This was the first look into the Inuit world. It essentially was the first documentary made. In the early 1900’s Robert J. Flaherty went on an expedition to the Canadian Arctic by the Hudson Bay. During his time spent with the Inuit people (whom he referred to as Eskimos) he documented the experience with a Bell-Howell Camera and a portable developing and printing machine. During expeditions between 1910 and 1913 Flaherty compiled enough footage to put together a short film. The film burned and Flaherty decided to go back with a film crew and recapture what he had lost of raw footage. 1914 through 1916 Nanook was created. I say created instead of filmed to make the differentiation between the earlier raw film and the product of direction that was the footage used in the final cuts.
The film debtued in 1921 to an overwhelmingly great reception. This film was ground breaking at the time and it was considered exotic, it brought “primitive” people to the conscious of the “civilized” world. The film has the feel of the eyes of a Cultural Anthropologist viewing a new culture. This way of looking inside, would become the tradition of “salvage ethnography”. Salvage Ethnography is the recording of a cultures way of life before the modern world encroaches and it disappears forever.
Flaherty’s reconstruction of events didn’t have the authenticity of the raw footage. Despite it I believe it doesn’t deserve much of the criticism it has received. It did serve the purpose of documenting something no one had seen before. It brought new words, concepts, and physical items to the rest of the word. Before this film the word Eskimo didn’t exist in the outside world, nor did Harpoon, Seal Skin Boots, Igloo, Huskies, or Kayak. New concepts like Dog sleds and Mushing which were foreign.
Because of technical inability to capture things as they were, adaptions had to be made to successfully record situations and events. There was not enough light inside an igloo, so three quarters of an igloo was built to do the interior scenes. There were so many more controversies attached to this film. The names of the people were changed, who knows why, Nanook’s wives were not really his wives, he hunted with a gun in reality, but Flaherty posed him and others with spears. There was, what we now can see, a great deal of racism and ethnocentricity. Sitting in a theater watching this film over 100 years later it is easy to criticize the work, but in the end it was the invention of what was to become coined as “documentary” that puts it in a significant place in history of the motion picture.