Nanook of the North is one of the few silent films that I own. I was first introduced to this documentary in my high school anthropology class. At the time, I couldn’t be more bored than having to watch a silent, black and white movie about Eskimos. However, over the years I gained a newfound appreciation for the film after I learned of its significance and place in film history.

Nanook of the North is one of the earliest documentaries ever made and certainly the first famous feature-length documentary. Its contribution to filmmaking was recognized in 1989 by being one of the first 25 films to be selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. Nanook was shot around the Hudson Bay region in Quebec, Canada. Robert Flaherty, the film’s director, had worked in the area as a explorer and had become familiar with the lifestyle of the native Eskimos. Flaherty decided to document their lives by focusing on the life of one family in particular, whose patriarch/breadwinner was named Nanook.

This movie was ground-breaking for its time. It showed audiences a remote location that most had never been to and a foreign culture that had, up till now, only been read about. There are no actors, props, or studio sets here. You see this family live a life of constant struggle as they are in a perpetual search for food. Although much of what you see here is now widely known by people and has been seen in better looking formats on the Discovery Channel, the film will still manage to engage your interest. You see how these people capture seals, walruses, fish, build igloos, and basically stay alive in an extremely harsh and inhospitable environment.

Nanook of the North has been criticized for not being entirely authentic and for being manipulative. True, Flaherty did stage a few scenes in order to better demonstrate Eskimo life. For example, Nanook was not the real name of the titular Eskimo and he actually used a gun to hunt instead of the spear you see in the movie. However, Flaherty wanted to show his audience how the Eskimos have lived for most of their history rather than show the modern conveniences they now have. I don’t mind a little fakery every once in awhile to tell your story. One can even go so far as to say that no documentary is truly a totally objective and authentic portrayal of the events being shown because the subjects are aware of a camera being pointed at them. Flaherty’s goal was to show audiences how Eskimos lived and, in his judgment, this required some staging. In the end, however, Nanook of the North is an effective film that accomplished what it set out to do, which was to educate its audience.

Will this movie bore you? I don’t think Nanook of the North is for most people I know. As much as I like the film, its not something to play for a gathering of friends on a Saturday night. However, if you have an interest in documentary filmmaking or film history, this is definitely worth checking out.

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