Documentary film has been dogged by questions of veracity from the beginning. Robert Flaherty, director of Nanook of the North, was the Casey Affleck of his day, his subject "Nanook" (real name: Allakariallak) the Joaquin Phoenix (though with better grooming habits). Their depiction of a hardy band of Inuits hunting, fishing and kayaking among the ice floes looks like straightforward ethnography, but it's as much simulation as documentation. Flaherty staged all the action and had his actors hunt walrus using their forebears' harpoons rather than guns. There's also some question as to whether traditional Inuit dress ever included the kicky polar bear-skin pants sported by Nanook.
Perhaps most revealing is the makeup of Nanook's posse. The actress who plays Nyla ("smiling one"), one of his two wives, was actually Flaherty's young Inuit lover, Maggie Nujuarluktuk. Flaherty was married at the time, and though polygamy wasn't unknown among the Inuit, its appearance in the film might have more to do with the director's psyche. Flaherty left Nujuarluktuk when she was five months pregnant; their son, Josephie, never met his father.
Despite its dissimulation and its garden-variety early 20th-century racism ("Here live the most cheerful people in all the world—the fearless, lovable, happy-go-lucky Eskimo"), Nanook is still singularly watchable. The scenes in which Nanook builds an igloo from snow and ice are particularly fascinating; what the pre-industrial Inuit lacked in vegetables and warm-weather lolling, they made up for with miraculously versatile, at-hand construction materials. The screening is part of the Canadian Studies Department's Great White North series (so take off, eh). —Marc Maximov