Nanook of the North

Nanook of the North poster

Nanook of the North (also known as Nanook of the North: A Story Of Life and Love In the Actual Arctic) is a 1922 American silent documentary film by Robert J. Flaherty, with elements of docudrama, at a time when the concept of separating films into documentary and drama did not yet exist.[1]

In the tradition of what would later be called salvage ethnography, Flaherty captured the struggles of the Inuk man named Nanook and his family in the Canadian Arctic. The film has been incorrectly considered the first feature-length documentary.[2] Some have criticized Flaherty for staging several sequences,[3] but the film is generally viewed as standing "alone in its stark regard for the courage and ingenuity of its heroes."[4][5]

In 1989, Nanook of the North was one of the first 25 films to be selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".



Nanook (Allakariallak),[6] 1920


Nyla, wife of Nanook

The documentary follows the lives of an Inuk, Nanook, and his family as they travel, search for food, and trade in the Ungava Peninsula of northern Quebec, Canada. Nanook; his wife, Nyla; and their family are introduced as fearless heroes who endure rigors no other race could survive. The audience sees Nanook, often with his family, hunt a walrus, build an igloo, go about his day, and perform other tasks.



In 1910 Flaherty was hired as an explorer and prospector along the Hudson Bay for the Canadian Pacific Railway. Learning about the lands and people there, Flaherty decided to bring a camera with him on his third expedition in 1913, but knowing nothing about film, Flaherty took a three-week course on cinematography in Rochester, New York


Using a Bell & Howell camera, a portable developing and printing machine, and some lighting equipment, Flaherty spent 1914 and 1915 shooting hours of film of Inuit life. By 1916, Flaherty had enough footage that he began test screenings and was met with wide enthusiasm. However, in 1916, Flaherty dropped a cigarette onto the original camera negative (which was highly flammable nitrate stock) and lost 30,000 feet of film.[7] With his first attempt ruined, Flaherty decided to not only return for new footage, but also to refocus the film on one Inuit family as he felt his earlier footage was too much of a travelogue. Spending four years raising money, Flaherty was eventually funded by French fur company Revillon Frères and returned to the North and shot from August 1920 to August 1921. As a main character, Flaherty chose the celebrated hunter of the Itivimuit tribe, Allakariallak. The full collaboration of the Inuit was key to Flaherty's success as the Inuit were his film crew and many of them knew his camera better than he did.[8]


Flaherty has been criticized for deceptively portraying staged events as reality.[9] "Nanook" was in fact named Allakariallak (pronouncedɢ}}), while the "wife" shown in the film was not really his wife. According to Charles Nayoumealuk, who was interviewed in Nanook Revisited (1990), "the two women in Nanook - Nyla (Alice Nuvalinga) and Cunayou (whose real name we do not know) were not Allakariallak's wives, but were in fact common-law wives of Flaherty."[10] And although Allakariallak normally used a gun when hunting, Flaherty encouraged him to hunt after the fashion of his recent ancestors in order to capture the way the Inuit lived before European influence. On the other hand, while Flaherty made his Inuit actors use spears instead of guns during the walrus and seal hunts, the prey shown in the film were genuine, wild animals. Flaherty also exaggerated the peril to Inuit hunters with his claim, often repeated, that Allakariallak had died of starvation two years after the film was completed, whereas in fact he died at home, likely of tuberculosis.[11][12]

Building of the igloo

The building of the igloo is one of the most celebrated sequences in the film, but interior photography presented a problem. Building an igloo large enough for a camera to enter resulted in the dome collapsing, and when they finally succeeded in making the igloo it was too dark for photography. Instead, the images of the inside of the igloo in the film were actually shot in a special three-walled igloo for Flaherty's bulky camera so that there would be enough light for it to capture interior shots.[13]

Visit to the trade post of the white man

In the "Trade Post of the White Man" scene, Nanook and his family arrive in a kayak at the trading post and one family member after another emerge from a small kayak, akin to a clown car at the circus. Going to trade his hunt from the year, including the skins of foxes, seals, and polar bears, Nanook comes in contact with the white man and there is a funny interaction as the two cultures meet. The trader plays music on a gramophone and tries to explain how a man 'cans' his voice. Bending forward and staring at the machine, Nanook puts his ear closer as the trader cranks the mechanism again. The trader removes the record and hands it to Nanook who at first peers at it and then puts it in his mouth and bites it. The scene is meant to be a comical one as the audience laughs at the naivete of Nanook and people isolated from Western culture. In truth, the scene was entirely scripted and Allakariallak knew what a gramophone was.[14]

