"This picture concerns the life of one Nanoon (The Bear), his family and little band of followers, "˜Itivimuits' of Hopewell Sound, Northern Ungava, through whose kindness, faithfulness and patience this film was made."-Intertitle
There's something magical about "The first" of anything. Before it came into being, there was nothing of its kind. Whether it is the first of something very important or the first of something that had very few incarnations, there is still a pull to experiencing the very first that ever existed. There are downsides to this as well, of course. The first is very rarely the best that will ever be made, especially in media that become prolific. There are bound to be flaws, kinks that have yet to be worked out and mistakes that will eventually be learned from.
Nanook of the North is widely considered the first long form (feature length) documentary ever filmed, and in that sense, it is an essential element of what this feature set out to accomplish. If I am to better understand documentaries and the way in which we use them to dramatize the real, it seems vital to begin at the beginning (or at least stop by the beginning a few installments in. I decided quickly that Nanook would not be the best opening installment of this column, even though the completist in me tends to enjoy starting at the beginning). Directed by Robert J. Flaherty, the film follows Nanook, an Eskimo, and his family as they struggle to survive their brutal surroundings.
An explorer who taught himself how to operate a camera because he believed the world needed to see how the Eskimo lived, Flaherty failed in his first efforts to make a documentary by aiming too broadly in scope. During his first journey with the Eskimo he filmed an entire tribe and came back with footage he could not edit into a film of any sort. So when he returned he decided to focus on Nanook alone, following him and documenting how he managed to survive the frozen environs in which he lived. Flaherty added poignance to the film by including an introduction in which he announced that Nanook died of starvation two years after they completed filming. Flaherty captured an incredible story or survival and resourcefulness, even against the odds.
But here's the thing about Nanook of the North. It may be the first documentary ever filmed, but a good portion of it isn't real, at least not in the way we tend to think documentaries are real. For one thing, there is no "Nanook." The man the film centered on was actually named Allakariallak. Also, Nanook's wife? Not actually married to Nanook, and in fact was in a "common-law marriage" with Flaherty throughout his time with the Eskimo. Additionally, Nanook and his fellow hunters used guns to hunt, but Flaherty asked them to use spears and knives, in order to capture the way his recent ancestors had lived before the advent of the Europeans into their culture. Oh, and remember that added poignance that hangs over the film and creates stakes in all of the hunting scenes? Yeah, it turns out Allakariallak did not die of starvation, but rather was felled by tuberculosis.
So what is more important when it comes to a documentary: realism or a good story? For most of us, the answer is clear and realism trumps good stories when it comes to documentaries. Obviously the best documentaries are built around good stories, but I would rather know that the documentary I am about to watch actually occurred as I am seeing it than know I am sitting down for something that will entertain me but is completely staged while pretending to be an honest look at actual events. As I see it, if you don't want to tell it the way it actually happened, don't make a documentary. In fiction films, realism can be completely ignored and story takes precedence, but in the land of the documentary the fact is king.
None of these rules existed when Flaherty headed out into the frozen Hopewell Sound with his cameras and aimed to document the way the Eskimo lived. Most films were shot in studios; there wasn't such a thing as "shooting on location" yet. And the simple fact that he was in the place these people lived and trying to approximate how they made it through each day was pretty admirable. So yes, he had the Eskimo build a three-sided igloo to get the shots of "Nanook" and his "family" sleeping, but he did also film the construction of an actual igloo. He asked the men to use spears instead of guns, sure, but those were real wild animals they were hunting. Flahety staged large parts of the first documentary, but he did so to better approximate on film the way the Eskimos did actually live, a feat he honestly could not have accomplished as well as he hoped to with the cameras and equipment in existence in 1920.
So is Nanook of the North a documentary? I'm going to go with the conventional wisdom here and say that it is. Flaherty may have violated the ethics that go into making a documentary, but those ethics didn't exist when he was making the film. He set out to put to film a realistic account of how Eskimo lived, and while he forged large parts of it, it still comes across as a fairly realistic account. I wouldn't list Nanook of the North among the greatest documentaries ever made, but I do think it's an important film, and it set the precedent for all of the films that we will cover in this space. The first documentary ever made is far from the best; it lacks the ethics we see in modern documentaries as well as the stylistic verve and technique we often see in later films of the genre. But there's something just a little bit magical about the first time.
Read more It's Been Real here
Coming up on It's Been Real:
10/16: Fog of War
10/30: Super Size Me
11/13: Dear Zachary
11/27: Capturing the Friedmans