Nearly 100 years after he initially created the film Nanook of the North, people are still debating Robert Flaherty’s film, describing it as simultaneously pioneering, inauthentic, captivating and hugely influential. In traveling to Inukjuak in northern Canada to document the life of the Inuit Indians, Flaherty virtually created a style of story-telling that persists to this day.
Flaherty was born in Michigan to a family of prospectors. He and his wife Frances and their children would later settle in Dummerston, Vt. Flaherty’s father was a mining operator and prospector, and he helped his son find work with the Canada Pacific Railway.
Flaherty was an unusual mix of a man who loved the wilderness, music and photography. His job was to explore parts of northern Canada and report back on mineral deposits he found. But he persuaded his employers that filming his travels and creating a travelogue could help offset some of the costs of his work.
On his travels, Flaherty shot some 30,000 feet of film documenting what he observed, but he was unimpressed with the initial results. It inspired a thought, however. Flaherty wanted to tell the story of the Inuit by dramatizing the story of one Inuit family. To get funding for his new idea, Flaherty approached a French fur company, Revillon Frères, with the idea of making a film to commemorate their 200th anniversary of operating in Canada.
Funding procured, Flaherty spent much of 1920 and 1921 filming the Inuit in Northern Canada. His work would focus on a single Inuit hunter, Nanook, and his family, showing how they hunted, built igloos and lived their daily lives. The part of Nanook was played by Allakariallak, an Inuit hunter. His wives were played by two Inuit women recruited by Flaherty from among the Inuit’s living in Inukjuak, called Port Harrison at the time.
When Flaherty returned to America with his film in hand, there was a ready appetite. Silent films about exotic, distant locales were hugely popular with American audiences, and Nanook of the North was a hit. It also produced steady demand for Flaherty’s services as a filmmaker and he worked steadily until 1950. Frances Flaherty collaborated with her husband on his works, and she was instrumental in shaping and promoting his films. He died in 1951. She would continue promoting his legacy, establishing the Flaherty seminars and fellowships to promote movie-making. She died in 1972.
Nanook of the North, meanwhile, has become a well-established cultural reference, popping up in songs, television shows, cartoons and novels. Later audiences have critiqued the film, pointing out that much of it was staged. Nanook, for instance, hunts with a spear in the movie when the real Inuit of the period used rifles. And a special igloo had to be constructed with a side missing to allow the camera to film the interior.
Also, Flaherty’s involvement with the Inuit extended beyond film making. One of Nanook’s “wives” would later give birth to a child fathered by Flaherty.