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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The first feature-length documentary isn’t really a documentary

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Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: With the sleep paralysis documentary The Nightmare opening in select theaters, we look back on others docs that boldly or effectively employ dramatic recreations.


Nanook Of The North (1922)

Robert Flaherty’s Nanook Of The North, widely credited as the first successful feature-length nonfiction film, doesn’t qualify as a documentary by any modern standards. It was all staged. The clothing and customs shown hadn’t been practiced for generations, and the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic were anything but isolated from modern technology; in fact, they made up most of the film crew. There wasn’t even a Nanook. He was played by Allakariallak, a veteran hunter Flaherty had befriended. Nanook’s young wife, Nyla, was Flaherty’s partner at the time, whom he would abandon after filming to return to his wife in America. Their descendants still live in Canada.

So what is Nanook Of The North, exactly? An art film: a piece of participatory ethno-fiction, which tries to reconcile Flaherty’s vision of rugged beauty and of human struggle against a vast wilderness with the traditions of his collaborators’ ancestors. It’s an attempt to recreate a recently vanished past within a more or less real space. The ice is real. The cold is real. The water is real. The hunts are real, but carried out with outdated tools and techniques. (Roger Ebert put it succinctly: “If you stage a walrus hunt, it still involves hunting a walrus, and the walrus hasn’t seen the script.”) “Nanook” really does build an igloo, though the interior shown was actually specially constructed with one side missing, to allow light in.

Flaherty would refine his vision in later films like Moana (filmed in Samoa), Man Of Aran (filmed in Ireland), and Louisiana Story (self-explanatory). But its first iteration still packs a punch, conflating reality and fiction, and raising questions about what does and doesn’t qualify as “real” that we’re still struggling to answer nearly a hundred years later.

Availability: Nanook Of The North is in the public domain, and can be viewed below. Home video releases include an out-of-print Criterion DVD and a recent Blu-Ray from Flicker Alley.