Hunting of the walrus

It has been pointed out that in the 1920s when Nanook was filmed, the Inuit had already begun integrating the use of Western clothing and were using rifles to hunt rather than harpoons,[15] but this does not negate that the Inuit knew how to make traditional clothing from animals found in their environment, could still fashion traditional weapons and were perfectly able to make use of them if found to be preferable for a given situation.

The film is not technically sophisticated; how could it be, with one camera, no lights, freezing cold, and everyone equally at the mercy of nature? But it has an authenticity that prevails over any complaints that some of the sequences were staged. If you stage a walrus hunt, it still involves hunting a walrus, and the walrus hasn't seen the script. What shines through is the humanity and optimism of the Inuit.[4]
—Roger Ebert
Flaherty defended his work by stating, "one often has to distort a thing in order to catch its true spirit."[16] Later filmmakers have pointed out that the only cameras available to Flaherty at the time were both large and immobile, making it impossible to effectively capture most interior shots or unstructured exterior scenes without significantly modifying the environment and subject action.


As the first "nonfiction" work of its scale, Nanook of the North was ground-breaking cinema. It captured many authentic details of a culture little-known to outsiders, and was filmed in a remote location. Hailed almost unanimously by critics, the film was a box office success in the United States and abroad. In the following years, many others would try to follow in Flaherty's success with "primitive peoples" films.[17] In 2005, film critic Roger Ebert described the film's central figure, Nanook, as "one of the most vital and unforgettable human beings ever recorded on film."[4] In a 2014 Sight and Sound poll, film critics voted Nanook of the North the seventh best documentary film of all time.[18]


At the time, few documentaries had been filmed and there was little precedent to guide Flaherty's work. Since Flaherty's time, staging, attempting to steer documentary action, or presenting re-enactment as naturally captured footage has come to be considered unethical.

In its earliest years (approx. 1895–1902), film production was dominated by actualities—short pictures of real people in real places. Robert Flaherty’s great innovation was simply to combine the two forms of actuality, infusing the exotic journey with the details of indigenous work and play and life.[19]

Home media

In 1999, Nanook of the North was digitally remastered and released on DVD by The Criterion Collection. It includes an interview with Flaherty's widow (and Nanook of the North co-editor), Frances Flaherty, photos from Flaherty's trip to the arctic, and excerpts from a TV documentary, Flaherty and Film.[20] In 2013, Flicker Alley released a remastered Blu-ray version that includes six other arctic films.

Popular culture

Literature and publications

  • The novel The Watsons Go to Birmingham: 1963, by Christopher Paul Curtis, mentions the film in an impersonation by Daniel Watson, the father of the family.
  • The book The Zombie Survival Guide 2003, by Max Brooks, references the film, though it erroneously reaffirms that the lead character "starved to death a year after that documentary was shot."


  • Frank Zappa dreamed he was Nanook in the lyrics to his 1974 song "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow".
  • The music video to Australian alternative rock band Regurgitator's 1995 song "Blubber Boy" parodies the movie.
  • Since 2015 Tanya Tagaq has performed interpretations of the entire film accompanied variously by a drummer, violinist, guitarist and thereminist.


  • Kabloonak is a 1994 film about the making of Nanook of the North. Charles Dance plays Flaherty and Adamie Quasiak Inukpuk (a relative of Nanook) plays Nanook.
  • In the film, The Lost Boys, Corey Haim's character has a dog named Nanook.
  • In the documentary Unzipped, Isaac Mizrahi gets the inspiration for his 1994 collection from the movie Nanook of the North.


