Bright Lights Film Journal

Nanook and Robert Flaherty: Father of Documentary Film – and More

Robert Flaherty and Alice Nevalinga (aka Nyla, the smiling one) were romantically involved  –  or as McLane modestly puts it, “he had an Eskimo female companion.”

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In 1922, Robert Flaherty made the first-feature length documentary, Nanook of the North. Because of this, he is generally considered the father of documentary film. But as we’ll see, Mr. Flaherty fathered more than that.

Robert J. Flaherty. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

From Michigan, Robert Flaherty was a still photographer who loved the North American wilderness and the people who inhabited it, in particular American Indians and Eskimos (as they were called at the time). In 1913, Flaherty’s wife, Frances, encouraged her husband to trade his still photography kit for motion-picture equipment. Obliging, he registered for one of Eastman Kodak’s camera operation courses in New York, and was on his way to becoming a filmmaker.

Flaherty’s first attempt at creating a motion picture would take him to the Hudson Bay region of Canada (Inukjuak) to live with the Eskimos, now more commonly known as the Inuit. Between 1913 and 1914, Flaherty shot hours of footage of the Inuit, their activities and surroundings. While editing the film back in Toronto, he accidentally dropped a cigarette onto the floor, igniting the pile of highly flammable cellulose (see Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds for a more entertaining account of fiery film). The original negative footage was almost completely destroyed, and the accident nearly took down Flaherty as well.

Undaunted, Robert and Frances did not give up their filmmaking ventures. They returned to the northern region of Canada, and between 1920 and 1922, they shot what we know as Nanook of the North.

As any film instructor, documentary director, or the creators of IFC’s mockumentary series, Documentary Now!will likely tell you, Nanook of the North is a major feat. First, the ethnographic documentary chronicles the daily lives of Inuit culture, focusing on relatable themes like family (with conventional gender roles), survival, travel, and play. To do this, again, the Flahertys embedded themselves within Inuit life for nearly two years.

Second, imagine the determination, ingenuity, and improvisation it must have taken to shoot Nanook of the North. In A New History of Documentary Film, Betsy A. McLane discusses the specifics of Flaherty’s equipment: a 60-pound, hand-cranked camera along with a 15-pound tripod and massive quantities of 35mm film, all of which Flaherty and his crew would have had to lug across snow, ice floes, and frozen banks.

Finally, Flaherty developed and printed film on-location so he could be sure what he was filming was reputable. To do this, McLane reports, the indigenous people cut holes in the ice to get water for processing the film, carried it in barrels back to their huts, and strained out any animal hair that fell into it from their clothes. Flaherty’s “printer” in the field, involving a blacked-out window, was apparently even more makeshift.

“Nyla”

Nanook of the North is also notorious because of some “faking and fudging” within, as Dean W. Duncan calls it. Perhaps the most repeated bits are these:

“Nanook”

These are the fabrications and re-enactments I usually relay to my students  –  after we’ve considered Nanook of the North’s contribution to the history of documentary cinema. And then I lay this one on them:

You know Nyla, the smiling one? Well, she and Robert Flaherty were more than subject and director. 

That’s right. Robert Flaherty and Alice Nevalinga (aka Nyla, the smiling one) were romantically involved  –  or as McLane modestly puts it, “he had an Eskimo female companion.” What’s more, Flaherty and Alice had a son, Joseph (or Josephie). McLane reports Flaherty “neither saw [the child] nor acknowledged [him] to the public on his sub-arctic expeditions.”

In his exhaustive study on the Flahertys, Robert Christopher delves further into the matter. He explains that little Joseph was “absorbed into the embrace of Eskimo adoptive culture.” But significantly, before the process was complete, Alice insisted her son’s name not be changed to an Inuit name, that he remain Joseph Flaherty. Almost gleefully, Christopher writes that Joseph, in turn, fathered a family  –  and if you were to visit Inukjuak and Grise Fiord (now in the First Nations territory of Nunavut), “you will meet a large and thriving Flaherty Inuit clan.”

As it turns out, Alice was not Robert Flaherty’s only female companion. In 1915, during his and Frances’ voyages to Canada’s Belcher Islands, he also fathered a son with an Inuk woman. This relationship is confirmed in Claude Massot’s 1998 documentary Nanook Revisited, included as a bonus on Flicker Alley’s lavish Blu-ray of Nanook of the North.

I should note that marital customs among the Inuit were not strictly monogamous. According to Inuit Women: Their Powerful Spirit in a Century of Change, spousal exchange, polygamy, and polyandry were common, but “practices seldom taken lightly.” Spousal exchange, for example, occurred on a temporary basis  –  a few days to a few weeks  –  and required consent from all partners.

Lest we forget, Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North is a documentary created for and presented to the Western world, which maintains traditional ideas about gender roles, marriage, and sex. As such, that the film omits the Inuits’ looser romantic and sexual customs makes sense  –  even if its director was, it seems, fully embracing them.

Works Cited

Billson, Janet Mancini. Inuit Women Their Powerful Spirit in a Century of Change. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007. Print.

Christopher, Robert J. Robert and Frances Flaherty: A Documentary Life, 1883-1922. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2005. Print.

McLane, Betsy A. A New History of Documentary Film. 2nd ed. New York: Continuum, 2012. Print.

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Note: Unless otherwise indicated, all above images are screenshots from the film.