Allee, Cunayou, Alice Nevalinga, and Allakariallak in Nanook of the North (1922)


(director/writer/cinematographer/editor/producer: Robert Flaherty; editor: Charles Gelb; music: Stanley Silverman; cast: Nanook (The Bear), Nyla (Smiling One), Cunayou, Alle, Allegoo; Runtime: 65; MPAA Rating: NR; Criterion Collection; 1922-silent)

“Nanook of the North is considered to be the first documentary ever made and is a truly joyous film experience.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Robert Flaherty’s (“Man of Aran”/”Louisiana Story”) Nanook of the North is considered to be the first documentary ever made and is a truly joyous film experience. This pioneering effort in telling a nonfiction story had Flaherty live among the Eskimos in Canada’s Hudson Bay region for a year and he studied them through his home movies without the use of dialogue. Flaherty, a virtual one-man crew, made the project an actuality by getting $50,000 to help with the filming costs from a French fur company called Revillon Freres.

It follows a great Inuit hunter Nanook and his family (his two wives Cunayou and Nyla and his two children Alle and Allegoo), living the traditional life. We see him ice fish, hunt walrus, seal and fox, and build an igloo. The Eskimos are living almost as purely as they always were, hardly touched by the modern world and industrialization. In order to generate excitement, Flaherty added to his storytelling by staging many of the shots, including hunting sequences and the building of an igloo (it had only three sides to allow the filmmaker enough lighting to film the interior). Reportedly one such set piece was a harpooning sequence which was shot over many days and spliced together for the film instead of in a single moment, as one was made to think. Nevertheless the film gave the westerner who, in all probability, never saw what life was like on the frozen tundra, a chance to observe the harsh primitive world and the Eskimos constant fight to survive in such a fierce environment. It helped that Nanook was such a pleasant guide, someone the camera took an instant liking to, especially in the film’s most hilarious scene wherein the good-natured leathery faced Nanook heartily laughs as he listens in amazement to sounds coming out of a record player.

Ironically, Nanook starved to death while on a deer hunt shortly after the film’s release in 1924, a victim of the forces of nature that he had so masterfully conquered on film.

Nanook of the North was an original selection to the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 1989.