Watch the Very First Feature Documentary: Nanook of the North by Robert J. Flaherty (1922)


A rudi­men­ta­ry dif­fer­ence between fic­tion nar­ra­tives and doc­u­men­tary film is sup­posed to be that one is cre­at­ed out of the imag­i­na­tion, and the oth­er is a record­ed doc­u­ment of real events. Yet if we go right back to the very first fea­ture length doc­u­men­tary, Robert J. Fla­her­ty’s Nanook of the North, we see that the line between fact and fic­tion was just as wob­bly then as now.

A pop­u­lar suc­cess when it was released in 1922, Nanook brought its hero­ic title char­ac­ter to an audi­ence who knew noth­ing about the Native tribes of the north. The film shows a way of life that was dis­ap­pear­ing as Fla­her­ty, orig­i­nal­ly an explor­er and prospec­tor, began to doc­u­ment it. We see the hardy Inu­it Nanook hunt­ing with spears, pulling up to a trad­ing sta­tion in a kayak and trad­ing with the white own­er. We see his wife and kids, the fam­i­ly build­ing an igloo and bed­ding down for the night. The film empha­sizes as much his self-reliance as it does Nanook’s naivety. And it ful­ly cement­ed the idea of the Eski­mo in pop­u­lar cul­ture. Nanook became a name as syn­ony­mous with the Inu­it as Pierre is to the French. Frank Zap­pa even wrote a song suite about Nanook.

Fla­her­ty was not trained in film, and learned what he could quick­ly about pho­tog­ra­phy when he decid­ed to shoot footage up north while work­ing for the Cana­di­an Pacif­ic Rail­way. He acci­den­tal­ly destroyed all of his orig­i­nal footage when he dropped a cig­a­rette on the flam­ma­ble nitrite film and set about rais­ing mon­ey for a reshoot. With­out prece­dent, Fla­her­ty rethought his doc into what we now rec­og­nize as clas­sic form: Instead of try­ing to cap­ture the cul­ture, he chose one man as his main char­ac­ter, an entry into an unknown world.

And in those reshoots we find the line between fic­tion and fact blurred. Nanook’s real name was Allakar­i­al­lak, and though he was a hunter, he and his tribe had long ditched the spear for the much more effec­tive gun. Fla­her­ty want­ed to rep­re­sent Inu­it life before the Euro­pean influ­ence, and Allakar­i­al­lak played along, not just hunt­ing with his spear, but pre­tend­ing at the trade out­post not to rec­og­nize a gramo­phone.

The scenes inside the igloo were staged for good rea­son: the cam­era was too big and the light­ing need­ed would have melt­ed the walls. So Allakar­i­al­lak and the crew built a cut­away igloo where the fam­i­ly could pre­tend to bed down for the night. (Oh, and the two women we see were actu­al­ly Flaherty’s com­mon law wives.)

Fla­her­ty’s lega­cy was in com­bin­ing ethnog­ra­phy, trav­el­ogue, and show­ing how peo­ple live and work, none of which had been done before in film. Fla­her­ty con­tin­ued to make doc­u­men­taries into 1950, includ­ing Man of Aran (about life on the Irish isle of the same name) and Tabu, a Poly­ne­sian island tale direct­ed by F.W. Mur­nau, best known for Nos­fer­atu. But none had the impact of this film. When the Library of Con­gress first start­ed list­ing films in 1989 for preser­va­tion, spec­i­fy­ing ones that were “cul­tur­al­ly, his­tor­i­cal­ly, or aes­thet­i­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant,” Nanook was in the first selec­tion of 25.

The idea of build­ing a liv­ing habi­tat in order to con­trol the action still hap­pens in nature doc­u­men­taries, and humans read­i­ly play­ing a ver­sion of them­selves to tell a cer­tain kind of nar­ra­tive is the basis of all real­i­ty TV. Fla­her­ty bent bor­ing truth to get to a dif­fer­ent, “essen­tial” truth. Is it bet­ter that we believe that Nanook died out on the ice, a vic­tim of the harsh real­i­ty of sur­vival on the ice, or to know that he actu­al­ly died at home from tuber­cu­lo­sis? The qual­i­ties that caused con­tro­ver­sy upon Nanook’s release aren’t the oppo­site of doc­u­men­tary, they *are* doc­u­men­tary.

You can pur­chase your own copy of Nanook of the North from Cri­te­ri­on here.

It will also be added to our list of Free Doc­u­men­taries, a sub­set of our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The 10 Great­est Doc­u­men­taries of All Time Accord­ing to 340 Film­mak­ers and Crit­ics

Watch Luis Buñuel’s Sur­re­al Trav­el Doc­u­men­tary A Land With­out Bread (1933)

Watch Dzi­ga Vertov’s Unset­tling Sovi­et Toys: The First Sovi­et Ani­mat­ed Movie Ever (1924)

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the FunkZone Pod­cast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at and/or watch his films here.

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Comments (3)
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  • Mickey Meads says:

    I like to think of Edward Cur­tis’s “In the Land of the Head Hunters” (also called “In the Land of the War Canoes”) as the first doc­u­men­tary.

  • Bill W. says:

    The Doors famous­ly incor­po­rat­ed this film into their video for the song ‘Wild Child’, and they did it very well!

  • Jacob Lageveen says:

    This is incred­i­ble footage. Nev­er saw this before. We know almost noth­ing about the way of life these eskimo´s were hav­ing. Bril­liant video, thanks!

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