Many people love to see far-off destinations on film – the globe-trotting of James Bond or the grand Eiffel Tower shots in every non-Soderbergh movie involving Paris – yet few people enjoy movies about far-off destinations. Geographic and anthropological documentaries are moderately popular but generally niche. Home movies of destination vacations have a reputation on par with waterboarding. It’s a matter of narrative, and in his first two films Robert Flaherty found himself on both sides of the sensation/exhaustion divide.
The travelogue had existed before Robert Flaherty journeyed to the Ungava Peninsula in northern Quebec, a “little kingdom” according to Flaherty’s later onscreen description “nearly as large as England, yet occupied by less than three hundred souls.” A son of a prospector who became one himself, Flaherty had spent much time in this region. He led expeditions to chart mineral deposits before realizing the potential in another unmined resource, the unique vistas and customs waiting to be excavated with new motion picture technology. He spent his next trips filming material and assembling a movie about the Inuit people. An errant cigarette burned the negative of this film right from under Flaherty’s frantic hands. The only thing salvaged was a single workprint. Though there wasn’t the technology to create a new negative, the surviving print saved the endeavor from disaster because Flaherty could watch it and realize his lost movie actually sucked.
The incinerated project was too remote. It lurched between desultory scenes in a way that resembled other travelogues of the time. Having spent so many years in the area, Flaherty wanted to capture the Inuit culture with immediacy before it became impossible. He was acutely aware that the encroachment of white explorers like himself was shoving out the traditional native ways of life, had been thinking this way since childhood when he saw his mother burst into tears over the unfamiliar diseases and poor treatment foisted on Native Americans around the mining camps where he grew up.
This time Flaherty would add a personal touch to the movie and focus on a single Inuk and his family. And he found a partner and star in one of those remote three hundred souls, a hunter named Allakariallak. In the first of several concessions to the general audience, Flaherty redubbed his subject “Nanook,” which means “polar bear” in the Inuit language. This name slipped more easily off American tongues in the memorable title Nanook of the North.
Nanook’s enthusiastic participation would prove the difference between sleepy travelogue and international sensation. Though he and his fellow members of the Itivimuit tribe were relatively modern people, tracking the trade business over the radio and purchasing manufactured clothes, they lived far enough north of outsider influence to have a strong memory of the traditional Inuit way of life and recognized that capturing those ways was the point of the “aggie” (Inuit for “film”). Staging scenes of bygone days was the only way to make this happen, and the Inuit understood this side of the filmmaking process, just as they understood Flaherty’s Bell & Howell camera inside and out (literally – once the camera fell into the water and was saved because the Inuit could take it apart and reassemble it after cleaning every piece).
And so the team set out to capture authentic Inuit family life (though the women shown were not actually related to Nanook), igloo construction (which took three attempts to make in gargantuan enough proportions to accommodate the camera) and in the film’s most famous sequence, walrus hunting. Though the Inuit had hunted with rifles for some time, the men used harpoons and ropes for the cameras. During the tug-of-war with their prey the hunters turn back to the camera as they risk getting pulled into the tide. This is them asking Flaherty to shoot the damn thing with a rifle they had brought. Flaherty pretended not to understand them and kept filming until the men finally hauled the exhausted walrus to shore. Some reports claim the old-style hunting was done at Nanook’s suggestion but there’s no doubt Flaherty encouraged it. The two men saw eye-to-eye about the acceptable perils when making an aggie. At one point they led an expedition to find a polar bear and instead discovered only blizzards, nearly starving to death and burning film stock for warmth.
In addition to a disregard for safety, Flaherty demonstrated a keen grasp of cinematic conventions in ways previous documentary* filmmakers had not. As Erik Barnouw says in his history of documentary, “The ability to witness an episode from many angles and distances, seen in quick succession – a totally surrealistic privilege, unmatched in human experience – had become so much a part of film-viewing that it was unconsciously accepted as ‘natural.’” Audiences had grown used to the standardized film grammar that cut between wides and close-ups and instantly moved the camera for a better view, but never had they seen it in service of real life (well, a facsimile of it).
And yet an exotic locale plus filmmaking talent didn’t guarantee success. Nanook performed fabulously, captivating audiences and making Flaherty a kayakload of money. Naturally the powers that be – in this case Paramount – wanted to recreate this success and sent Flaherty with his wife and co-director Frances Hubbard Flaherty to Samoa with instructions to make a Nanook for the South Pacific. This seemed like a promising venture – a tropical island instead of the frozen tundra, and a partnership with another population happy to have their disappearing culture recorded for posterity. Flaherty lined up another on-camera representative, a young man named Ta’avale, called Moana in the film (Moana referring to a male comes as a bit of a surprise to those familiar with the Polynesian folklore popularized by Disney) and cast a family for him out of locals, including a fiancée (Fa’amgase) and a plucky younger brother (Pe’a).
