Finally, given the lasting legacy of Flaherty’s films, it is reasonable to conclude that the flaws carried by them can be tolerated for their other positive qualities. Perceiving these early attempts at ethnographic film-making as distinct from modern documentaries of the genre would also help our appreciation of these films. As some film critics have pointed out, the mode of representation of the ethnographic in early documentaries as Taxidermic – a subcategory within ethnographic films. Taxidermy looks to make that which has perished appear as if it were still living, a tag that aptly suits Nanook of the North. In defence of this mode of film-making, British taxidermist Charles Waterton notes,
“The restoration of the life‐ like is itself postulated as a response to a sense of loss. In other words, the Utopia of life-like reproduction depends upon, and reacts to, the fact of death. It is a strenuous attempt to recover, by means which must exceed those of convention, a state which is (and must be) recognized as lost. Taxidermy fulfills the fatal desire to represent, to be whole; it is a politics of reproduction. Thus in order to make a visual representation of indigenous peoples, one must believe that they are dying, as well as use artifice to make a picture which appears more true, more pure. (Rony, 1996, p.133)
Considering that the flaws witnessed in early ethnographic films are also what keep them alive today is a big factor in evaluating those flaws. Seen as projects in Taxidermy would alleviate the acuteness of some of these flaws. This certainly is the consensus among scholars and critics. The lasting popular legacy of these films also implies that their flaws can be tolerated for other strong points. And finally, while later ethnographies are decidedly more objective and their directors less intrusive in the unfolding events, they too contain scenes that are staged or reconstructed, albeit to a lesser degree. With the invaluable addition of synchronized sound stream and advancements in filming techniques and technology, the overall quality of later products are markedly superior to those created by Robert Flaherty and his contemporaries.
Askew, K. M. (2006). Images, Documentation and Imagined Ethnography. Michigan Quarterly Review, 45(1), 27+.
Bird, S. E. (Ed.). (1996). Dressing in Feathers: The Construction of the Indian in American Popular Culture. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Ellis, Jack C., and Betsy McLane. A New History of Documentary Film. Continuum, 2005. (Chapter 1&2)
Griffiths, A. (2002). Wondrous Difference: Cinema, Anthropology, and Turn-Of-The-Century Visual Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.
Lee, R. (1984, January). Robert Flaherty: Free Spirit. American Cinematographer, 65, 37+.
McCaffrey, D. W., & Jacobs, C. P. (1999). Guide to the Silent Years of American Cinema. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary. Indiana Univ. Press, 2002 (Chapters 1&2, 5&6)
Rony, F. T. (1996). The Third Eye: Race, Cinema, and Ethnographic Spectacle. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.