Share via Email We have become so accustomed to television documentaries in which someone famous travels to a distant part of the world to view its inhabitants in their natural state that we have quite forgotten where it all originated. One of the fountainheads was Robert Flaherty, an American from Michigan who was as much the great Victorian romantic as any Englishman born in the lateth century. Flaherty was a pioneer of the documentary, and one of those whose work sparked many of the continuing arguments about truth and falsehood within the genre. But if you look at Nanook of the North you can see where so much else has come from.
The Cinema of Britain and Ireland, Wallflower, Shortly before his death inRobert Flaherty was working on a documentary about the triumphant and controversial return from Korea of the bombastic General MacArthur. He was experimenting with the new Cinerama process, an elaborate 3-D system then being developed by the film industry as a commercial response to the growing threat of television.
These seem remarkably contradictory projects in terms of scale and theme but then nearly everything about Flaherty's life and work was contradictory.
He was, for example, credited with inventing the documentary form of filmmaking with his study of Inuit life, Nanook of the North and his portrait of life in Samoa, Moana Yet he was castigated in for betraying that form with the release of Man of Aran, his film about life on the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland.
Part of his early adolescence was spent in the Canadian wilderness with his father prospecting for iron ore and living a primitive frontier life with miners, drifters and displaced native Americans. He retained a deep and abiding interest in the concept of the 'primitive' and these early experiences were to influence his particular approach to filmmaking.
In later life Flaherty was to declare, 'I am an explorer first and a filmmaker a long way after', and certainly his development as a filmmaker was a slow and almost accidental process. By the time he was twenty-two he was exploring and surveying Western Canada for various railroad and mining syndicates and inwas contracted by Canada's most powerful industrialist, Sir William Mackenzie to prospect for iron ore deposits in the sub-arctic wastes north of Hudson Bay.
Over the next five years he made four trips to northern Canada, discovering and mapping the Belcher Islands and locating large deposits of iron ore for his employer.
During one of these expeditions, Flaherty took with him, apparently at Mackenzie's suggestion, 'one of those new-fangled movie picture cameras'.
He was however, intrigued by the new medium and began a lifelong obsession with exploring its potential. In a way, Flaherty adopted the same attitude to filmmaking as he did to mining - he probed, explored and experimented with the medium and when he needed to, he was happy to seek patronage from corporate business to help him realise his projects.
His achievements as an explorer, geologist and even anthropologist were quite considerable by this stage but when he set off again for the far North in it was with the express purpose of making a film about the Inuit life he had encountered on his previous trips.
The working methods of a lifetime, so influential in the development of documentary filmmaking generally, were established on this trip. Flaherty lived among the Inuit of the Ungava peninsula for over a year, shooting a large amount of footage and building his film around the struggle for survival of one man and his family.
The film went on to become an international box-office hit.
The irony was that this film was so unlike established commercial cinema that all the main distributors refused to handle it. Its commercial success, however, was not lost on Jesse Lasky of Paramount who, with characteristic Hollywood sensitivity and insight, offered Flaherty a budget big enough to go anywhere in the world and 'bring back another Nanook'.
Flaherty chose to go to the South Sea island of Samoa.
His wife, Frances, an accomplished photographer, was by now his main collaborator and with a full crew and mobile laboratory, the Flaherty family settled among the Polynesian natives for the next two years. Paramount were neither pleased with Flaherty nor with the film one disgruntled executive complaining that there were no blizzards in Moana.
The film was only half- heartedly released under the enticing, misleading and ultimately insulting sub- title of The Love Life of a South Sea Siren.
Flaherty and Hollywood were to hold each other in mutual contempt for the next twenty years - 'Hollywood is like sailing over a sewer in a glass-bottomed boat', he once famously declared. Moana was, however, a significant critical success, especially among European critics and it is no coincidence that inFlaherty was to leave the USA and base his filmmaking in England for the next ten years.
By this time he was generally regarded as a great and innovative filmmaker whose films displayed an admirable concern with the lives of ordinary people struggling for survival in their own environment.
Increasingly, Flaherty was seen as the antipathy of Hollywood's commercial and melodramatic artifice and he had become an inspiration for the emerging documentary film movement in Britain.
Indeed, the main patron and theorist of this movement, John Grierson, is often credited with inventing more accurately adapting the term 'documentary' to the kind of actuality filming that Flaherty pioneered and that he and the British filmmakers were trying to develop.
When Flaherty came to Britain in Grierson became his main supporter, finding him film work with his own Empire Marketing Board film unit. Making and Selling Man of Aran Balcon had very clear reasons for financing Flaherty, despite his reputation as a profligate filmmaker and his patchy commercial appeal.
Balcon was quite simply buying Flaherty's prestige and artistic credentials for the Gaumont-British company. The company had come under increasing fire from Britain's influential film critics among them C.Nanook of the North – Robert Flaherty () In the days long before the term “documentary” had even been coined this full feature movie did it all.
The filmmaker Robert Flaherty () had an early exposure to people of the Arctic. Documentary and Nanook of the North. STUDY. PLAY. Documentary early history -The rise of ethnographic documentary with the release of Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North ()→ first feature length documentary.
Context of Nanook-Flaherty: "Even in my youth I was always exploring new country". Perversely, Nanook of the North was made for a fur-trading firm. Perversely also, it was Nanook rather than the film-maker who became an instant celebrity.
Topics. In film history Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North () is usually considered the first documentary and possibly one of the best known documentaries of the silent era. It has also been called the first ethnographic film, as well as the first art film. Robert Flaherty: Nanook of the North Nanook and his family were real, but the film is not a straightforward recording of their everyday life: they amiably enacted some of it .
In writing about Nanook Robert said: "I had planned to depict an ethnoligical (sic) film of life covering the various phases of their hunting.. and an article by Flaherty which appeared in Asia Magazine provided me with pictures that I used in making a Samoan picture interpretation test.