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date » 24-11-2022 10:18

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A question of human relationships

On the 11th of June 2022, the Inuit community of Inukjuak, a town on the eastern shore of the Hudson Bay in Canada, gathered to celebrate the centenary of Nanook of the North (1922), a local heritage. Among the audience were descendants of the hunter Allakariallak, Nanook’s real name, and of Robert J. Flaherty. His relationships with Inuit women were kept secret until his death, including the one with Maggie Nujarlutuk – Nyla, the fictional wife of Nanook. Thirtytwo years after their affair, during the Canadian High Arctic Relocation of 1953 and 1955, their son Josephie Flaherty was deported together with his and other Inuit families to the inhospitable Grise Fiord, a hamlet in the Arctic Archipelago of the northernmost Canadian territories. Josephie’s story is also part of the film’s legacy and an example of those disruptive forces of colonization and industrialization (federal governments, fur trading companies, prospectors, hydroelectric enterprises, missionaries, residential schools, etc.) which, in the attempt to advance sovereignty, assimilation and commercial interests, have been affecting Inuit lives and culture for over a century. Despite the great loss and suffering, Inuit resisted and, as Inukjuak shows, are still self-preserving their cultural heritage as they have been doing since the time of Nanook and earlier on.
Nanook of the North was the result of an exceptional collaboration and an 11 years-lasting relationship between Robert J. Flaherty and the Inuit. Prior to the making of Nanook – shot between August 1920 and August 1921 in Port Harrison, nowadays Inukjuak – Flaherty had worked for years in Inuit territories as an iron-ore prospector. Since the first time that he brought “one of those new-fangled things, called a motion picture camera” during his 1913 expedition to the Baffin Island, he also carried with him a projector to show the rushes to the Inuit so that, in his own words, “they would work with me as partners”. The Inuit were giving feedback and suggesting what to film: "In the long evenings around the hut's crackling stove my Eskimos and I talked and speculated as to what scenes could be made” (Robert J. Flaherty, My Eskimo Friends, 1924). Besides, Flaherty collected and took inspiration from the drawings of the Inuit artist Nungusuituq, which was his guide from 1913 to 1914. As Flaherty's diaries suggested, one of the scenes of his 1914 lost film, his groundwork for Nanook, was based on one of these drawings. Whereas the drama in Nanook of the North was inspired by the real- life story of a marooned family of an Inuk hunter, Comok, told to Flaherty by Comok himself in 1912 or 1914. The Inuit were both “informed actors” and “active collaborators” (William Rothman, Documentary Film Classics, 1997) in the making of this cross-cultural
representation of Inuit life and they were also operating, fixing the frozen camera gears, and developing the film on the spot. That is why, despite some of its flaws, stereotypes and cultural inaccuracies, the film displays genuine Inuit skills and knowledge and, therefore, is still considered historically and culturally significant by Inuit.
More than five years spent in closeness with Inuit culture and in Inuit territories must have had a great influence over Flaherty’s vision and practice: “I had been dependent on these people, alone with them for months at a time, travelling with them and living with them (...) My work had been built up along them.” (“Robert Flaherty Talking”, in Cinema 1950, edited by Roger Manvell, 1950). Inuit filmmakers like Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, director of Angry Inuk (2016), and Zacharias Kunuk, director of the Camera D’Or winner Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001) and founder of Isuma (Canada's first Inuit-owned production company), make films using a relatable collaborative approach – “Inuit do not work in hierarchies” (Alethea Arnaquq Baril in imagiveNATIVE. On-screen protocols & pathways, edited by Marcia Nickerson, 2019). Isuma implements the Inuit cultural values of respectful cooperation, community support and collective participation into its filmmaking practice, in opposition to individuality and competition. According to Norman Cohn, cinematographer and co-founder of Isuma, the Inuit way of making films is “the Inuit way of making anything... it is like seal-hunting”. “There is an Inuit sensibility that you achieve the important things in life by working together” (Norman Cohn, IsumaTV interview, 2008). Despite being produced 100 years ago in a colonial context of exchange, this Inuit sensibility and working method is remarkably reflected in the way Nanook was made.
Never before Nanook of the North, the life, stories and cultural activities of “real people” were creatively shaped into a drama, acted and reenacted by the people themselves. “It is life as narrativised that, for the first time, we witness in Nanook” (Brian Winston, The Documentary Film Book, 2013). For many, this film marks the beginning of documentary cinema what John Grierson later defined as “the creative treatment of actuality”. The centennial of Nanook of the North calls us to acknowledge the Inuit agency behind its making and regard the film as the result of a collective effort, at the roots of a collaborative approach to documentary filmmaking. To put it in Flaherty’s words: “In the end, it is all a question of human relationships” (Robert J. Flaherty, 1950).

Francesco Rufini
["Nanook of the North" in Le Giornate del Cinema Muto/Pordenone Silent Film Festival 2022]

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Le_Giornate_del_Cinema_Muto_2022_Rufini.pdf (196.92 KB) Il_Cinema_Ritrovato_2022_Rufini.pdf (150.48 KB)

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