But the magic never quite happens this time. Island life in the Safune district of Samoa didn’t immediately present a dramatic struggle, and Flaherty was working in a smaller time period of two years, which was still an extravagance to the antsy studio. Wild creatures get hunted, as is the Flaherty way, but even as an intertitle insists that “More than one Safune man has been killed by tusks such as these,” it’s hard not to notice that pearly whites of the ensnared boar have nothing on the walrus. Clams the size of bowling balls sit for the taking in shallows, and an encounter with a sea turtle is downright cuddly.
The most harrowing hunt comes when Pe’a climbs a massive palm tree after cocoanuts. This is the film’s sole spark that approaches Nanookian excitement. Flaherty follows the action up the tree in sections, withholding the full scale of the tree as though no lens could hope to hold it all. And still he includes plenty of negative space between the arc of the trunk and the ground, an easy place to imagine a falling body. Pe’a is the surest of climbers, and smiles as his nerve surpasses a team of walrus hunters. Or Harold Lloyd for that matter.
Flaherty had spent years in the northern reaches of Canada before he started filming Nanook, and that experience informs its look. The palm tree shimmy aside, Moana mostly bounces between serviceable medium shots. Rarely do the foliage and waves inform the framing to the same degree as the endless snow and frozen lakes of Nanook. Maybe if Flaherty’s Prizma color camera hadn’t malfunctioned the results would have been more inspired; one can imagine the frustration of the director as he captures a rainbow in black-and-white.
Finding the sea “warm as the air and generous as the soil,” Flaherty shifts from man-versus-nature to that other primal struggle, courtship. Moana handles this with ease as well. Whether Ta’avale and Fa’amgase had any rapport prior to filming (unlikely, as she was the third fiancée cast after production problems with the first two), the pair have ample chemistry on camera. Their meeting may have been manufactured, but there’s a sense of genuine playfulness as he splashes her from the end of a severed vine, and it’s easy to forget they’re performers when she rubs him down with coconut oil, or they perform a traditional dance together. The film’s big closer is Moana getting a traditional, large, and very painful tattoo – a practice that had already died out before Flaherty’s arrival. Reportedly Ta’avale was paid handsomely for agreeing to this.
Though reviews were as generally positive if less exuberant than Nanook’s, audiences were uninterested this time around and the studio struggled to change filmgoers’ minds. Flaherty’s filming of Fa’amgase in her pre-Westernization garb is tasteful, but no doubt the possibilities in getting naked breasts past censors didn’t escape Paramount’s marketing department. The studio attempted to reframe the movie as an exotic love story, but the box office didn’t budge. If Flaherty had thought large audiences had come to see Nanook purely out of an interest in his culture or would get drawn into the world of Safune without dramatic stakes, he was sorely mistaken. He wouldn’t make that mistake again and with his next movie, Man of Aran, resumed putting his subjects in mortal peril for the sake of action shots.
Time and again audiences remind filmmakers that they like moving pictures but they love stories. With Nanook, Flaherty presented a gripping story. Moana came out closer to those vacation home movies filled with people you care about doing things that you don’t. Maybe it had to do with the production resembling a long family vacation – the Flahertys brought their children and a nursemaid – instead of an Arctic explorer’s grueling challenge. Or maybe two years wasn’t enough to understand a place deeper than a travelogue.
The legacy of Nanook is complicated, part of a fad that exoticized “Eskimo” culture in travelling exhibits throughout America and Europe. Nanook isn’t wholly innocent of cultural belittlement. In an early scene where the family visits a white trading post, Nanook hams up his fascination with a gramophone. Allakariallak was in real life familiar with all sorts of technology, gramophones included, and here his willingness to give Flaherty what he wants played into stereotypes of native peoples as hopelessly naïve. Feigning ignorance is one thing but nibbling on the disc – an odd response to any auditory sensation – makes him look like an idiot. Flaherty and Nanook had better intentions but those intentions don’t separate every scene from the trend of condescending movies that followed Nanook‘s success by turning their cameras on “primitive” cultures.
Moana, while no more or less “authentic” than Nanook possibly fares better in the area of preservation, partially thanks to a restoration project by Frances and Robert’s daughter Monica Flaherty. Only three when she traveled to Samoa with her parents, Monica returned to Samoa fifty years later and recorded sound to synchronize with the film. In addition to dubbing the natural sounds of the plant and animal life, Monica recorded the Samoan dialog and scored the film with traditional songs performed in their original language. Moana with Sound as the project became known, is the rare film made superior with later meddling.
* Though the term “documentary” as it applies to films wasn’t actually coined until after Nanook – in fact, it was used for the first time in a contemporary review for Moana.