Sunday, January 13, 2013

Nanook of the North (Robert J. Flaherty)


While watching "Nanook of the North", I sure can sense the fact that some of the scenes were staged. But after finding out that the film was indeed not a hundred percent spontaneous and unscripted, "Nanook of the North", for me, has still lost none of its power. So what if the film isn't particularly authentic through and through? Let's take Werner Herzog's documentaries as great cases in point. Like "Lessons of Darkness" and the even more experimental "The Wild Blue Yonder", Herzog's documentaries were filled with actual footage only made metaphysically adventurous by half-cryptic, half-poetic narrations, which forge otherworldly narratives in the process. In Robert J. Flaherty's case, his main intent has none of Herzog's maddening grandiosity. Instead, his only goal is to plainly highlight, with honest anthropological eyes, the plight and bittersweet adventures of the Eskimos in the northernmost part of America, but with an anchoring main character to cohesively hold the film together. 
For me, the issue of non-authenticity in "Nanook of the North" is unimportant because as long as a story compels and drags you in a world previously unseen, then that, I think, is more than enough. And what about the hardships endured by Flaherty's crew themselves during the film's extraneous shoot? Isn't that an amazing feat in its own right? I do think so. "Nanook of the North", even for that reason alone, is worthy of all the recognition that it has gotten across time. But aside from that, I do think that the film itself is also a great example of cinematic determination at its infancy, but that does not make it any smaller compared to the hardships of today's industry. Let's just say that Robert J. Flaherty, even before Werner 'The Mad German Genius' Herzog was born, was already going all "Fitzcarraldo" in the deep arctic way before it was cool (pun not intended, by the way). 
The film, about the titular Eskimo and their everyday Exodus towards one simple goal (food), is a bittersweet documentation of what goes on in a place where technology and civilization is all but absent and where Walrus meat are one of the very few luxuries. Nanook (Allakariallak), the patriarch, is an experienced hunter who literally goes through thick and thin just to provide food and shelter for his family, complete with an almost irremovable smile on his face. For a film that is fully bent on visually tackling the turbulent topography of the arctic, "Nanook of the North" is also filled with countless scenes of tear-inducing poignancy, candidness, and awe-inspiring naivety, some of them being scenes involving Nanook and his son. 
In one scene, we even see Nanook, after trading goods with the so-called 'white man' trader in exchange for meager articles (money, after all, is immaterial to them), listens, with profound wonderment, to the quasi-magical sound coming from a phonograph. After doing so, Nanook, after being handed a vinyl record by the white man, first puts it near his ear, and then his mouth. The next thing we know, he is biting on it just like how we see 'Tarzan-like' characters do so in many movies.  
As a viewer, one can't help but to laugh at his utter ignorance. But in a way, one can also feel how enviable people like Nanook really are, especially when their tender innocence and their advantage of not knowing much evokes a sense of pure joy commonly unseen among highly civilized and decorum-following folks. As the old adage goes, sometimes, "ignorance is bliss." 
But apart from "Nanook of the North's" heart-thumping poignancy, the film is also chock-full of scenes which showcase Nanook and company's excellent craftsmanship, despite of the fact that they are miles removed from actual civilization. There's a moment in the film where Nanook, after building an igloo along with his family, picks up a glassy block of ice which he then proceeds to incorporate into their make-shift shelter. As it turns out, Nanook has turned it into a glass window perfect for their igloo. After that, Nanook then puts an additional block of ice beside it; this, as it appears to be, will serve as a sunlight reflector so that the interior of their igloo will be sufficiently lighted. 
So with that, we will go back to the initial inquiry as to whether or not scenes like the ones mentioned above were indeed authentic or merely staged. For me, the question of whether the film really deserves to be labeled as the first documentary film in cinematographic history is highly insignificant because "Nanook of the North", scripted or not, improvisational or otherwise, is nevertheless a film that intensely channels both the spirit of adventure and the resilience of the human body amid the constant prospect of an icy death. Flaherty, in this film, may not be a documentarian in the purest sense of the word, but he has sure attained a level of cinematic humanism still untouched at the time. 
Personally, Flaherty's constant capturing of Nanook's smile, which automatically spreads across his face almost immediately after his close brushes with certain death, just reminds me of the fact that both happiness and contentment have no geographical limits or ends. Ironically, I never expected that it is in the chilling coldness of the deep arctic that I shall find and relish what may be the most flawless documentation of human warmth there is. Until now, I can't remove Nanook's smile off my mind; so pure, so human and so true.


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