A long time ago I said that unfunny comedies were the hardest films to review, since there was little to say outside of how the jokes didn’t work. That was before I realized that documentaries could be reviewed as well.
I find films fun and harmless to review and talk about, because they are recreations of life, but not perfect replicas of reality. Most of the time, movies are imaginative attempts to make the impossible seem like they could happen and not meant to be taken too seriously. But documentaries are the exact opposite of this philosophy – it takes the possible and makes it seem like it could never happen.
There is little to say about a documentary outside of “Yup, that sure happened,” without repeating exactly what the movie already said. But then a review becomes a written transcript of the film.
So bare with me while I take a look at the first documentary, “Nanook of the North.”
Released in 1920 by Robert J. Flaherty, a man who fully admitted he had no filmmaking experience prior to making this film, “Nanook” follows a family of Eskimos as they do their best to survive the harsh arctic climate and make a living of the little food and supplies they have. Flaherty had been making this film for years and took several trips up through the northern most parts of Canada, after spending a lifetime fascinated by the lives Eskimos lead.
Since this is the first feature-length documentary, the rules of filmmaking had not been established yet. Since documentaries as supposed to be as close as possible to reality, the filmmakers are to do as little as possible with their environment. But Flaherty openly admitted that many of the scenes in “Nanook” were staged, like the opening scene were Nanook and his family come into port and five family members, including a baby and a puppy, are all laying inside their small canoe.
As such, it is difficult to call this a documentary when so many scenes were done for dramatic effect, rather than what Eskimos would actually do.
There’s also a strange shift in narrative near the end of the film. The first fifty minutes follow Nanook and his family (though most of them were not related, these were just the most photogenic Eskimos), as they fish, hunt for walrus and build igglos. But suddenly, there’s a fight among Nanook’s dogs for dominance and there is a focus on the dogs from that point on. While Nanook skins a seal, they continually cut to the dogs who are growling for some of the seal meat, leading in to another fight amongsts the dogs that delays the Eskimos and gets them caught in a big snow storm. The title cards even admit that it’s the dogs fault.
For a film that wants to show all the hardships of living in the arctic, there is a big focus on dogs by the end of the film.
Overall, “Nanook of the North” is a strange documentary that would set the ground work for every documentary to come. It’s like “Birth of a Nation,” which took the many aspects that filmmaking had established up to that time and combined it, giving us the best that film could bring us up to that point. For 1920, “Nanook” is a massive achievement, even if many scenes were staged. For that, it earns my respect.
Final Grade: C+