As a hunter, Nanook does more than simply violently kill animals. He is depicted as a master of his environment, forcing it (and the animals he hunts) to conform to his needs in myriad ways. Flaherty, then, is presenting himself as performing the same feat by subjecting his characters to the same controlling and manipulating filmic gaze, thus imposing the liminal, tragic regime of taxidermy that Tobing describes.
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Nanook of the North, Robert Flaherty’s (in)famous 1922 ethnographic documentary following the fictionalized lives of a group of Inuits, is often discussed in terms of its depictions of hunting. Andre Bazin’s classic paean to the film, for example, an essay that in many ways defines the critic’s entire philosophy of realism in film, describes the scene of Nanook (Allakariallak, the film’s titular character, characterized as a “great hunter”) trapping a seal below a thick sheet of ice. Hunting is indeed the film’s central action as Nanook and his “family” struggle to fend off starvation during a long, hard winter. In his article on the film, critic William Rothman expands on this theme’s multiple resonances, arguing that Flaherty’s filmmaking conflates “filming with killing,” and because of this, the director, like his central subject Nanook, is a “great hunter” though “his weapon is a camera, not a harpoon” (35). In her critique of the film, scholar Fatimah Tobing Rony argues that Nanook is an act of “taxidermy,” reliant on creating the sense that its subject, an indigenous community, exists in a utopian past and are thus presumed already dead, made uncannily animate by Flaherty’s camera. While Rothman’s argument is compelling in many ways, I propose to reorient the manner in which “hunting” – both cinematic and literal – is read in the film, bringing it closer to Tobing’s cinematic taxidermy: As a hunter, Nanook does more than simply violently kill animals. He is depicted as a master of his environment, forcing it (and the animals he hunts) to conform to his needs in myriad ways. Flaherty, then, is presenting himself as performing the same feat by subjecting his characters to the same controlling and manipulating filmic gaze, thus imposing the liminal, tragic regime of taxidermy that Tobing describes.
Though many of Nanook’s most famous scenes are acts of killing, one scene breaks this pattern. Near the middle of the film, Nanook and his family struggle to traverse several miles by dogsled only to be interrupted, as an intertitle informs us, by the discovery that an arctic fox has stumbled into one of Nanook’s traps. The next scene plays out like an act of conjuring: Nanook appears in a wide shot, alone on a vast plain of unmarked snow, the trap invisible somewhere in the frame. He comes into frame cautiously, eventually crawling to a raised spot on the ground. Using his knife, he cuts a hole into a mound of snow to reveal an open space inside of which he is able to fit his entire torso. After a brief struggle, implied by his writhing lower body, he pulls a white fox from the hole by its neck, like a rabbit from a hat. In this shot, the fox appears dead. As he ties it down to the sled, however, suddenly – it blinks! The creature then proceeds to hiss and struggle as Nanook’s “son” plays an innocent-yet-taunting game, bringing his face close to its own, jerking back and giggling when its teeth come too close. The scene, then, takes on a singularly haunting quality in the context of a film largely about death and the struggle against it. Previously, we have seen that Nanook sells fox pelts at the trading post nearby, informing us of the fox’s imminent death. Initially, it appears the fox has been dead since before Nanook arrived at the trap. Yet in this brief scene, the fox is indeed still alive. The shock of this discovery renders its animate, almost resurrected presence a sense of zombielike uncanniness – while it may still be alive when the scene ends, the knowledge of Nanook’s fur trading informs us that it is effectively dead already.
