"Nanook of the North: Inventions Towards Racism"

Zachary Marano
March 2, 2014

As it clocks in at nearly an hour and a half, it would be misleading of me to refer to Nanook of the North as a short film. Yet, I have chosen to discuss it for an assignment related to short films.

There are several reasons for this decision. First, I question the limitation of analyzing just short films. Feature length films such as Nanook of the North simply have more merit than "shorts" in general; not the least in terms of innovation and direction quality. They are also much easier to access. Further, can a production of, say, fifteen minutes, tell us anything meaningful about race? "No," I'd argue, "because doing so would circumvent many essential details." It is too complex a topic for a small length of time.

I suspect that any documentary attempting to do so would fall into logical fallacies, straw-manning a race, the racists, or even both. A contemporary piece dealing with race is superior, but a limitation on time would only allow the oppressor or the oppressed to give us a fraction of the picture. This problem is at least partly alleviated in a feature length film where the artist is free to exhaust his every thought.

Nanook of the North is worth our attention because it is comprehensive; the director, Robert Flaherty, allots himself the length of a feature film to tell us everything he thinks we ought to know about an entire race, the Inuits, and on the way he betrays his contemporary perspectives.

If my asking of a higher-than-average length of time be spent from the reader to analyze this important piece of film history is problematic, I am disappointed that my thoughts could be considered less valuable than anyone else's because it takes longer for me to share it (remember that Shakespeare wrote "brevity is the soul of wit" ironically). I'd doubt that this is an issue, however. Nanook of the North is intended to shed light on the life of an Inuit in the 1920s. Our guide is a director, Flaherty. It must be said that he is not entirely honest in his approach of the subject. While the Inuits of the time had embraced Western technology and clothing, he prefers to portray them wearing animal fur and using primitive weapons. Similarly, in one scene, the titular lead, Nanook, visits a trading post and, in his interactions with white culture, acts baffled. For instance, he is confused by a record and tries to eat it. In actuality, the actor playing Nanook, Allakariallak was quite familiar with the technology involved and the interaction was scripted. The Inuit race is deliberately belittled in this way and shown as backwards throughout the film.

Concerning direction, the film was made in the infantile stages of cinematography and Flaherty labored under the disadvantage of having only one single, bulky camera. As a result, Nanook of the North is not particularly flashy or exciting to watch. It is nonetheless impressive that Flaherty managed to produce his project in the bitter cold and otherwise not-entirely-agreeable terrain. It is in this regard that this psuedo-documentary is notable.


Nanook of the North