  • In the Bugs Bunny episode "Frigid Hare", Bugs comes across an Eskimo chasing after a penguin, whom he calls "Nanook".
  • In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "His Way", the station Chief of Security Odo is compared to Nanook of the North because of his icy personality.
  • In the cartoon Hey Arnold!, Grandpa Phil's pet name for Arnold is Nanook.
  • The title of an episode of The Powerpuff Girls, "Nano of the North", is a clear parody of Nanook's title.
  • The 1993 Rugrats episode, "The Blizzard",[21] featured an attempt by the babies to reach the "North Pole" in their back yard, aided by "Angelinook of the North".
  • In the 1988 Night Court episode "Danny Got His Gun: Part 2", episode 103 (season 6), Dan is rescued from a plane crash in Alaska by an Inuit family. The episode contains several overt and situational references to Nanook of the North.
  • In the 1969 animated television special Frosty the Snowman, the railroad ticket agent mentioned that the route to the North Pole would make a stop at "Nanook of the North".
  • In the 2012 animated television series The Legend of Korra, a film is made starring "Nuktuk, the Hero of the South". The character Bolin, one of the main cast and a foreigner to the South, becomes the first film star in the Avatar universe.
  • In the final episode of the TV series Homicide: Life on the Street Detective Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson) jokes that he is "The mook of the north" after a suspect's mother says he is in Alaska.
  • In episode 3 of the 2015 series Documentary Now! (IFC), "Kunuk Uncovered" is a mockumentary parodying the 1990 documentary about the making of Nanook of the North titled Nanook Revisited, especially addressing the staging and manipulation of the original documentary.
  • In Murdoch Mysteries episode "The Big Chill" of series 9, it inspires the character Nuniq, and the film being made about him, "Nuniq of the North in Toronto"

See also


  1. Nanook of the North incorporates many docudrama elements, including the "casting" of locals into fictitious "roles" and family relationships, as well as anachronistic "staged" hunting scenes. It is not a docufiction
  2. "Nanook of the North" wasn't the first feature-length documentary. The first ones came from the german mountain film pioneer Arnold Fanck (Das Wunder des Schneeschuhs, D 1919/20; Im Kampf mit dem Berge, D 1920/21)
  3. Essay by Dean W. Duncan. Criterion Collection. Retrieved on May 18, 2007.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Ebert, Roger (2005-09-25). "Nanook of the North (1922)". Chicago Sun Times. 
  5. Silver, Alain. Robert Flaherty's "Nanook of the North". One World Magazine.
  6. MP-0000.596.1 | Le chasseur au harpon, 1920-1929 | Impression | Robert J. Flaherty | Musée McCord. Retrieved on 2012-06-13.
  7. Barnouw, Erik (1993). Documentary:A History of the Non-Fiction Film. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 33–35. 
  8. Barnouw, Erik (1993). Documentary:A History of the Non-Fiction Film. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 34–36. 
  9. Richard Leacock Essay (Flaherty's Cameraman in the '40's and later MIT professor of film studies).
  10. Julia Emberley. Defamiliarizing the aboriginal: cultural practices and decolonization in Canada. p. 86 (citing Fatimah Tobing Rony, Taxidermy and Romantic Ethnography: Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North). 
  11. Pamela R. Stern, Historical Dictionary of the Inuit (Lanham, MD:Scarecrow Press, 2004), p. 23.
  12. Robert J. Christopher, Robert and Frances Flaherty: A Documentary Life, 1883-1922 (Montréal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2005), pp. 387-388
  13. Barnouw, Erik (1993). Documentary:A History of the Non-Fiction Film. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 36. 
  14. Rothman, William (1997). Documentary Film Classics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 9–11. 
  15. Duncan, Dean W.. Nanook of the North. Criterion Collection. Retrieved on 3 April 2012.
  16. Gray, Hugh. "Robert Flaherty and the Naturalistic Documentary". Hollywood Quarterly 5: 47. JSTOR 1209484. 
  17. Barnouw, Erik (1993). Documentary:A History of the Non-Fiction Film. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 47–48. 
  18. Silent film tops documentary poll. BBC News. Retrieved on 1 August 2014.
  19. Duncan, Dean. Nanook of the North. Criterion Collection. Retrieved on 3 April 2012.
  20. Nanook of the North. The Criterion Collection. Retrieved on 3 April 2012.
  21. "Rugrats" Cuffed/The Blizzard (1993). IMDb. Retrieved on April 19, 2016.

External links

Films directed by Robert J. Flaherty
BFI Sight & Sound Poll
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