Arts and Leisure

Robert Flaherty Films Inuit Life in ‘Nanook of the North’ — and Invents the Documentary

Nearly 100 years after he initially created the film Nanook of the North, people still debate the film made by Robert Flaherty. They describe 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.

Robert Flaherty

Flaherty was born on Feb. 16, 1884, in Iron Mountain, Mich., to a family of prospectors. He and his wife Frances and their children would later settle in Dummerston, Vt.

Flaherty’s father worked as a mining operator and prospector, and he helped his son find work with the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Robert Flaherty, 1922

Flaherty, an unusual mix of a man, loved the wilderness, music and photography. His job was to explore parts of northern Canada and report back on the 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.

He then took a took a three-week course in photography from the Eastman Company in Rochester, N.Y., so he could record the lives and customs of the Inuit in the Canadian North.

On his travels, Flaherty shot some 30,000 feet of film documenting what he observed. He then lost the nitrate film stock in an editing room fire started by his cigarette. Though he saved the editing print, it didn’t impress him. He thought it boring.

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. He suggested 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. It showed how they hunted, built igloos and lived their daily lives.

Allakariallak, an Inuit hunter, played the part of Nanook. 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.

Along the way, he rediscovered the main island of the Belcher group in 1914.

Aerial view of the Belcher Islands. Flaherty Island is in the foreground.

Reception

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. He worked steadily until 1950.

Promotional poster for Nanook of the North

The Flahertys

Frances Flaherty collaborated with her husband on his works, and she was instrumental in shaping and promoting his films. After he died in 1951, she nurtured his legacy. She created film fellowships and established the Flaherty Film Seminar at their farm in Vermont. Such filmmakers as Louis Malle, the Maysles brothers, John Cassavetes and Satyajit Ray showed their films at the seminar.

Frances also worked as a film writer and director in her own right. She received an Academy Award nomination for  Best Original Story for the 1948 film Louisiana Story. 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 may have extended beyond film making. One of Nanook’s “wives” would later give birth to a child said to be fathered by Flaherty.

Nevertheless, the movie did much to create the docu-drama style of film making that remains popular today. You can watch Nanook of the North by clicking here.

This story last updated in 2022.

Images: Flaherty Island By Mike Beauregard from Nunavut, Canada – Wrap Around, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12833568.

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