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Criterion Files #33: Lies Tell the Truth in ‘Nanook of the North’

By  · Published on March 23rd, 2011

The documentary feature has a considerably long history of a, most likely, mis-distinction in terms of what it actually is. To many, a documentary picture is something to be believed as veritable truth; or, if not wholly truthful then certainly not a depiction of blatant falsities. It’s the capturing of life, edited to entertain or to inform (if done well then it should be both). The capturing of life portion of the formula may be the most important element in terms of relaying to the audience that they are seeing some semblance of truth. It may have been cut to highlight the area the filmmaker felt most pertinent to theirs, or cut to remove the section most damaging, but the moment captured and shown was spontaneous and real.

When things can get interesting is when the spontaneity, or believability in the events onscreen come into question. It’s almost as if a perceived trust has been attacked. Even if that trust was jeopardized for the betterment of the experience; like telling your significant other their hair is breathtaking so you can both enjoy the party and you just hope that good/honest friend of yours doesn’t show up to tell her the truth and burst the bubble of fun.

What’s even more interesting is how the film credited as the first documentary feature was created on just such a lie. With that, we present this week’s Criterion Files entry Nanook of the North.

Better Real or Better Good?

Robert Flaherty was initially hired by Sir William Mackenzie to to prospect a large area of the Hudson Bay. Over the course of several years Flaherty spent an enormous amount of time with local Inuit people and became obsessively fascinated by their lifestyle, and wanted to capture and share their unbreakable enthusiasm and joy in the face of some of the worst everyday living conditions one can perceive.

After years and years of extensive filming of the Eskimo people and their daily struggles with a harsh environment (and being dissatisfied with his work, and accidentally setting his film aflame) Flaherty decided that he would start a new picture. This time, though, he would come prepared with more than just a camera. This he had an idea, a focus…a motive.

Upon realizing his displeasure and lack of actual enjoyment with the viewing experience of his first go-round with the Inuit film he set out to once again live amongst the people he’d become so familiar with over the years, and would build a picture towards something in between the disjointed reality of his first film and an utterly fabricated narrative construct. He set out to use his subjects to perform tasks typical of their life from year-to-year, but they would perform them staged. Essentially, do the things that need to get done, but do them in a fashion where it can be filmed properly (remember, these aren’t exactly handhold cameras back in the early twentieth century) and will allow for impressing the uneducated with how those particular tasks are accomplished.

This particular form of obtrusive filmmaking seems almost sacrilege to the spirit of the documentary picture, especially by today’s standards. It completely removes the capturing lightning in a bottle aspect of the experience. However, Flaherty did create something considerably engaging, and he still did so by having his subjects actually do what we see in front of the camera. It wasn’t done naturally in the moment, but the tasks were still performed with the intent of generating intrigue and an excitable picture for spectators to legitimately enjoy, and not just for them to learn of a foreign culture. In that spirit, he was somewhat able to bring together the best of what both methods of storytelling are capable of producing.

The Original Blair Witch

Even though the picture is stamped as the first true documentary feature, the rise of its popularity was somewhat assisted by ideas inserted into the social conscious by Flaherty himself, which were untrue and again were done with the intent of adding to the experience of the film. Feeling that audiences would better connect with the picture if they could further sympathize with its hero, Nanook, Flaherty had informed the world that the harsh conditions and sparse food had finally gotten the better of the great hunter and that he had died of starvation a couple of years after filming.

This was not true.

Yet, audiences believed it was; and the lie provoked the exact response Flaherty intended. It gave the picture more meaning and a more magnetic draw with the audience’s emotional investment with the Inuits and how they are so clearly depicted as unshakably positive and…well…happy, even as they face potentially slow and painful demises.

If nothing else, the picture is able to replicate that positive disposition. It isn’t exactly enjoyable to see people struggle to survive, but if they can do it with a smile on their face, then the least a film about them (even one less than true) can do is to put one on the audience.

We’ve been taping you this whole time for our documentary. Go read more Criterion Files and sign this waver.

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