Good Example Of Ethnography Caught on Celluloid Course Work

Published: 2021-06-18 06:12:59
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Ethnography Caught on Celluloid: Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922)

The cinema is a medium perfectly suited to the recording of a particular community’s beliefs, practices, and cultural milieu. Many anthropologists see films as media of representation in their own right, as opposed to seeing ethnographic film-making as merely an adjunct activity to data gathering (Homiak 185). This has been true not only in the modern landscape, but also in the early years of cinema and the anthropological medium. In fact, one of the first and most celebrated filmmakers during the 1920s essentially used his lens to document the culture and practices of a specific community. He is Robert Flaherty, and his film Nanook of the North has often been hailed as a triumph in both documentary filmmaking and in visual anthropology. The film, which has often been hailed as one of the landmark productions in American cinema, blends the documentary medium – that of an objective, anthropological investigation – with elements of traditional narrative and story – that is, having staged action and the attempt to elicit excitement from within the frame. In so doing, Flaherty manages to explore the possibilities of film not only as a medium wherein which the anthropologist can record the actuality of community life, but also as a medium that can condense the social concerns and issues of a given community to be illustrated to the audience, all the while moving the filmic medium closer to the realm of art.

Nanook of the North: A Story of Life and Love In the Actual Arctic begins with a preface by the director, narrating how it “grew out of a long seriesin the north which I carriedfrom 1910 to 1916. Much of the exploration was done in journeys lasting months at a time with only two or three Eskimos as my companions” However true these claims may be, it cannot be denied that Nanook of the North is one of the most powerful and moving films at the time of its release. The film narrates the story of the eponymous Nanook, constantly seeking to survive and provide for his family – two wives and two children. Barely touched by industry and technology, Nanook and his family are documented by Flaherty while they hunt, build igloos, and traverse the harsh Arctic landscape just to survive.

It is important to note that Nanook of the North was produced before the advent of the sound film, in an era where newsreels and “actualities” were the norm. To deviate from the formalities of traditional filmmaking at the time, Robert Flaherty used a number of techniques at his disposal. For one, he used long takes in some critical portions of the film. In one scene, he established the harsh Arctic landscape by using a thirty-two second pan. In the famed walrus hunt scene, he filmed Nanook for fifty-one uninterrupted seconds, emphasizing the brutal tug of war between the animal and its captor. Finally – and more impressively - when Nanook is making the window for his igloo, Flaherty documents the process for three uninterrupted minutes! Flaherty also uses established shot types to convey traditional narrative into the ethnographic film. Extreme long shots are used to establish the landscape and setting of the action, while close ups showcase the detail and reactions of Nanook and other characters. Flaherty also emphasizes the realism of the film by consistently shooting scenes at eye-level, relating the audience to the events unfolding on the screen.

One key scene that may be observed in Nanook of the North is the walrus hunt scene. Albeit admittedly “staged”, Flaherty uses this scene as a vehicle to advance the film’s narrative (Flaherty). This also brings out the nature of the filmmaker/ethnographer within his subjects. Should Flaherty have portrayed the film as real events, or as a carefully-set-up narrative? This issue has been addressed, and re-addressed in reviews and critical analyses of Nanook of the North and in other forums related to visual anthropology. From a theoretical standpoint, this is an effective tool in that it manages to convey the struggles of a group of people through the documentation of just one individual family. Doing so enabled the ethnographic film to become more in tune with the current of filmmaking at the time, while also enabling filmmakers to access a wider audience. This may also be the case if one considers Flaherty’s inappropriate usage of orchestral music and heavy narration in Nanook.

Although Flaherty was no anthropologist and did not pretend to approach cultures with a research plan, he did spend a lengthy span of time in the field for each of his films, absorbing and observing the native culture. He was no fly-by-night explorer (Heider, 21). Nanook of the North demonstrates this by using elements of narrative cinema into ethnographic filmmaking. In doing so, Flaherty encapsulates the drama of a community – the cultural milieu of a specific group of people – into a story of one man and his family, struggling against the harshness of the cold Arctic landscape.

Works Cited

Flaherty, Robert J.. "How I Flimed "Nanook Of The North". The World's Work: A History of Our Time XLIV: (August 1922): 553–560
Homiak, John P. “Timothy Asch, the rise of visual anthropology, and the Human Studies Film Archives” in ED Lewis (Ed.) Timothy Asch and Ethnographic Film. New York: Routledge, 2000. Print
Heider, Karl G. Ethnographic Film. UT Press, 2006. Print.

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