In a Canadian winter 30 degrees below, you can’t help but notice the power of nature, but you can dash from car to house and forget it as quickly as possible. Western amenities let the Northerner ignore the full import of the freeze, which reveals how limited our culture and infrastructure really are. What we glimpse on an icy day is embodied in Robert Flaherty’s seminal documentary, Nanook of the North: A Story of Life and Love in the Actual Arctic. Flaherty’s depiction of traditional Inuit life celebrates the values of inner contentment, surrender, and simplicity of heart, often obscured by modern urban life. Flaherty depicts a life that is profound and free of distraction; a protagonist devoted to knowing; and the raw elements now veiled by modernity, as reality is obscurd by the patterns of the self.
While wealthy societies foster materialism and laziness, comfort is meagre for Nanook and his family. Exertion and cold are a way of life. They spend the brief daylight hours working and hunting, half-starved, trekking through blizzards. The film captures the minimal resources humans require for survival and fulfilment. ‘The melancholy spirit of the North, the shrill piping of the wind, the rasp and hiss of driving snow, the mournful wolf howls of Nanook’s master dog’ make no dent in Nanook’s blissful aspect.
Nanook represents a pure being in response to the reality around him. What must be done is done without complaint. He lives by what he knows is true – responsibility and love – and the result is prowess and joy. Nanook, ‘the great hunter’ possesses ‘skill in traversing dangerous floes.’ At ease, he ‘licks his walrus ivory knife,’ preparing to build a night’s shelter and ‘his igloo is complete within the hour.’ The millennia of Indigenous knowledge show in Nanook’s every deft move. His attitude and his skill show his wholeness and his connection with nature.
Likewise, left to each other and the elements, Nanook’s family is intimate and full of love. In the family’s first scene, Nanook paddles in, steps ashore, and unloads the entire crew from his small boat. Not only does the scene demonstrate the family’s trust and physical proximity, it also alludes to a significant cliche: ‘they are all in the same kayak.’ They one with the environment, but also each other, which you can see in the children’s smiling faces, in Nanook teaching them how to use a bow and arrow, or the moment Nyla ‘chews Nanook’s boots to soften them.’ A year after the film’s release, Nanook met the end of a short, tough, but apparently fulfilled life.
Aside from representing a profound way of life, Nanook of the North serves as a metaphor for deeper levels of reality, challenging and sustaining anybody attuned to them. Stark yet beautiful, the Arctic portrayed by Flaherty is comparable to core-splitting honesty, a level of honesty as rich as it is sparse — hard work that offers nothing unneeded. Like Nanook, the dweller of core-splitting honesty attends to every detail of knowing. Searches deeper levels of awareness as Nanook reaches into the sea for fish; realizes meaning like Nanook reeling in the Ogjuk (big seal); navigates rough terrain by the truth in subtlety; and takes in the beauty of reality as Nanook loves his world of ice and sky. Metaphorically, Nanook demonstrates core-splitting honesty, but practically, earth and spirit are one in him, reminding us that real honesty goes from the core to the mundane.
By contrast, most of us are conditioned by modern society and the self. As a city operates and falters, facilitates and distracts, so does the self; and like the self, it may be uncomfortable to leave the city for cleaner places. Watching the film on a laptop in Amsterdam, for example, is viewing one world from another. Deeper sincerity is visible from the self, but unlike the North, sincerity is home to all of us. Nanook and his family are a reminder that we know how to live more purely inside. The outpouring is from knowing; the return is love.
Lastly, the film conveys a culture fading and pattern of loss throughout history. Flaherty staged many scenes to represent practices already altered by European technology. Nanook was really named Allakariallak and his ‘wives’were in fact other women chosen for their appearance. Without questioning Flaherty’s ethnographic approach, it does create yet another barrier between screen viewing and Indigenous living. Even in 1922, when Nanook was filmed, much of its content was already history. In the documentary and current times, the Arctic is a symbol of our ephemeral world and the lives playing out within it.
Flaherty’s monochromatic imagery suggests a purity in barrenness. Nanook echoes anxieties about climate change, overpopulation, and other global issues, and like a purity in a selfish world, the Arctic is dwindling. The hyperborean scenes remind us how even archetypes can be fleeting. A new international culture is overhauling the globe and Nanook’s reality is almost mythic from today’s urban perspectives. Similarly, the world is lacking a focus on knowing, something further from self-orientation than Nanook’s raw lot to the average North American. Inspiring us through wintery scenes of life and love, Nanook reaffirms that core-splitting honesty may be a solitude, but it’s where we all belong.