As fascinating and suspenseful as any fictional movie adventure, Nanook of the North remains, 80 years after its premiere, a landmark film both in the history of the documentary movement and of the cinema itself.
In 1920, explorer and filmmaker Robert Flaherty called upon his ten years of experiece in the frigid sub-zero Hudson Bay region of Canada to make a “photoplay” about life there. As his subject, he cast the Eskimo hunter Nanook and a photogenic “family,” personalities so real that no Holywood screenwriter could have dreamed them up. With unobtrusive, quietly powerful cinematography, Flaherty proceded to film one stunning sequence after another of Nanook’s cold and primitive existence. The result is a documentary arresting in its immediacy, full of the stark action of desparate hunts for food, and warmed by the inspiring efforts of a family who must fight together for survival. Nanook himself actually died of starvation only two years after shooting was completed, a fact that only strengthens the film’s extraordinary impact.
Director: Robert Flaherty, Documentary, National Film Registry, Silent, B&W, 1922, English intertitles, 79 mins.