You know that bumper sticker that reads “No Farms No Food”? I have two issues with that sticker.
1. Why do you want to give me a guilt trip?
No other profession – no matter how essential – gets advertised with a guilt trip bumper sticker. “No Power Company No Electricity,” “No Teachers No Literacy,” “No Cops No Protection From that Scuzzy-Looking Teenager Down the Street.”
2. No Farms No Food is simply untrue.
“Nanook of the North” is about the incredible day to day life of an Inuit family that lives in a land with no farms. In fact, their home region – on the eastern shore of Hudson Bay in northern Quebec – has no plants at all. It’s too cold and dry.
The Inuits live by hunting and trapping animals. Their only food is raw meat. Their only clothing is fur. Their only fuel is blubber.
I strongly recommend “Nanook of the North.” But it isn’t easy to watch. Especially if you have empathy for animals.
It’s amazing to see Nanook catch huge fish with no bait and no hook. But it broke my heart to see him kill a walrus in front of its family. When Nanook began luring a seal to its death by guarding its air hole in the ice, I couldn’t take it anymore. I turned away during the seal slaughter scene.
Of course I am not judging Nanook. In his world, man is the apex predator. And he earned that spot with extraordinary ingenuity.
And all of this, if you can possibly imagine it, in -50 degree weather – without socks, firewood, or permanent dwellings. And Nanook makes it seem like his life isn’t a hardship. He takes pleasure in being the world’s most skilled, resourceful, and resilient tough guy.
“Nanook of the North” was a cultural phenomenon; the first hit documentary film. And Nanook’s irrepressible joy is a big part of it.
Anyone foolish enough to think that material possessions lead to happiness needs to watch this movie. Nanook has no money and nothing but the clothing and the canoe that he made. And he is happier than you are.
As incredible as Nanook is, you can’t just set up a tripod and film him for a few hours. You need some kind of plot to make a great movie.
Reality television and documentary films are such staples of our culture that it’s easy to dismiss how explosively innovative “Nanook of the North” is. Adventurer/director Robert J. Flaherty discovered a perfect middle ground between pure documentary and scripted entertainment.
For example, Flaherty could not film a family scene inside an igloo using 1920s lighting technology. So he had Nanook build a show igloo that is open on one side to stage the scenes where Nanook and his wives and children wake up. It’s not totally phony: Nanook absolutely built the igloo. But it is also splendid, staged entertainment. And we learn the memorable lesson that Inuit women did not possess brassieres.
Documentaries are supposed to educate, manipulate, and – whenever possible – titillate. Robert J. Flaherty mastered the art of documentary filmmaking more than a century ago.
“Nanook of the North” is the first great documentary. It was cleverly made and it is about interesting people who are incredibly different from us. The Inuit have 50 words for snow, and not a single word for farm.