In the days long before the term “documentary” had even been coined this full feature movie did it all. The filmmaker Robert Flaherty (1884-1951) had an early exposure to people of the Arctic. Born in Michigan, he spent quite a bit of time traveling with his father in northern Canada. He developed an ethnographic eye and casually filmed many short sequences of the daily lives of Inuit people. He later decided to put all these clips together to create a full feature film. Misfortunes happen throughout careers of famous directors. For example Andre Tarkovsky had to re-shoot his movie Stalker after finding out that the films were improperly developed. Similarly, Flaherty destroyed his entire footage when he dropped his cigarette on highly flammable photographic media. Real journey is to go back. Funded by a French fur company he went back to the Ungava Peninsula of Hudson Bay. This time he had an action plan. Rather than filming independent bits of sequences he decided to create a narrative by following a single individual for a whole year between August 1920 and August 1921. He also had two cameras instead of one. Invented by the influential naturalist Carl Akeley, the Akeley gyroscope cameras were the best equipment to work in cold weather since lubricated parts made tilt and pan actions rather challenging. These cameras were so successful in outdoor conditions that they were even mounted on a plane for shooting aerial sequences of the 1929 movie “The Winged Horseman”.
Flaherty had a very immersive personality. He liked story telling and sharing his work instantly with his native collaborators. Immediately after shooting he was keen to develop and print the film and show it to his fellows in a makeshift movie theater. For example after filming the walrus hunt scene, he wrote:
“I lost no time in developing and printing the film. That walrus fight was the first film these Eskimo had ever seen and, in the language of the trade, it was a ‘knock-out.’ The audience — they thronged the post kitchen to the point of suffocation — completely forgot the picture. To them the walrus was real and living. The women and children in their high shrill voices joined with the men in shouting admonitions, warnings and advice to Nanook and his crew as the picture unfolded on the screen. The fame of that picture spread through all the country. … After this it did not take my Eskimo long to see the practical side of films and … from that time on, they were all with me.”
Before Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, there were a few filmmakers who had focused on the daily lives of people. The Lumière Brothers for example recorded short clips of less than one minute each and used them as a medium for mass consumption. However these projections had no binding theme or a story telling component. Flaherty’s approach was revolutionary in merging the narrative power of cinema with the reality of ordinary life. He successfully captured the relationship of man with nature in extreme habitats. First review of the movie was published in New York Times in June 12 1922. Thus was born the genre of documentary.
Since then, many filmmakers carried Flaherty’s flag in capturing scenes of ethnographical value. In 1925 another movie called Grass: A Nations Battle for Life was released. The filmmakers Merian C. Cooper and his team were not aware of Flaherty’s Nanook by that time. They were also quite successful in capturing the struggle between man and nature by filming migration of the nomadic Bakhtiari people. Both films were selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
Ground truthing of Flaherty’s documentation came from Dr. Asen Balikci of the Montreal University. In 1967 he went to Inuit country to film the ways of the Arctic people. Balikci’s Netsilik Eskimo Series beautifully complements Flaherty’s in an academic style known as visual anthropology.
Flaherty later on wrote an account of his experience in an article titled ““Life Among Eskimos”” detailing his work.
As a final remark, you can have a better idea of the geographical setting Flaherty worked by watching the archival footage of the Ungava Peninsula in a documentary made in 1949 by Douglas Wilkinson and Jean P. Michéa: