But it still happened, right? Life with Nanook and Bob

NANOOK OF THE NORTH (1922)

There was a time, not too long ago, when the veracity of what was portrayed in a documentary was a given. If someone put together a non-fiction film, surely we could trust our own eyes. Over time, questions began to arise and the veracity of documenting life on film was called into question. It was revealed, for instance, that the lemmings plunging to their death in Walt Disney’s White Wilderness (1958) weren’t actually killing themselves en masse but being scared off of a cliff’s edge and, in some cases, thrown off, by the filmmakers. Why? Because people were under the impression that lemmings killed themselves like some tiny rodentia version of the People’s Temple, sans the Kool-Aid. And, hey, if that’s what people thought, might as well give them what they want, right? Um, right? But Nanook of the North* (1922) was no Disney True-Life Adventure. It was a pioneering look into a different culture that set the standard for biographical documentaries for years to come. But is it real? Well, that depends on your definition of real.

 Nanook of the North, once famous for its pioneering documentary techniques alone, is now almost as famous for faking much of what is seen. Actually, faking is the wrong word. What is seen is real, as in the walrus hunt really happened, just not accurate, as in that’s not the way the Inuit hunted walruses at the time. They used guns but Flaherty convinced Allakariallak, the actor playing Nanook, to use a spear instead to show how his ancestors would have done it. And, to quote Roger Ebert, “If you stage a walrus hunt, it still involves hunting a walrus, and the walrus hasn’t seen the script.” True. However, it still could have been shown with the understanding that Allakariallak was recreating what his ancestors did much as any cable documentary is filled with reenactments making no claim to be authentic people but actors. 

And there’s the problem that it’s insulting as hell to Allakariallak and, by extension, all Inuits. Showing Allakariallak attempting to bite into a gramophone record as if it was a big biscuit, when he damn well knew what a gramophone was, is exactly the kind of thing that makes modern day viewers recoil with horror at the dripping condescension and implied white superiority.

NANOOK OF THE NORTH (1922)

But it still all happened, right? I mean, Allakariallak was a real person who could hunt walruses and make igloos even if he didn’t need to do things like he did them in the film and we really are watching him do those things in the movie. And to this day, documentarians stage scenes from nature for their films because just happening upon something extraordinary or rare can take a lot of time and a lot of money, money that most documentaries don’t have. Ever watch a nature documentary and wonder how they got that incredible shot inside a beaver lodge or a bear’s den? Well, sometimes they just set up a camera inside a zoo enclosure or an aquarium. Years ago I watched a documentary on squids and cuttlefish and for the egg laying sequence they had to film the cuttlefish in a tank, not in the wild, because they’re small and they needed the camera mounted. I know this because they said it in the discussion with the filmmakers after the special, so they owned up to it immediately. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. Still, viewers saw the process of cuttlefish eggs being laid. Whether in the wild or not, the process was filmed and viewed and there is no doubt on either count.

NANOOK OF THE NORTH (1922)

Of course, it’s easy to pick these things out with nature documentaries or early works like Nanook of the North. What about modern documentaries about current events or modern day historical figures? What about filmmakers who edit interviews or leave out facts that might bolster the other side’s argument? And how much effect does the process of filming someone have on their behavior before the camera?

One such documentary that has me endlessly pondering this question is The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara* (2003), directed by Errol Morris. Robert McNamara, who served directly with General Curtis LeMay in World War II and later as Secretary of Defense for John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson, speaks directly to the viewer, as is the norm with a Morris movie, and relates details of his life and experiences. But how honest is he? He comes off as contrite for the wrongs he did and even admits that by any other standard where the U.S. wasn’t the victor, he could have been considered a war criminal. But is that self-damning or self-elevating? What do I mean? Well, that far removed from the events of World War II and Vietnam, would it be more advantageous to have people grumble, “He still defends what he did! What an S.O.B.!” or have people gush, “He seems to have learned from his mistakes and accepted that he was wrong. Politicians today could learn a thing or two from him!” Now I’m not saying he had the ulterior motive to do this, but I am saying that the second someone turns a camera on you and says, “Tell me about your life,” you’re probably not going to relate that time you did something immoral or cruel or selfish. And if you do relate something bad, because everyone already knows about it so you can’t avoid it, you’re most likely going to give it the best face possible while also appearing humble and matured.

