Quick recap: Nanook (who’s name isn’t really Nanook) is an Eskimo (Inuk) who must fight daily (with guns) for survival. Along with documenting Nanook’s life (most of it is staged), the film also captures his family ( not really his family) and how they manage to adapt to the bitter cold.
Fun (?) fact: Shortly after the film’s release, it was revealed that Nanook had died of starvation. Actually, it’s more likely he died at home of Tuberculosis, which is somehow better?
My thoughts: Nanook of the North is considered to be the first wide released documentary, which right off the bat I disagree with because so much of it is staged. One article I read put it in the genre of ‘docudrama’ which is a little better, I suppose, but still doesn’t reflect the level of fakery that was sold to the public. Before I continue ranting any more, I feel it best to point out that Nanook of the North , regardless of what it has been classified as, is a perfectly fine film all its own. I could’ve watched images of the landscape for many hours and the characters were also endlessly fascinating, real or not.
And now back to your regularly scheduled rant.
I knew going into this that I would potentially be watching something culturally insensitive, as the 20s weren’t known so much for their embracing of diversity as they were known for treating groups like a zoo attraction. One of the very first pieces of text describes the Inuk people (called eskimos) as a happy, simple people. And then the rest of the movie is spent justifying this statement. During one scene, Nanook’s family travels to a trading post, run by the ‘white man’ . While there, they encounter a gramophone for the first time and Nanook hilariously tries to bite the record, to see what it is (he knew what one was in real life). A minute later, one of the children has a stomach ache from eating so much and the man gives him some castor oil. In seconds, the child was smiling brightly and rubbing his stomach and licking his lips as if the oil were the best thing he had ever had in his entire life. Some of the scenes were truly touching, like when Nanook was showing a young child how to hunt with a bow and arrow. But overall, the simplicity of this family bothered me. The best example of this being the final scene, when the family has barely survived a sudden snowstorm. They find shelter in an abandoned igloo and, with faces radiant with happiness, lay down to sleep. It was supposed to be an example of the enduring strength of this man, but to me, came off once again like an attraction at the zoo.
The hunting scenes didn’t bother me as much as they apparently did to audiences when the movie came out. By the time Nanook and his family were being filmed, most of the families in the tribe had started using guns to hunt for food. But since guns kill things easier than a spear, they were left out of the film. I guess I didn’t care so much about these scenes being reenacted because it was hard for food to come by and so you have to work with what you have. And even though Nanook had moved to more modern forms of hunting, he still knew the ways of his ancestors.
Final reveiw: 3/5. A beautiful film filled with lies, but still a work of art.
Up next: Another surprise, apparently.