This scene, with its emphasis on control, spectacle, entertainment, and manipulation of prey over simple killing, provides a potential alternative framework to view the film’s depiction of the hunt. Rothman’s description of Flaherty’s filmic gaze describes the vulnerability of Allakariallak and the other Inuit actors on screen: “[They] are his prey, vulnerable to being exposed to his camera, exposed by his camera, in all their vulnerability” (35). Indeed, this point should be emphasized: the fox, tied down by the neck on the sled, is subject to both the curious gaze of the viewer and the boy who so innocently torments it. After being pinned by the hunter, the violence on display comes not from the act of killing so much as the act of capture and display. Like the fox, Allakariallak and his castmates are compelled by Flaherty to undress in an open igloo, exposing their flesh to subzero temperatures for inspection. Allakariallak is told to feign ignorance of the gramophone he is “shown” by the trader for the viewer’s amusement. After this description of the cast’s vulnerability, though, Rothman moves on to focus on the way “killing” and filming are conflated by the film in the scene of walrus hunting, undercutting this point by implicitly suggesting this violent exposure to vulnerability stems from a sort of necrophilic impulse rather than a simply voyeuristic, imperialist one. Yet this former description highlights the nuance of performing ethnographic spectacle on screen in a manner that evokes Tobing Rony’s concept of ethnographic documentary as “taxidermy.” Using Donna Haraway as her entry point, Rony argues that, “The restoration of the lifelike is itself postulated as a response to a sense of loss . . . the Utopia of lifelike reproduction depends upon, and reacts to, the fact of death. It is a strenuous attempt to recover . . . a state which is (and must be) recognized as lost.” This dissonance, she argues, produces a more authentic sensation of verisimilitude, the exclamation that, “That animal is alive!” (101, emphasis added). Thus, Flaherty’s documentary relies on an anachronistic depiction of Inuit life, complete with outdated Inuit clothing and free of technologies that imply the presence of modernity, in order to heighten a sense of times gone by that is intended, paradoxically, to increase the sense that Nanook and his family are indeed being depicted faithfully.
The final scene in the film evokes this same dissonant sensation of viewing vulnerable life somehow suspended in death, shifting the valence of the meaning of “hunting” in the film once more. The last of a series of intertitles before the film even begins informs the viewer that, two years after the film was shot, “Nanook had ventured into the interior hoping for deer and starved to death. But our ‘big aggie’ . . . has gone into most of the odd corners of the world, and more men than there are stones . . . have looked upon Nanook, the kindly brave simple Eskimo.”
In the context of the liminal form of taxidermic representation being discussed, the film’s final sequence in its entirety takes on new valence not unlike that of the tragic arctic fox Nanook traps. After accomplishing his climactic act of hunting, the killing and eating of Bazin’s lauded seal, Nanook and his family find themselves stranded in a storm, far from their igloo due to a fight among their team of dogs. While previously, Nanook’s success as a “chief” is defined in broad terms not just by his skill as a hunter but as a capable manipulator of his environment, taking advantage of the natural tendencies of the wilderness through feats such as replicating the arctic fox’s burrow with his trap, smoothing his sled’s runners with spit that freezes to provide more traction, and providing his igloo with light by creating a reflective panel out of snow that shines sun through his ice-window. Here, though, he is unable to control his dogs, transforming him into yet another animal hounded by the landscape’s violent wrath. As they take shelter in an abandoned igloo, a series of shots perform another act of magic, this time a sort of de-animation: as a ceaseless wind blows snow over the empty landscape, the team of dogs howl silently, curling up against snow that slowly covers them. Nanook and his family prepare for bed, eventually settling into sleep. Finally, a shot of the dogs presents a haunting tableau: covered in snow, the creatures, completely still but for the rustling of their fur in the wind, appear dead, mummified in ice. As Nanook, Allakariallak, whose death was broadcast before the title can even introduce him, sleeps, equally still.
Yet when the film ends, Nanook and his dogs are still alive. Subject to Flaherty’s curious, aggrandizing, often violently demeaning gaze, more than Inuit culture is depicted as taxidermy. Like the arctic fox, whose life is suddenly, shockingly insisted on even with the knowledge of its imminent demise, through this feigned act of sleep, Allakariallak-as-Nanook is “hunted” by nature, and by Flaherty’s controlling camera, transformed into an uncanny spectacle of vulnerability, both helpless and in control.
Nanook of the North. Dir. Robert Flaherty. Revillon Frères, 1922. Kanopy, 2023.
William Rothman, sz“Filmmaker as Hunter: On Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North.” Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video, Wayne State University Press, 2014. 23-29.
Tobing Rony, Fatimah. “Taxidermy and Rosmantic Ethnography.” The Third Eye: Race, Cinema, and Ethnographic Spectacle. Duke University Press, 1996. 99-126.