Want to know what was considered the first documentary made? Nanook of the North by Robert J. Flaherty. This film is about the everyday lives of an Inuk family in the Canadian arctic. You see them hunting, fur trading, igloo building, and surviving the harsh winter. Originally, this film was going to be a generalization of the Inuk men until majority of the footage suffered death by cigarette burning. So then Flaherty just decided to focus on one family. But Flaherty makes us wonder what the true meaning of a documentary is- should everything be real or is combining some fiction for an entertaining film fine as well?
These three scenes how that it’s possible the documentary could have its fabricated moments. For example, the canoe scene– unless the Inuks have magical powers that we don’t know about and all five of them can fit in a canoe built for one just as a clever way to introduce the characters. The fur trading scene was entirely scripted to add comedy to the film. To show how naive it is for Nanook to not know what a record is that he had to bite it with his teeth.
The Inuks wore more westernized clothes and hunted with rifles instead of spears but Flaherty wanted to change it up to make the Inuks seem more different than common society. The Inuks were told to hunt the walruses with spears. Also, since the cameras used were huge and not portable, some adjustments had to be made in the building of the igloos. How did you feel watching these scenes?
Another thing about the film is how Flaherty wrote in character traits for the subjects to make the story more interesting. For example, Nanook is described as “fearless, lovable, happy-go-lucky Eskimo.” The Inuks are described as “fearless leaders” with skin thicker than any other race of people. It seems as if Flaherty is turning his subjects into what the mainstream audience’s preconceived notions of Eskimos were. Whatever this film was, it was the closest thing that audiences saw to a real-life film about real people of a culture that was little-known. See this film so you can get a glimpse of the life of the Inuk eskimos and what the 1920s definition of a documentary was.
Watch the first documentary made and write what you think: