Nanook of the North

Released:  1922

Cast:  Allakariallak, Nyla, Cunayou

SUMMARY:  The film, a documentary, opens with a text written by director Robert Flaherty.  This text states that Flaherty was part of a series of explorations in the north, during which time he came into close contact with Eskimos, who acted as his guides.  Their way of life so impressed him that he began to film them.  Several previous films failed, but Flaherty was finally satisfied with this version, which details a year in the life of an Eskimo man named Nanook (real name Allakariallak) and his family, including his wife Nyla and several children.  At the beginning of the film, Nanook and his family have traveled to a white man’s trading post, where Nanook will trade the pelts he has accumulated for other necessary goods.  These pelts include seven polar bears, which Nanook killed with only a spear.  During this visit, the family is introduced to a gramophone, which both delights and puzzles Nanook, and fed by the trader:  when one of the children eats too much, the trader gives him castor oil.  When an ice field moves in and blocks the coast, Nanook is forced to get creative in order to feed his family.  He skips nimbly over ice floes, dragging a small boat and equipment along with him.  When he finds the right spot, he lays on his side and dangles an ivory lure in the water:  when fish bite the lure, he stabs them with a harpoon held in his other hand.  Using this method, Nanook is able to catch several large fish in order to ward off the constant threat of starvation.  Eventually, the ice moves away, but so do the fish.  The family goes for several weeks on little food, until they hear that walrus have been spotted nearby.  Nanook works with several other men to kill a walrus:  they find a group of the animals that have gathered on land, then one man creeps up, avoiding the “lookout” walrus.  When he gets close enough, the man harpoons a walrus; the others then pop up to help him hold onto the harpoon’s rope.  Though the struggle lasts for quite a while (and another walrus comes back to help), the men are able to bring the walrus in and share the meat.

Nanook and his family continue to travel across the land in search of food, particularly seal.  When night comes, he goes ahead of the others and finds a suitable place to spend the night:  he then begins building an igloo.  Nanook licks his walrus-ivory knife in order to put a thin layer of ice on it, then uses it to cut huge blocks of snow out of the ground.  He gradually stacks these blocks onto each other, sealing himself inside as he curves them into a domed top.  As he works, the other adults in the group stuff snow into the cracks, chinking up the igloo.  When he has completed the dome, Nanook cuts a small hole for a door and comes out; the other family members then begin moving in.  Nanook finds some thick ice and uses his knife to cut out a large, square block, which he hauls back to the igloo.  He then cuts an appropriate sized hole in the upper part of the igloo and replaces it with the ice, sealing around the edges with snow to form a window.  Finally, he places another large block of snow on the igloo next to the ice chunk, to reflect the sun in through the “window”.  Inside, the family is able to start a small fire in order to melt snow into water and cook food, but the temperature must be kept below freezing to keep the igloo from collapsing.  After he finishes the igloo (in under an hour), Nanook shows his son how to shoot a small bow.  The next morning, the family resumes their trek to the sealing grounds, but are held up when two of their sled dogs get into a fight.  The family eventually does make it to their destination, and Nanook begins to hunt for a seal.  He finds a small hole in the ice, which the seals maintain in order to breathe, and waits until a seal approaches for a breath:  he then harpoons it.  The struggle to keep the seal from swimming away occupies him for some time, and eventually his family must help him to pull the seal out of the water.  Immediately, Nanook cuts off the seal’s thick layer of blubber, and the family digs into the seal.  By now, night is approaching, but another fight breaks out among the dogs.  The family is already far from shelter, and the fight only delays them further.  Luckily, they are able to find an abandoned igloo, where they take shelter for the night.

MY TAKE:  I think it’s safe to say that everybody who grew up in a place where it snowed thought it’d be cool to live in an igloo.  They also probably tried to build one, or at least marveled at how the roof stayed up (I know I did).  I also read the Julie of the Wolves series as a kid, which detailed the life of a woman who joins a wolfpack in order to survive.  As a result of these two things, I spent most of this movie thinking to myself, “Oh my gosh, this is so cool!”  It’s seriously impressive how Nanook and his family survive, and it’s actually entertaining.  Most silent movie I’ve watched have not been overly entertaining, mostly because of lack of plot development, but I thoroughly enjoyed this one.  In particular, I loved the igloo-building sequence, because I was amazed at how Nanook did it.  It actually reminded me of another famous survival series, the Little House books, because Laura Ingalls Wilder recounts how her father build a sod house by cutting huge blocks of earth from the ground.  That’s basically what Nanook does, only with snow.  The other amazing part is how fast he does it — the igloo was apparently finished in less than an hour.  To top things off, he even adds a window.  I was also intrigued by his various hunting methods, from the strange (but effective) way he fished to the method of catching a seal — though I could have done without the whole cutting-off-the-blubber thing.  I was not overly surprised to learn after watching the film that it is not entirely truthful, mainly because the fight with the seal seemed really staged to me.  In reality, Nanook was not really the man’s name, and neither of the two adult women were his wife (actually, it’s been claimed that both were common-law wives of Flaherty).  Nanook actually used a gun to hunt, but Flaherty requested that he use a spear/harpoon for the movie.  Obviously, Nanook was pretty good at this, which is because it hadn’t been that long since the Eskimos were forced to use that way of hunting (pre-European influence).  The opening text states that Nanook died two years later of starvation, but this is false:  he died at home, probably from tuberculosis.  The scene with the gramophone is also totally staged — Nanook knew what it was.  The scenes inside the igloo were not actually the inside of the igloo that is shown being built, because there wasn’t enough space or light to do that.  Instead, they were filmed in a three-sided igloo.  However, all of the animals, and the hunts, in the movie are real.  Despite these staged or false elements, the film is really entertaining, and still pretty accurate — if not to the specific time, then to a not-so-distant past.  For someone like me, that was born long after this way of life had pretty much ceased (due to Western influence), it’s fascinating to watch.

RATING:  Terrific.

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