional methods, and make their way across the barren landscape with their semi-tame dogs. It's also interesting to see the family improbably emerge from the inside of a kayak after crossing a river, one after another, and the mother give her baby a bath by spitting into a fur rag and wiping it on him. I would have loved to have known more about them, e.g. their beliefs, family life, how childbirth was accomplished, etc ... but I was impressed with what I did see.
    Antonius B Super Reviewer
  • Apr 20, 2016
    Robert Flaherty was just fooling around with a camera taking images of the Eskimos that lived around the Hudson Bay in Arctic Canada, he didn't know much about film at the time. He had taken a three week course on cinematography in Rochester, New York, before his third expedition in 1913. This footage was met with enthusiasm but ultimately lost because of a fire. He reshot the footage, but decided to focus the film on one person and his family's struggle to survive in such harsh conditions. That's how "Nanook of the North" was created. This film is often considered the first documentary, but much has been said about the staging of events in the film. Regardless of any staging, it's still a remarkable film that shows just how adaptable humans are to any climate or terrain. At times when they are starving, Nanook finds a way to eat and survive.
    Joseph B Super Reviewer
  • Jan 01, 2014
    This is widely regarded as the first significant nonfiction feature film, and this was made during the days before the term documentary came into existence. That makes this film significant and of interest, but even more of interest is the film's legacy, which happens to be steeped in controversy. First, a quick rundown of the plot: what we get is the story of an Inuit fisherman named Nanook who lives with his family up in the far reaches of Northern Canada. Robert Flaherty, the director, presents us basically with a series of sequences of Nanook and his family and companions going about their daily lives and trying to survive the harsh wilderness. Flaherty started out as a prospector and explorer, and, after spending a lot of time among Inuits, decided to get a camera and make a formal recording of their lives. Here's where things gets tricky. This was made in the late 1910s/early 1920s, and it presents things as if they are happening in the present. In reality, this film depicts the Inuit culture of days gone by, but makes it seem like things aren't as modern as they actually were at the time. Now, given how documentaries as we know them didn't exist at the time, Flaherty was more or less able to get away with the use of staged sequences. In this day and age though, he'd be in a crap load of trouble for this kind of thing. So yeah, don;t think of this as a documentary in the modern sense, but look at is as a docudrama-that's a more fitting term. And what also makes the film worthwhile, again, has to do with its age. At that time, not as much was known about various ethnic groups and cultures, especially when there was no internet, so this film works as a nice cultural piece, even if Flaherty's nostalgia goggles for the 'glory days' of Inuit life are presented as 'present'. Despite the dark spots, this is a pretty neat little film in its own right. It's simple and straightforward, but nevertheless engaging, fun, and even charming. It might not be perfect, especially due to it's tainted legacy, but I think that, even then, it's worth a look.
    Chris W Super Reviewer
  • Jan 15, 2013
    While watching "Nanook of the North", I sure can sense the fact that some of the scenes were staged. But after finding out that the film was indeed not a hundred percent spontaneous and unscripted, "Nanook of the North", for me, has still lost none of its power. So what if the film isn't particularly authentic through and through? Let's take Werner Herzog's documentaries as great cases in point. Like "Lessons of Darkness" and the even more experimental "The Wild Blue Yonder", Herzog's documentaries were filled with actual footage only made metaphysically adventurous by half-cryptic, half-poetic narrations, which forge otherworldly narratives in the process. In Robert J. Flaherty's case, his main intent has none of Herzog's maddening grandiosity. Instead, his only goal is to plainly highlight, with honest anthropological eyes, the plight and bittersweet adventures of the Eskimos in the northernmost part of America, but with an anchoring main character to cohesively hold the film together. For me, the issue of non-authenticity in "Nanook of the North" is unimportant because as long as a story compels and drags you in a world previously unseen, then that, I think, is more than enough. And what about the hardships endured by Flaherty's crew themselves during the film's extraneous shoot? Isn't that an amazing feat in its own right? I do think so. "Nanook of the North", even for that reason alone, is worthy of all the recognition that it has gotten across time. But aside from that, I do think that the film itself is also a great example of cinematic determination at its infancy, but that does not make it any smaller compared to the hardships of today's industry. Let's just say that Robert J. Flaherty, even before Werner 'The Mad German Genius' Herzog was born, was already going all "Fitzcarraldo" in the deep arctic way before it was cool (pun not intended, by the way). The film, about the titular Eskimo and their everyday Exodus towards one simple goal (food), is a bittersweet documentation of what goes on in a place where technology and civilization is all but absent and where Walrus meat are one of the very few luxuries. Nanook (Allakariallak), the patriarch, is an experienced hunter who literally goes through thick and thin just to provide food and shelter for his family, complete with an almost irremovable smile on his face. For a film that is fully bent on visually tackling the turbulent topography of the arctic, "Nanook of the North" is also filled with countless scenes of tear-inducing poignancy, candidness, and awe-inspiring naivety, some of them being scenes involving Nanook and his son. In one scene, we even see Nanook, after trading goods with the so-called 'white man' trader in exchange for meager articles (money, after all, is immaterial to them), listens, with profound wonderment, to the quasi-magical sound coming from a phonograph. After doing so, Nanook, after being handed a vinyl record by the white man, first puts it near his ear, and then his mouth. The next thing we know, he is biting on it just like how we see 'Tarzan-like' characters do so in many movies. As a viewer, one can't help but to laugh at his utter ignorance. But in a way, one can also feel how enviable people like Nanook really are, especially when their tender innocence and their advantage of not knowing much evokes a sense of pure joy commonly unseen among highly civilized and decorum-following folks. As the old adage goes, sometimes, "ignorance is bliss." But apart from "Nanook of the North's" heart-thumping poignancy, the film is also chock-full of scenes which showcase Nanook and company's excellent craftsmanship, despite of the fact that they are miles removed from actual civilization. There's a moment in the film where Nanook, after building an igloo along with his family, picks up a glassy block of ice which he then proceeds to incorporate into their make-shift shelter. As it turns out, Nanook has turned it into a glass window perfect for their igloo. After that, Nanook then puts an additional block of ice beside it; this, as it appears to be, will serve as a sunlight reflector so that the interior of their igloo will be sufficiently lighted. So with that, we will go back to the initial inquiry as to whether or not scenes like the ones mentioned above were indeed authentic or merely staged. For me, the question of whether the film really deserves to be labeled as the first documentary film in cinematographic history is highly insignificant because "Nanook of the North", scripted or not, improvisational or otherwise, is nevertheless a film that intensely channels both the spirit of adventure and the resilience of the human body amid the constant prospect of an icy death. Flaherty, in this film, may not be a documentarian in the purest sense of the word, but he has sure attained a level of cinematic humanism still untouched at the time. Personally, Flaherty's constant capturing of Nanook's smile, which automatically spreads across his face almost immediately after his close brushes with certain death, just reminds me of the fact that both happiness and contentment have no geographical limits or ends. Ironically, I never expected that it is in the chilling coldness of the deep arctic that I shall find and relish what may be the most flawless documentation of human warmth there is. Until now, I can't remove Nanook's smile off my mind; so pure, so human and so true.
    Ivan D Super Reviewer

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