Nanook of the North (1922)

nanook of the north poster 1922 movie
8.0 Overall Score

Interesting early documentary looking at a different culture


Movie Info

Movie Name:  Nanook of the North

Studio:  Les Frères Revillon

Genre(s):  Silent/Documentary/Drama

Release Date(s):  June 11, 1922

MPAA Rating:  Not Rated

nanook of the norht gramophone allakariallak

So you want me to pretend like I don’t know what this is? Ok…whatever

Inuk Nanook and his family face hardship and the struggles of the Far North as winter comes on and food becomes scarce.  The Inuit family spends the days surviving by hunting, trapping, and trips to trading posts to exchange their wares.  Be it hunting walrus, seal, or fish, Nanook provides for his family and people…and becomes a legend!

Directed by Robert J. Flaherty, Nanook of the North is a documentary-drama.  The silent film has faced modern criticism for staging of scenes and the portrayal of the Inuit culture.  The film was one of the first films selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1989.  The Criterion Collection released a remastered version of the film (Criterion #33).

nanook of the north walrus hunt

The walrus hunt

Nanook is an interesting film in that it is considered a documentary (now sometimes called salvage ethnography) where a culture is showcased on film.  The difference with modern documentaries and Nanook of the North is that documentaries weren’t really a thing at the time of Nanook, and Flaherty was doing something new.

The film was initially shot in 1914 and 1915, but an accident cost most of the film and Flaherty to reassess his plans for the film.  He decided to give the movie more of a story by focusing on Nanook (whose real name was Allakariallak) and then he started scripting the events.  This moves it from a documentary to a story, but aspects of the day-to-day life of the Inuit people are more of a documentary than a story.

It is hard to get a read on “Nanook” since it is a silent picture, but he seems to enjoy the experience.  Lots of the classic “scenes” were tweaked for the movie.  He knew what a gramophone was, the inside of the igloo was faked to get a camera in, and reports indicate that the two women Nyla and Cunayou weren’t the wives of Nanook but stand-ins.  It becomes an inaccurate portrayal of the man, but the basic struggles are there.

nanook of the north inuk inuit

Even if it is faked…is it still completely inaccurate?

For what Flaherty was dealing with weather wise in the Ungava Peninsula of Quebec, the movie looks surprising good.  It was the early 1920s and films in general weren’t very sophisticated…and they were generally shot indoors on sets.  Here, Flaherty goes to some of the extremes of the Earth, and it holds up well in that sense.

Nanook of the North feels like the old documentaries filmstrips you would watch as a kid.  It has a hero and arctic locations.  While much of the movie can be questioned in its legitimacy, it still has heart and presents something not usually scene at the time and created a “character” that has had an enduring impact culturally…it is worth seeking out in that sense.

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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