Thursday, June 24, 2010

100 years, 100 films 13: Nanook of the North (1922)

Before I watched this documentary directed by Robert J. Flaherty I was worried about this film. I was worried it was going to be either patronisingly racist, or boring. Fortunately, it was neither of those things. It started out threatening to become both - the first fifteen or so minutes of the film are kind of slow, and there are a few scenes of stuff like "Oh look! Nanook has never seen a gramaphone before! Isn't it hilarious to watch him marvel at this technology we take for granted!"

But then something happened. Something that totally immersed me into this film. Nanook killed a walrus. Now, it wasn't so much the actual killing of the walrus that fascinated me. What fascinated me was the fact that, after Nanook had killed this walrus, he then had to deal with this giant two tonne lump of meat flopping around in the ocean, being pulled in and pushed out by the tide. It had never really struck me before (or at least not in such a concrete form) - if you live in a Hunter Gatherer society, once you hunt something, you then have to gather it as well. And if you've hunted something big, that gathering can actually be more difficult than the hunting was. Dragging around that two tonnes of meat is way more difficult than throwing that spear was.

And from this revelation onwards, I was hooked. Nanook builds an igloo - fascinating. Nanook struggles to capture a seal - rivetting. Nanook and his family get stranded in a snowstorm - terrifying. Nanook is forced to leave his dogs outside in the snowstorm, while he and his family take shelter in an abandoned igloo - heartbreaking.

I understand that significant portions of this documentary were staged for dramatic effect, but really, does it matter? At the time, the idea of "documentaries" didn't really exist in the concrete form in which they exist today. Flaherty was attempting to depict what life was like for the Inuits, not exactly what happened to these specific Inuits at the specific times Flaherty was there.

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