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«Nanook of the North» From 1922 to Today

The Famous Arctic Documentary and Its Afterlife

Roswitha Skare

Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North is one of the best-known documentaries of the silent era and has remained well-known throughout the world ever since its release in 1922. This study takes as its point of departure the changes Nanook underwent from its premiere at the New York Capitol on June 11, 1922, to the sound version of 1947, the film’s restoration in the 1970s, and later editions on different platforms. Accordingly, the book focuses on the different versions and editions of the film and the significant ways in which the different elements surrounding the film influence our perception.


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6. Nanook Restored: The Original Director’s Cut?


109 6. Nanook Restored: The Original Director’s Cut? While the focus of Pathépicture in 1922 and United Artists in 1947 in promoting Nanook was foremost on moneymaking and thus on selling the picture to the largest possible audience,97 the situation at the beginning of the 1970s was a different one. International Film Seminars, a nonprofit organization, “had acquired the film’s copyright as a gift from Revillon Frères, the producers” and asked David Shepard “to reassure it about the condition of its fifty-year-old Innuit [sic] ward” (Shepard 1980, 345). As described by Shepard, the situation was challenging because the original negative had decomposed and was burned in 1960. A protection copy made from it in 1940, also on nitrate film, had been destroyed in a disastrous nitrate film fire at the National Film Board of Canada in 1967. Turning to the protection materials for the reissue version with narration, we found two-thirds of the master print totally lost to nitrate decomposition with decay already evident in the remaining two reels. […] The only 35 mm, first-generation print we could find in this country had been made for Robert Flaherty himself in 1937, when the negative was already scratched and blemished from fifteen years of printing; the positive was badly worn from decades of exhibition. (Shepard 1980, 345) Not only was the old material worn, damaged, and lacking parts, however; the restored version of Nanook was also to include a new soundtrack that had to be added to the images....

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