We have become so accustomed to television documentaries in which someone famous travels to a distant part of the world to view its inhabitants in their natural state that we have quite forgotten where it all originated. One of the fountainheads was Robert Flaherty, an American from Michigan who was as much the great Victorian romantic as any Englishman born in the late-19th century.
Flaherty was a pioneer of the documentary, and one of those whose work sparked many of the continuing arguments about truth and falsehood within the genre. His style is now often patronised as naïve and schematic. But if you look at Nanook of the North you can see where so much else has come from.
The filming of an Eskimo community took place over almost two years on the eastern shore of Hudson Bay, and Flaherty’s goal was complete authenticity. He wielded his gyroscope camera himself, carrying into his harsh surroundings enough equipment to process and develop the film and show it to the Eskimos. Nanook and his family were real, but the film is not a straightforward recording of their everyday life: they amiably enacted some of it for Flaherty’s cameras. But so honest and instinctive was their playing that it was undoubtedly truth of a sort.
The background comes to the fore, photographed in black and white with consummate dramatic skill. Though the film has no conventional plot, it tells a coherent story through its extraordinary images. It hints at that old cliche about the noble savage being pushed towards a civilisation that will destroy him. But it does so with a rare feeling for a timeless landscape and a way of life that had remained unchanged for centuries.
The building of the igloo is perhaps the most famous and fascinating episode. It is taken step by step, without the explanation that might render it more mundane today, though the way translucent blocks of ice are used as windows could hardly seem humdrum in any hands. But again Flaherty “cheated”, since he had an igloo constructed to twice the normal size, with half of it cut away to provide more light for his camera.
When the film was released, it got rave reviews and no one called it a documentary. It simply seemed to be in a class by itself. It still is. Flaherty was never again to achieve such lack of self-consciousness and purity of style, though films like Moana, about the Samoan lifestyle, Man of Aran and Louisiana Story contained extraordinary sequences.
Flaherty had what was once called “an innocent eye”, which tried to discover “the elemental truths that all men share”. He was patrician, eccentric, obdurate and had the eye of a painter – the attributes of many good film-makers. He believed that if Eskimos could tame nature, then the rest of us could tame our more advanced civilisation. Perversely, Nanook of the North was made for a fur-trading firm. Perversely also, it was Nanook rather than the film-maker who became an instant celebrity.