Robert Flaherty, the director of the famous film Nanook of the north, was the undisputed pioneer of documentary and cinema-truth. All his filmography revolves around the great theme of the relationship between man and nature. He was born in Iron Mountain, a very small and cold town in the United States, in Michigan, on the border with Canada, on February 16, 1884, to a family of Irish origin.
he Finds employment as a young man in Hudson Bay as an explorer and mineral hunter. This allows him to come into contact with populations who lived in isolated and extreme places in the regions of North America and to become familiar with the camera, which he carried with him to document the expeditions. His encounter with cinema took place in 1910, with some documentaries commissioned by the Canadian government to film mining exploration in the Labrador region.
Nanook of the north
Here Flaherty has the opportunity to film the Eskimos who live in the Igloos in that land tormented by frost. Those short takes are the seed that years later will sprout for his masterpiece, Nanook of the north. A film shot over 2 years of expeditions and filming in the Arctic Circle area, between 1920 and 1922, to tell the life of the Inuit. However, Flaherty’s films do not have a documentary and detached style: they are empathic and dramatic stories that let the viewer identify and get excited with the protagonists. They are also wonderful celebrations of worlds that live far from civilized society.
The greatness of these films lies in the fact that Flaherty felt sincere affection for the subjects he filmed, and built a human relationship with them. It also happens that during the filming of Nanook of the north fell in love with the Inuit woman who plays the wife of the protagonist Nanook. The woman became pregnant with her but Flaherty after shooting the film will never come back to see her.
Nanook, between documentary and drama
Flaherty moved in the balance between documentary and fiction, between reality and scenic reconstruction. When real conditions weren’t favorable for filming, he didn’t hesitate to manipulate the scene. For example, in Nanook, he had the Inuit family build only half of the igloo in which the family dinner scene takes place.
This gave him the opportunity to place the bulky camera he was working with at a distance to get the wide shot he wanted, which would not have been possible if the igloo had been built in its entirety. in a closed and tight environment. Primitive rites and domestic hearths in remote and inhospitable places where nature dominates everything. Feelings and family ties in a small world lost in the void of the arctic regions.
In Nanook Flaherty’s narrative, he shows the protagonist as a hero and wants the audience to identify with him, with his adventures. What interests him is to build a real dramatic narrative starting from real environments and subjects. The director selects pieces of reality that interest him to build a memorable character that is not the real one, but his dramatization of reality. He chooses what to show about his life, and eliminates other things, such as his bigamy, which the Western world would not like.
In contrast to Nanook world of ice and extreme survival, Flaherty was also very interested in the inhabitants of the southern islands such as Polynesia. Among the documentaries on these populations he tries to make one, entitled Tabù, in collaboration with the German director Friedrich Murnau, but the attempts to co-operate with other filmmakers always ended in quarrels and separations.
Forced by difficult financial situations to do what the producers said, who felt safer by working alongside experienced directors with a long career, I also try to work with Van Dyck. But the other directors were always self-centered and with very different film interests from those of Flaherty.
The main cause was probably the fact that all these filmmakers weren’t comfortable with Flaherty’s heavily documentary nature. They had been consulted by the productions precisely to transform Flaherty’s style, something never seen before, into something more palatable and codified for the time.
Fantasy dramas or historical blockbusters as in the case, for example, of Elephant Boy and the collaboration with Zoltán Korda, who sticks scenes shot in the studio to the film to transform it into a kind of “Jungle Book” to please the audience. It will become a mediocre film, partially successful only in the sequences shot by Flaherty.
Progress and primitive nature
The relationship between man and nature is reversed with Louisiana Story, a film that tells the life of a boy in the swamps of Louisiana, populated by crocodiles. Fantasy world of primeval creatures that the boy experiences every day as an adventure. This time, however, the danger is represented by progress and not by wild nature: the oilmen arrive in the region and violate this primitive purity of the environment.
Life in the difficult countries of the far north seems to be the most congenial theme for Flaherty. He creates another masterpiece in a place where living conditions are difficult. This is Man of Aran, which tells the life of a fishing family on the island of Aran. The fight against the violent elements of nature and the balance between anthropology and drama are the keys that allow Flaherty to create a new masterpiece. The film also won the Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival as best foreign film.
Flaherty’s seemingly simple style of recording small and large daily events is actually a very complex way of making films. A cinema reserved for those who have the gift of great empathy for other human beings, a great sensitivity in grasping the subtlest inner movements of ordinary people behind reality.
Flaherty only partially reconstructed scenes when it was appropriate to say what he wanted. But he had something more than the other directors he had tried in vain to collaborate with. He had that explorer and ethnologist ability to use real life as a raw material, that life that others could not dominate to make a film.
It was about establishing deep relationships with the people he made the film with. An experience that went far beyond the casting and production stages that many filmmakers were used to. None of them were willing to invest much of their lives in forming relationships with indigenous people from distant lands or poor people living in the swamps.
Reality was a gigantic and powerful matter that was almost impossible to manage. It was much easier for the directors to use it as a source of inspiration and reconstruct it on a set, with actors and studios. Until the arrival in the cinema of Flaherty, the director-explorer, who makes his idea of cinema a way of life.