Though universally lauded when first released in 1922, Robert Flaherty’s pioneering silent documentary Nanook of the North elicits far more complex reactions today: it’s both revered and reviled as a compelling but dishonest depiction of life in the arctic circle. Flaherty lived among the Inuit of Hudson Bay as a prospector and surveyor between 1912 and 1919, during which time he shot nearly 35,000 feet of film–all of it later destroyed by accident. Still, when he returned in 1920, he knew what he wanted to shoot, and even went so far as to stage scenes, sometimes persuading his subjects to revive long-abandoned customs for the camera. Flaherty’s attitude toward the Inuit, of course, reflected the prejudices of his time; he portrayed Nanook (the Bear), the chief of the tribe, as a hero, a skilled hunter and navigator, but couldn’t resist equating the indigenous folk with dogs or depicting them as childlike in front of white men at a trading post. But if he failed as an ethnographer, he triumphed as a dramatic storyteller, and the theme of Nanook–man’s heroic struggle against nature–would provide grist for his later films (Man of Aran, Louisiana Story). At this screening, Nanook of the North will be accompanied by organist Wolfgang RŸbsam. Univ. of Chicago, Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, 5850 S. Woodlawn, Friday, January 24, 8:00, 773-702-7059. –Ted Shen
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.