NANOOK OF THE NORTH (Nanouk) (Nanouk l’esquimese) (US/FR 1922)
Directed by Robert J. Flaherty
Score composed and conducted by Gabriel Thibaudeau
Performed live by a quartet of flutes from the Orchestra San Marco, Pordenone, with Inuit throat-singers Lydia Etok and Nina Segalowitz, and vocal soloists Alberto Spadotto and Anna Viola; with Frank Bockius on percussion.
On 11 June 2022, the Inuit community of Inukjuak, a town on the eastern shore of Hudson Bay in Canada, gathered to celebrate the centenary of Nanook of the North, a local heritage. Among the audience were descendants of the hunter Allakariallak (Nanook’s real name), and of Robert J. Flaherty. His relationships with Inuit women were kept secret until his death, including the one with Maggie Nujarlutuk – Nyla, the fictional wife of Nanook. Thirty-two years after their affair, during the Canadian High Arctic Relocation of 1953 and 1955, their son Josephie Flaherty was deported together with his and other Inuit families to the inhospitable Grise Fiord, a hamlet in the Arctic Archipelago of the northernmost Canadian territories. Josephie’s story is also part of the film’s legacy, and an example of those disruptive forces of colonization and industrialization (federal governments, fur trading companies, prospectors, hydroelectric enterprises, missionaries, residential schools, etc.) which, in the attempt to advance sovereignty, assimilation, and commercial interests, have been affecting Inuit lives and culture for over a century. Despite great loss and suffering, the Inuit resisted, and, as Inukjuak shows, are still self-preserving their cultural heritage, as they have been doing since the time of Nanook and earlier.
Nanook of the North was the result of an exceptional collaboration and an 11-year relationship between Robert J. Flaherty and the Inuit. Prior to the making of Nanook – shot between August 1920 and August 1921 in Port Harrison, now Inukjuak – Flaherty had worked for years in Inuit territories as an iron-ore prospector. Since the first time that he brought “one of those new-fangled things, called a motion picture camera” during his 1913 expedition to Baffin Island, he also carried with him a projector to show the rushes to the Inuit so that, in his own words, “they would work with me as partners”. The Inuit were giving feedback and suggesting what to film (Robert J. Flaherty, My Eskimo Friends, 1924): “In the long evenings around the hut’s crackling stove my Eskimos and I talked and speculated as to what scenes could be made.” In addition, Flaherty collected and took inspiration from the drawings of the Inuit artist Nungusuituq, his guide from 1913 to 1914. As Flaherty’s diaries suggest, one of the scenes of his 1914 lost film, his groundwork for Nanook, was based on one of these drawings, whereas the drama in Nanook of the North was inspired by the real-life story of a marooned family of an Inuk hunter, Comok, told to Flaherty by Comok himself in 1912 or 1914. The Inuit were both “informed actors” and “active collaborators” (William Rothman, Documentary Film Classics, 1997) in the making of this cross-cultural representation of Inuit life, and they were also operating the camera, fixing the frozen camera gears, and developing the film on the spot. That is why, despite some of its flaws, stereotypes, and cultural inaccuracies, the film displays genuine Inuit skills and knowledge, and therefore is still considered historically and culturally significant by the Inuit.
More than five years spent in closeness with Inuit culture and in Inuit territories must have had a great influence over Flaherty’s vision and practice: “I had been dependent on these people, alone with them for months at a time, travelling with them and living with them (…) My work had been built up along them.” (“Robert Flaherty Talking”, in Cinema 1950, edited by Roger Manvell, 1950) Inuit filmmakers like Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, director of Angry Inuk (2016), and Zacharias Kunuk, director of the Caméra d’Or winner Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001) and founder of Isuma (Canada’s first Inuit-owned production company), make films using a relatable collaborative approach: “Inuit do not work in hierarchies.” (Alethea Arnaquq Baril, in imagiveNATIVE. On-screen protocols & pathways, edited by Marcia Nickerson, 2019) Isuma instills Inuit cultural values of respectful cooperation, community support, and collective participation into its filmmaking practice, in opposition to individuality and competition. According to Norman Cohn, cinematographer and co-founder of Isuma, the Inuit way of making films is “the Inuit way of making anything… it is like seal-hunting”. “There is an Inuit sensibility that you achieve the important things in life by working together.” (Norman Cohn, IsumaTV interview, 2008) Despite being produced 100 years ago in a colonial context of exchange, this Inuit sensibility and working method is remarkably reflected in the way Nanook was made.
Never before Nanook of the North had the life, stories, and cultural activities of “real people” been creatively shaped into a drama, acted and re-enacted by the people themselves. “It is life as narrativised that, for the first time, we witness in Nanook” (Brian Winston, The Documentary Film Book, 2013). For many, this film marks the beginning of documentary cinema, what John Grierson later defined as “the creative treatment of actuality”. The centennial of Nanook of the North calls us to acknowledge the Inuit agency behind its making and regard the film as the result of a collective effort, at the roots of a collaborative approach to documentary filmmaking. To put it in Flaherty’s words: “In the end, it is all a question of human relationships.” (Robert J. Flaherty, 1950)
The music At 45 degrees below zero, you can barely hear sounds. With this cold, they never go very far. However, for more than ten thousand years, the Inuit have heard the wind shifting the snow, the dogs howling, the icy sled runners crunching, the screaming of thousands of wild geese taking flight when autumn comes, and the rivers streaming in the spring. They listen to the voice of the elders, bearers of wisdom, and to the voice of children, bearers of hope. And silence. Deafening silence.
And then there are the Kabloonak, the white people, with their big sails, their enormous ships… and their cameras.
There’s a game that fascinates the Inuit during the long polar night: Katajak. It’s a vocal game, with the women changing their voices in rhythm, projecting them towards each other until it all bursts into laughter! They tell themselves about their universe. Unsurprisingly, these songs are called “The Dog”, “The River”, and so on.
As if echoing this game, the score for Nanook leaps from one instrument to another, twirling like snow in the sun. Four flutes respond to four singers, two Kabloonak and naturally two Inuit. These two quartets are punctuated by percussion, here meditative, there panting. I tried using a shared breath to celebrate the ultimate joy of being alive – a tribute to the unforgettable energy of Nanook’s smile!
Of course, this concert would have been impossible without the generous collaborative work of Nina Segalowitz, Lydia Etok, and the musicians of the Orchestra San Marco di Pordenone. They all deserve our gratitude.
Nakurmiik! (Thank you, in Inuktitut.)
NANOOK OF THE NORTH (Nanouk) (Nanouk l’esquimese) (US/FR 1922)
regia/dir: Robert J. Flaherty.
scen: Robert J. Flaherty, Frances H. Flaherty.
did/titles: Carl Stearns Clancy, Robert J. Flaherty.
photog: Robert J. Flaherty, asst. “Harry Lauder”, Bob Stewart.
mont/ed: Carl Stearns Clancy, Robert J. Flaherty, Charles Gelb.
cast: Allakariallak (Nanook), Maggie Nujarlutuk (Nyla), Cunayou (la figlia/the daughter), Philipoosie (Allegoo, il figlio/the son), Bob Stewart (il commerciante/trading post agent).
prod: Robert J. Flaherty, Revillon Frères.
dist: Pathé Exchange.
uscita/rel: 11.06.1922 (Capitol Theatre, New York).
copia/copy: DCP, 85′; did./titles: ENG.
fonte/source: Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa.