Phil Konstantin's Review of "Nanook of the North."

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Nanook of the North

I wrote this review in June 2004.

Movie Review: Nanook of the North

I had the opportunity recently to watch a new DVD version of the classic silent film, Nanook of the North. Many of you may not be familiar with the movie, but you may have heard of the title. I recall its' use in the 50s when someone was trying to show their lack of knowledge about things 'up north.' "Who do you think I am, Nanook of the North?"

Nanook of the North was made in 1920 (yes, it is over 80 years old) by Robert Flaherty. Flaherty is often called the father of documentary film-making due to the success of this movie. Flaherty participated in expeditions of northern Canada for Sir William Mackenzie between 1910 and 1916. He took some silent films (there were no 'talkies' then) of the people he lived with for six years, as he called them, Eskimos. While he made a compiled his films of his adventures with this group, it was not a very good film. In fact, it was accidently burned, and Flaherty was only upset about it as the lost of some images. Flaherty returned to the eastern shores of Hudson Bay in 1920. By this time he was more familiar with the operations of cameras, and film-making. Nanook of the North is the reult of this effort.

The film features the day-to-day activities (to use the words of the film) of the family of "Nanook of the North - a story of life and love in the actual Arctic. The film says that Nanook is the chief of the Itivimuits band of Eskimo of Hopewell Sound, North Ungava. His wife, children, and other members of his band hunt, fish, live and love in the cold region.

Much of the film covers their ongoing struggle to find and cloth themselves. The film covers a trip south to the white traders' outpost for suppiles. Nanook traded seven polar bear skins (killed by hand with a harpoon), and other pelts. Nanook and his family fish on the ice floes, hunt for walrus and seals. The film also shows how Nanook creates an igloo in under an hour. An interesting feature of the igloo is the clear ice skylight.

The film shows things as they happened. To quote Flaherty, these are ordinary people, doing ordinary things, just being themselves. What is unique about the film is the subject. The film was shown all over the world. When Nanook died two years later, his passing was noted in newspapers throughout the world. In fact, Flaherty's wife said the Malay (southeast Asia) created a new word meaning strong man: 'Nanook." Nanook went inland to look for deer, and he starved when he could not find any.

The quality of the picture in the Criterion edition of the DVD I saw was very good, especially considering the age of the material. I features a string-instrument score that matches the action, but could get a bit redundant over the course of the entire film.

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