Friday, June 18, 2010

Nanook of the North

1922, Silent, Robert J Flaherty (director)

I was drawn to watch this after reading it was at the top of Ramin Bahrani's list of ten best films.

This is a documentary film about the life of the Inuit Eskimo in the Canadian Arctic. The director spent sixteen months living with the Inuit. The film features Nanook, a hunter, his two wives Nyla and Cunayou, and two children, and captures a year in their lives. The film is only partially authentic-the characters understood that a movie was being made about them and paid for it, the wives were not actual wives, and the children not real children of Nanook. It is in fact a mixture of enactment and reality. It depicts with some romanticising a way of life slightly antecedent to the film. Western dress and rifles were already on the scene at the time.

The Inuit no longer lead a nomadic existence battling a pitiless environment, as the film depicts. The word Eskimo, which means raw-flesh-eaters is itself considered derogatory-Inuit is the acceptable term. This is similar to the distinction between American Indian and Red Indian. They have become colonised, wear Western dress and live in concrete dwellings with modern amenities. The present film authentically captures the life at a time not much before the making of the film, when a population of three hundred odd people occupied a Sahara of snow as large as the United Kingdom.

The search for food and clothing is the driving pre-occupation of this family of hunters. We see Nanook at the end of the day with a haul of fish, or locked in combat to pull in a walrus from the water, or pulling in a gigantic seal he has harpooned from a hole in a drifting island of ice ( the seal was already dead, but the walrus hunt was real). He erects an igloo in a matter of an hour when his family is caught in a snow storm. Igloos, made of snow, have a window made of ice, with a snow-block perpendicular to the ice window to act as a reflector to catch sunlight, beaming into the interior. We see the pack of small but ferocious huskies tearing at each other for pieces of meat, or the painfully slow progress of the dog-pulled sleighs through boulders of ice.

It is an forgettable document of human nature and life's tenacious adaptation. Human nature seems to be more or less a constant over variations of time and place. The ability to learn and inherit the accumulation of wisdom is what distinguishes us from other species. The erection of an igloo in minutes seems like a miracle of art, ingenuity and ancient technology. Neither were the pyramids built using earth moving machinery. Honed intelligence is what enabled these Inuit of old to track down and use the mighty walrus and seals. Culture is the accumulated wisdom to coexist and survive in different environments and every culture is a marvellous tapestry rich in surprises. This way of life shown leaves little room for what we all recognise as family discord-man,woman, child and beast seem to form a seamless symbiosis, with the environment as a fierce adversary.
Essay by Flaherty

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