One area of ambiguity in Nanook of the North is the mixing of nature and ethnographic documentary genres in one product. As much as the film is about the life and livelihood of an archetypal clan of the American Arctic, a major portion of the film is dedicated to covering animal life in the region, with walruses, seals, fishes and sledge dogs all getting detailed attention. These passages in the film are comparable to the kind of work David Attenborough had undertaken throughout his illustrious career. But in Attenborough’s case the emphasis was clearly on nature and what transient coverage of human inhabitants takes place is only to provide the requisite backdrop. In Nanook of the North, Flaherty clearly gets carried away by events and phenomena in the Arctic wild that the film ends up giving inadequate screen-time to developing human characters. While Nanook, Nyla and other members of the small family are introduced in brief, the identities of these characters are not properly developed. Always preoccupied with the here-and-now, the Eskimo has no time, energy or the inclination to grow his spirituality. (Bird, 1996, p.258) While this is the impression given to the audience, it is not a wholly accurate one. Of course, one has to remember that Robert Flaherty was much more than a film-maker. He was a key member of the early Arctic explorers, whose contribution to the understanding of the region is very important. More than an ethnographer, Flaherty donned additional hats of cartographer, miner, geologist, wildlife photographer and more.
“In the course of four expeditions, financed by Sir William Mackenzie (who “with his daring imagination, was to Canada what Cecil Rhodes was to Africa”), Robert Flaherty added the Belcher Archipelago to the map of Canada and had an island named after him by the Canadian government. He was, too, the first white man to cross the Ungava Peninsula, known until then only by the Eskimo – whose constant, uncomplaining battle for near survival and whose friendly ways and humor he came not only to admire, bur to love. “ (Lee, 1984, p.38)
Hence, the flaws inherent in Flaherty’s early forays into film-making should be seen in the context of his overall contributions and multiple roles played by him. To accuse Flaherty of employing re-enactment, staging and altering in what was supposedly a ‘documentary work’, is a harsh indictment of him. Modern scholars, analysing Nanook of the North retrospectively see such things as persistent phenomenon in the whole history of ethnographic documentary film. For example, it is common practice to make natives perform rituals specially for the camera and settings changed in order to accommodate the film crew. Following Nanook of the North, other ethnographic documentaries of the American North appeared. Prominent among them such as Eskimo (1934) and The Alaskan Eskimo (1953) were full of carefully staged reconstructions under directions from the film-maker. Hence, to single out Flaherty as breaking the integrity of ethnographic film making is unfair. If anything, the blurring of the boundary between ‘fiction’ and ‘documentary’ can be seen as necessary for achieving overall dramatic effect and artistic quality. The success and lasting legacy of the film is a valid proof of this filming philosophy. (Askew, 2006, p.27)
Indeed, Nanook of the North was such an influential film in early “non-fiction” genre, that the methods used in its making, flawed as they might be, have been widely adopted in subsequent projects. For example, the subtitle of Flaherty’s next film Moana: A Romance of the Golden Age indicates that the film-maker was dealing with myth. Due to this perception, the director “established the other face, a prototype of the documentary”. This precursor to the whole array of documentaries that are released later reveals “a more popular approach to what sometimes would be called the drama-documentary or docudrama.” A good example of this genre is the Silent Enemy (1930) – a film about the Native Indian tribes of North American tundra as they struggle to stave-off starvation. (McCaffrey & Jacobs, 1999, p.217)