The Famous Arctic Documentary and Its Afterlife
Robert J. Flaherty’s (1884–1951) first film Nanook of the North, which was to remain his greatest success, is often described as “timeless”, “classic”, and “unique” (Griffith & Mayer 1957, 211). It is characterized using terms and phrases such as “best-known”, “most popular” (Kobel 2007, 78), and “a new kind of motion picture” (Ellis & McLane 2005, 12). Although the film’s authenticity has been disputed since the very beginning (Stefansson 1928),1 Flaherty’s name has become inseparably connected with documentary film: Nanook is described as “pioneering” (Dixon & Foster 2013, xvii), “the first straight documentary” (Dixon & Foster 2013, 42), and “a prototypical documentary” (Nichols 2001, 21). Documentary filmmakers often consider Nanook one of “the greatest documentaries of all time” (Barnouw 1993, 43); stories told by Flaherty and his wife Frances about the making of the film have been repeated over and over (see, for instance, Barnouw 1993, 35 or Ellis & McLane 2005, 12). Even scholars who think that Flaherty’s “reputation is overblown”, like Brian Winston, consider Nanook to be Flaherty’s “one real and indisputable contribution to the development of the cinema” (Winston 2013, 89).
Nanook is probably one of the most seen and best-known feature films of the silent film era, “screened throughout the world, by culturally diverse audiences” (Berger 1995, 177), thus “familiar to every school child as well as every film buff” (Shepard 1974, 60). Nanook of the North has been “widely studied and written about” (Shepard 1974, 60), but regardless of...
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