Charles Dance and Adamie Quasiak Inukpuk in Kabloonak (1994)

KABLOONAK (The Stranger: Kabloonak)

(director/writer: Claude Massot; screenwriter: Sebastian Regnier; cinematographers: Jacques Loiseleux/Francois Protat; editors: Joëlle Hache/Claire Pinheiro; cast: Charles Dance (Robert Flaherty), Adamie Quasiak Inukpuk (Nanook), Seporah Ungalaq (Nyla), Matthew Saviakjuk-Jaw (Aviuk), Georges Claisse (Wisconsin), Skipper Bill (Tony Vogel); Runtime: 105; UGC; 1994-Canada/France)

“The film retells the story of Nanook, who in 1922 was the “star” of Flaherty’s Nanook of the North.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Robert Flaherty, the so-called ‘father’ of the documentary, was a prospector in Canada and spent four years raising money to go to the frozen north tundra of Canada and film the Eskimo way of life. The film retells the story of Nanook, who in 1922 was the “star” of Flaherty’s Nanook of the North.

The film opens as Flaherty (Charles Dance) sits dejectedly in a New York bar in 1922. His film just premiered to rave reviews and Paramount Pictures wants him to do another. Flashback to 1919: with Flaherty on a whaler ship, arriving in Port Harrison, Hudson Bay, being greeted at a fur company post by both the native Inuits and the manager, a white man named Wisconsin.

Flaherty’s plan is to spend a year with the Eskimos and film them hunting. Three months go by and he hasn’t shot a bit of film. He then comes up with the idea of getting the best hunter among the Inuits and have him go hunting in the old way, without a rifle. He talks the personable Nanook (Inukpuk) into being that hunter.

The wilderness and the snowbound land are visually appealing while the Eskimos come across as a friendly people, easily given to smiling, even if some are suspicious of the white men thinking of them to be useless as hunters. Flaherty finds that he is living in very difficult conditions, as every day the temperature ranges between -30 and -50 degrees.

Flaherty tries to win the Inuits over by taking their photos and offering fruit and sweets. He films them as they bring in a seal and carve it up, and as they eat it. He films a fascinating walrus hunt, and gets to go out for a long sled trek with Nanook to catch a bear. Catching a bear is not that easy, and his little party runs into some trouble when he fails to secure properly the kerosene can on the back of the sled. His helpers all desert, leaving him alone with Nanook. The two of them continue to track the bear to the sea, but the bear secretly goes back to their camp and knocks over their igloo and kills their dogs. The two now have a tough time getting back to the post but after some bouts with frostbite and hunger, they make it back. But for Nanook, it is the first time he has come back from a hunt without any food. Soon the embarrassed Nanook steals off alone to go get the bear leaving Flaherty in the village to sleep with some Eskimo women, even fathering a son with Nyla (Ungalaq). His son will live to be 60 and will live all his life in Resolute Bay.

The filmmaker Massot shows the filmmaker Flaherty staging shots of Eskimos building igloos, sleeping together, and lots of faked shots of Eskimos doing things solely for the camera. But somehow the film works in a very human way and the thrill of seeing the Eskimos live in such harsh conditions is something few Westerners can readily comprehend or for that matter, have ever seen before.

Nanook comes back after a month, with his allusive bear. It is now spring and the Eskimos desert Flaherty again and go hunting geese and the disappointed Flaherty asks Wisconsin, why he wasn’t told where they were going. Wisconsin tells him, when it comes spring they are either ‘screwing’ or ‘hunting.’

The boat comes for Flaherty and he sadly must leave before his year is up. In the nick of time the Intuits return in kayaks and Flaherty says his heartfelt farewells, with a special one for Nanook. Flaherty remembers Nanook telling him as he left,”It was good with you.”

The film now returns to the New York bar and it shows Flaherty looking at the telegram: 10 Feb. 1922-Nanook died from starvation because of a terrible hunting season-Wisconsin.

The film wisely focused most of its attention on the hardships Flaherty had to overcome to be the first one to make what has become known as a documentary film. Both versions are distinguished for using the real Intuits to play themselves. It is also interesting to note that even though Flaherty became world-famous, his standing in Hollywood was nil. So much for Hollywood and what it considers important in filmmaking.