Some thoughts on Documentary filmmaking, past, present and future...
Documentary (def): using pictures or interviews with people involved in real events to provide a factual record or report.
In 1922, Robert Flaherty's “Nanook of the North” was released and soon became a worldwide hit. This landmark film is considered to be the first great documentary even though it’s been discredited as being a staged work at best or a huge lie at worst. Does it matter that the movie’s protagonist is not actually the chief of his tribe and that Nanook is not his name? He’s not married, has no children, doesn’t live in an igloo, hunts with a rifle not a harpoon and knows better than to ignorantly bite a record disc, knowing full well what a gramophone was.
Idealistically, perhaps Flaherty set out for posterity’s sake to record the native ways of the Inuit people. Beginning with an objective, standoffish camera, he discovered quickly that this style felt dispassionate, lacking emotional connection and interest. So as he moved in closer and got more involved, the Inuit’s began to act differently due to camera awareness. Guess what – everyone does. Committed to his vision and willing to change his approach, Flaherty re-casts his movie with real people in a series of controlled re-enactments that he semi pawns off as being the true arctic experience.
Well, it is and it isn’t, just like every documentary you’ve ever seen.
Morally, I think it’s essential to come clean on matters like this and Flaherty does. When questioned about it he admits, “One often has to distort a thing in order to catch it’s true spirit.”
Before becoming a filmmaker, Robert Flaherty spent a lot of time in the arctic as an explorer, prospector, trapper and surveyor. He obviously loved the region and the people, creating this wonderful love letter to those indigenous tribes.
In addition, the film was instantly popular because polar expeditions were all the rage in the early 20th century. The explorers who planned the daring missions and succeeded became household names and national heroes overnight.
Given the times, audiences loved and embraced this character named Nanook and those that actually knew, didn’t mind that he was a fictitious actor standing in for the historical record. I don’t mind either.
Robert Flaherty started production on “Nanook of the North” in January of 1920 - that's right - 100 years ago.