When Robert J. Flaherty made Nanook of the North, there was no such thing as the documentary. Released in 1922, the film presents elements of the Inuit culture prior to the white man’s intervention. Of course, that intervention had already taken place when Flaherty made the film. What strikes some viewers of Nanook as odd in this respect is that, although regarded as the first documentary, it is in many ways not a documentary at all, at least so far as the conventional wisdom regarding the documentary’s relationship to reality is concerned. After all, Flaherty staged much, if not all, of the onscreen action with the help of the Inuits portraying fictional characters. Yet his intentions were purely “documentary” in this, desiring to preserve on the film the quickly fading practices of the native Inuit people prior to the introduction of guns and other such amenities. And capture it he did with a little help from his friends. This makes the film not only a landmark of the film form, but an important and fascinating sociological text as well.
And now, thanks to Flicker Alley, Nanook is available on Blu-ray as part of a collection of eight such sociologically-significant films in the historically-minded distributor’s recent 2-Disc Blu-ray Deluxe Edition set, Nanook of the North/The Wedding of Palo (and Other Films of Arctic Life). Although Nanook was once released on DVD by the Criterion Collection, the stellar high definition transfer and the inclusion of seven additional films on the subject of Arctic life makes this, without a doubt, the definitive version of Nanook on home video. And what’s more, the set features an entire disc all about Nanook!
In addition to the film itself, disc one also includes Nanook Revisited (Saumialuk) and an installment of Dwellings of the Far North (1928). Produced for French television in 1988, Nanook Revisited finds a documentary crew returning to the areas in which Flaherty had filmed Nanook 60 years prior to show how the film is now used to teach the Inuit people about their heritage and to detail the liberties taken by Flaherty in the film, including his staging of events, embellishing facts about contemporary Inuit culture, employing fictional characters, etc. While Revisited was shot on standard definition video and therefore pales in quality picture- and audio-wise to the restored film-based features in this set, it still looks great overall and proves to be an essential companion piece to Nanook— as close to a making-of documentary as anyone could ever really hope for. Dwellings of the Far North is a rather illuminating piece about a stage in the life of Nanook the film that we really don’t hear or read much about. For this short, Pathé simply redressed the igloo-building sequence of Nanook for educational purposes (as though it weren’t already), presenting it out-of-context and, no doubt, for a quick buck.
Headlining the second disc of this set is explorer Knud Rasmussen’s 1934 film, The Wedding of Palo (Palos Brudefaerd). Like Flaherty before him, Rasmussen fictionalizes a narrative about the Inuit people of Greenland’s Angmagssalik district, focusing on specific cultural practices for educational/sociological purposes throughout, especially the Inuit process of courtship. The film offers more of a slice-of-life drama than Nanook, which tended toward the demonstrational, and with its focus on courtship, Palo is in many ways a cross between Nanook and Flaherty’s Moana (1926), which explores the coming-of-age of a Samoan youth. The picture on the Palo transfer tends to get a bit choppy at times, but the restoration is otherwise phenomenal, especially where the audio is concerned. And that’s quite important, as Palo is in fact a sound picture in which the Inuit performers speak in their native tongue. Interestingly, though, instead of subtitles presenting a translation of this dialogue into English– a technique that was not as common then as it is today– Rasmussen employed intertitles of the sort you would typically see in silent films.
Palo is accompanied by Arctic Hunt (1913) and excerpts of Primitive Love (1927), both by explorer Frank E. Kleinschmidt; Louis deRochemont’s Eskimo Hunters of Northwest Alaska (1949), which depicts many of the same activities Nanook did just thirty years later; and The National Film Board of Canada’s Face of the High Arctic (1959), a scientific program of the sort you might have seen in the classroom some years ago, detailing the ecology of the region. Additionally, the set includes a 32-page booklet featuring excerpts from Flaherty’s 1924 book My Eskimo Friends, the essay “Knud Rasmussen and The Wedding of Paolo” by author Lawrence Millman, as well as notes on the six additional films and specifics about all of the transfers.
In short, film historians cannot afford to overlook Flicker Alley’s Nanook of the North/The Wedding of Palo (and Other Films of Arctic Life). It is a truly phenomenal collection of the sort we have come to expect from the distributor.