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The film “Nanook of the North” is described as one of the first ever documentaries ever made. The filming of this controversial early documentary took place from August 1920 until August 1921. I find this film highly informative, even though Robert J. Flaherty, the producer and director of this film, altered and staged some things that were quite different in reality, a subject that has brought this film some criticism. For example, Nanook’s name was really Allakariallak and his “family” wasn’t really his family. So in a way, they were all actors and actresses in their own right, performing their “lives during the hunt” in front of the camera. Other things that Flaherty decided to change is that he wanted to document this Inuit “family” as they were back in the older days. While Allakariallak really hunted with a gun, Flaherty persuaded him to hunt in the same methods used by his ancestors so the viewers of this documentary would witness the lives of the Inuit in the Artic before they were influenced by the Europeans.
But it was making those criticized changes that made this film so much more informational in a certain sense. Europeans were already pretty familiar with how their society lived, because, well, they were living it. But by making the Inuit individuals in this film portray how they used to live makes the viewers experience a culture as it once was. This film includes demonstrating a variety of the Inuit ways, such as accurately displaying the ancestral customs of how they hunt, fish, and build igloos, while showing how an Inuit family survived their constant battles with nature without the aid of European instruments.
This film, although entertaining and informational as most modern documentaries, makes me ponder and not completely sure of my decision on whether I should consider this film as an official first documentary or not. I believe official documentaries are supposed to portray something in a certain time period given that time, along with explanations of what’s happening or has happened and what not. In other words, I think it would have been more completely accurate if Robert J. Flaherty showed how Allakariallak lived for real, giving viewers the idea of an Inuit family’s life after European influence, instead of how his recent ancestors lived. The reason why I think this would be that even though the limited technology that was available to him back then would not allow him to film things in a completely detailed and definite way (for example, the igloo had to be constructed in a special way so Flaherty’s camera could capture everything inside correctly), “Nanook of the North” was altered in far too many aspects to completely accurately show how the Inuit lived in the early twentieth century, if that was Flaherty’s goal. It was made in a way as to make it seems that Nanook (Allakariallak)’s daily life was so much more harsh than it is in real life. In one of the scenes in the film, he is seen laughing at a phonograph and biting into a record as if the objects were strange and foreign to him, and that he had never seen them before. However, it became known later that not only had Allakariallak seen phonographs before, but he was a frequent visitor to a trading post, and owned a snowmobile. This information about his life raises much controversy over whether this be regarded as a true official documentary or not.
But on the other hand, as I explained above, this film being altered made it more of a documentary of how the Inuit’s ancestors used to live and survive in the Artic. It showed how they made their living off the land, hunting seals and walruses with a spear, rope, and other handmade hunting weapons. How they intelligently constructed igloos to sleep in during their hunts, and how amazing it was that so many people could fit into a seemingly tiny kayak. How during their struggles with the long hunt, their stomachs could no longer bear the waiting of nourishment, so they had to eat their fill raw. These, among many other things, did correctly show the more ancient ways of the Inuit, which is likely how the film obtained its success. It showed a different way to address their life, while not as much as a gentle walk in the park as a traditional typical European life, did not fail to show even without words that it was teamwork and the bond of the family that kept everything swinging in the right way, even in times where things would get more difficult than they would like.
As for my final opinion on whether “Nanook of the North” rightly fully earns the title as one of the first developed documentaries, I am still debating this. In a certain sense, as I explained above, it was both accurate about the life of the Inuit and inaccurate about their life at the same time. So I suppose this inspirational story in my opinion as of now, it seemed as if “Nanook of the North” was more of how a documentary should supposedly be, recording real life, but in a fictitious setting, or in a setting that wasn’t true or present at that time. So I’m not going to call this an official documentary, but neither am I going to say that it’s not either. I’m going to refer to it as a “serious Mockumentary”.
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