An iconic milestone in documentary filmmaking, Robert J. Flaherty’s 1922 Nanook of the North – nearly a hundred years old now – presents viewers with an almost lost paradigm of the human existence in a place, like the surface of the moon, so alien and yet so familiar.
Man’s ability to endure and adapt to the harshest of regions on the planet is a mixed blessing. It is, ultimately, human ingenuity that allows whole populations to create roots and stay put in places, no matter how inhospitable they may be. Through time, this adaptability – which, in evolutionary terms, has always been beneficial for human survival – has become a liability for certain populations. People who are born in regions with extreme weather conditions must make the most of it or migrate. And yet so few of them leave their homes…
In the Canadian Arctic there is a family of Inuts: Nanook (Allakariallak), his wives Nyla (the Smiling One) and Cunayou, and his children Allee and Allegoo. In summertime, Nanook’s family and some others travel down the river to the trading post of the white man, where he exchanges polar bear fur for goods and learns of the gramophone and castor oil. Then, Nanook shows his great skills at fishing and his group hunts and kills a walrus. Now, during the winter, he keeps travelling in search of food. After catching a white fox, on safe ground, Nanook and his wives expertly build an igloo. And finally, he struggles, catches, skins and cuts up a giant seal. At the end, Nanook and his family take refuge inside a deserted igloo and go to bed.
As human inventiveness permitted whole populations to adapt and live as best as they could in places like the Arctic, it also let man escape from such freezing conditions. That’s in fact the whole point of human history. It is exactly for the sake of avoiding hunger, exhaustion and discomfort that mankind have learnt to funnel energy into working machines. However, some primeval ability to fend for ourselves has been lost in the process. Individually, we are hardly agents of our own survival. Perhaps, our best substitute for being an active part of the whole of existence is art. Through the creative process we assuage such ancestral displacement.
..Nanook’s Family and the Floating Home.
It is ironic, really, that someone like Nanook, who kills a fox or a giant seal, without even batting an eye, should be seen as one that respects nature. And although a cliché, it is true that closer one is to nature more he or she will see death for what it really is, i.e. part of life. For Nanook understands his position at the apex of the food chain instinctively. He poses no moral questions over the killing of an animal. His survival depends on one less seal swimming in the cold waters of the Arctic. If, hypothetically, his only source of nutrition could only come from polar bears, I can’t imagine Nanook agonising about their extinction.
We, behind our flickering screens, ordering our convenient food, have constructed artificial tentacles that now attach to the food chain. We’re still at the top of the chain, but now we lost sight of the relationship we hold with the other forms of life. There is this paradox that have been created by man’s social and technological advance. The more the question of survival seems to have been resolved, the more snared in complex moral issues man becomes. The vegan activist might have a role to play in our modern society, but let’s not forget that her privileged upbringing has been – at least, partially – achieved with the help of machines fuelled by oil. No matter how we frame the issue, certain decisions of today are the consequence of tough choices from the past.
This is not an attack on militant political activism, but an acknowledgement of the facts. Modern industrial societies reached the actual level of development through dubious moral choices made in the past. We can’t either change the past or dwell too much on our guilt over the role played by our ancestors. However, what we can surely do is to recognise how we got here. And, hopefully, in doing so, we can better understand the choices made by people who appear to be so different, so weird, but in fact are so similar, in so many ways, to us.
Thus, despite mankind’s technological advance, our essence remains the same. Like Nanook, we care deeply for our loved ones. We crave human contact; we pride ourselves in a job well-done – be it a financial report or the hunting of a prized giant seal. Despite humans’ evolutionary history, the species’ basic needs remain the same. Our big brains never have been able to elevate us closer enough to the gods and displace our animal instincts. More than ever, we are creatures of the night. In the last century, Hitler and the Holocaust have kept us more Beast than Beauty.
It is a well-known fact that its director staged some of the scenes of the film. Endless debates have been held on the merits of the documentary and the detrimental effect such artificial elements have in the work of art. Well,… Staged or not, Nanook of the North remains an endearing and magnificent historical document.