Two new books ask, “Are we still in the same world?”
The final scene of Robert Flaherty’s 1922 silent film, Nanook of the North, is a sweet domestic montage. The little family of the Inuit hunter Nanook is tucking in for the night, inside an igloo , a house cut from blocks of snow that, as the on screen script has told us, Nanook can build in less than one hour. Previously, we have seen Nanook do this — neatly, swiftly carving pieces of perfect snow into large blocks, stacking, fitting, smoothing them with a blade cut from a walrus tusk, and then cutting a block of sheer ice and mounting it into the house as a window. Then we see Nanook’s beautiful wife Nyla polishing the inside of the window.

But now it is night. Everyone is snuggling down into a bed of skins and furs. The sled dogs are huddled outside, still in their traces, their puppies secured inside the igloo. The members of the family have removed their sealskin boots; Nanook, his back to the camera, gets naked to the waist in the middle of the bed. There are several small children with black tousled heads cuddled up to the adults. The two wives, Nyla and Cunayou, in the tradition of ethnographic photography, face the camera while removing their sealskins and fur parkas, so that we may briefly enjoy the sight of their breasts.

The dogs howl and shiver, their fur thickened by snow as the blizzard rages. Flaherty cuts for several minutes between closeups of the dogs, wide shots of the landscape being battered by wind and snow, and closeups of the sleeping family. The final shot is one of Nanook’s robust, smiling face, sound asleep. Tia Mak: The End.

The end, in a real sense, came too soon for Allakariallak, the Inuk hunter who played Flaherty’s hero, Nanook. For although Nanook is hailed as a documentary for its close observations of a way of life, it is in most respects a fiction about a way of life already past. Its mythical characters are played by local Inuit of the community of Inukjuak on the eastern coast of Hudson Bay (Quebec and, by 2009, the territory of Nunavik). In 1923, one year after Nanook was released, Allakariallak starved while hunting on the tundra, built a snow house, and crawled inside to die.

It was the end for Flaherty himself in the Arctic, too; he went back to New York, cut the film with his wife Frances, sold the distribution rights to Pathé, made his name, fame, and fortune, and never went north again. Nanook of the North was an unprecedented commercial success worldwide. Allakariallak’s face graced ice cream packaging, and the name Nanook came to mean “strong man” in Malaysia. Filmmakers like Orson Welles and Sergei Eisenstein called Nanook of the North a masterpiece. Flaherty’s subsequent career was haunted by the success of Nanook; he was apparently a difficult individual, not a great collaborator, and films like Moana and Louisiana Story, while well received, never achieved the status of Nanook. Flaherty died at age sixty-seven in 1951. John Grierson of Canada’s National Film Board, his friend and colleague, wrote a memorial essay and found in Flaherty’s heroes from Nanook onward an eager, hopeful boyishness embodying “the son he never had.”

But it was not the end of Flaherty in the Arctic; look again at Nanook’s sweet sleeping family, at the radiant wife Nyla, played by a young Ungava Inuk named Maggie Nujuarluktuk. She was five months pregnant when Robert Flaherty left Inukjuak with his footage, and on Christmas Day, 1921, she gave birth to his son, Josephie Flaherty, a residual of Flaherty’s triumphant Arctic sojourn never acknowledged in his lifetime.

Flaherty’s “fearless, lovable, happy-golucky Eskimo” family became iconic. Nanook of the North portrays the Inuit as resourceful, successful hunters in a sublimely hostile landscape where other humans would perish. The film celebrates the closeness of the family, the easy affection and humour of men and women, their love of children, the collaborative nature of the enterprise of survival. But the ironies in both the film’s making and its lingering impact are legion.

In order to tell his story of the intrepid hunter and his family, Flaherty removed all but the slightest references to their connections with the white world, keeping only those that were humorous — an Inuk infant enjoying a spoonful of castor oil — or emblematic of quaintness — a scene showing Nanook listening with hilarity and incredulity to a windup gramophone and then trying to eat the record. The Inuit, many of whom smoked constantly, were forbidden to smoke on film. They were not allowed to use guns as they would have done to kill walrus; here is Flaherty describing the making of the walrus-hunt sequence:

“Nanook picked out the biggest bull, rose quickly and with all his strength landed his harpoon. The wounded bull, bellowing in rage, his enormous bulk diving and thrashing the sea (he weighed more than 2,000 pounds), the yells of the men straining for their lives in their attempt to hold him, the battle cry of the herd that hovered near. . . . [It] was the greatest fight I have ever seen. For a long time it was nip and tuck — repeatedly the crew called to me to use the gun — but the camera crank was my only interest then and I pretended not to understand. . . . For at least twenty minutes that tug o’war kept on. I say twenty minutes advisedly for I ground out 1,200 feet of film.”

And the practicalities of shooting film in an Arctic winter and processing it daily (the beginning of the tradition of rushes) would have been impossible without the Inuit cast and crew. As Frances Flaherty recalled in a 1960 article:

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