So how real is The Fog of War?

Well, we really are watching McNamara talk about his life. And we really are getting some facts throughout about bombings during World War II and troop deployment during Vietnam. It’s coming from McNamara’s mouth but the movie is only a little under two hours long and Errol Morris interviewed McNamara for days and days, coming up with over 20 hours of footage. None of us have sat down to view all that footage so we will never know how honestly or deceptively edited it was. We can only take it at face value and accept what we see in the absence of any counter evidence.

THFGFWR-SPTI-2.tif

So in one, Nanook of the North, we have the beginnings of the biographical documentary medium, portraying a real person, Allakariallak, playing a fictional person, Nanook, doing real things but not necessarily the things that Allakariallak would do, the things that Nanook would do. In the other, The Fog of War, we have the biographical documentary at its apex, in which the subject speaks directly to us, but we’re still not sure how much is true.  Maybe nothing is true once the subject is aware they’re being filmed. Of course, the same probably applies to every person in every conversation with a stranger: we present a side we want them to see, not the one we don’t. They are our camera and we’re the subject but that still doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile. In the end, documentaries aren’t the news, they’re movies. And they need to entertain. So when it comes down to a choice between  complete accuracy or entertainment that educates, the latter will always win. Or as someone wise once said, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

*Nanook of the North is available on FilmStruck under the Native People, Native Lands theme through March 24, 2017 and will then stream on The Criterion Channel. The Fog of War is available on FilmStruck under the Directed by Errol Morris theme through June 30, 2017.

Greg Ferrara

28 Responses But it still happened, right? Life with Nanook and Bob
Posted By Doug : February 3, 2017 6:28 am

I keep going back to Robert Benchley-he wrote a bit back in the 1920′s called “Checking Up” about the advent of newsreel cameras now being able to show the ‘Truth’ about events. If a politician claims that there had been a near riot of overjoyed populace welcoming him to a city…the cameras could prove that no one showed up.
Good old Bob B. at that time hadn’t realized that someone should be “Checking Up” on the newsreel film makers/editors.

Posted By MDR : February 3, 2017 10:34 am

Thanks Greg. In my youth, while I knew that certain license was taken in historical dramas and biographies etc. for entertainment value, I used to think that documentary filmmakers were held to a higher standard, that their work could be trusted as representing objective truth. How naive was I!

“In the end, documentaries aren’t the news, they’re movies. And they need to entertain. So when it comes down to a choice between complete accuracy or entertainment that educates, the latter will always win.”

OR

When it comes down to a choice between the facts and the point of view you want others to believe, the latter will always win.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : February 3, 2017 11:37 am

Doug, or that the cameras would record the truth and someone would just claim that they didn’t. Ah, what a world, what a world.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : February 3, 2017 11:41 am

MDR, so true. Documentaries, even the absolute best ones, are always going to be guided by the original sentiment of the creator/director. I don’t think that makes them bad at all but a lot of people seem unaware that just because a documentary presents a solid case of one set of facts, doesn’t mean it’s giving you the whole story. See The Making of a Murderer.

Other times, a documentary obviously presents a point of view and the viewer must be aware of that going in. See almost any polemic in existence, from Michael Moore’s work to Dinesh D’Souza’s.

Documentaries can be great and illuminating works but you’ve got to remember they’re still telling you a story and sometimes the facts have to be distorted to make the story work better.

Posted By Chris Wuchte : February 3, 2017 1:52 pm

I see a fair amount of difference between the veracity of Nanook vs Fog of War. If we’re going to question the facts of Fog of War, then we have to question the facts of every documentary. And we probably should. But every filmed work is going to have the factors of a camera and editing impacting the end product. It’s unavoidable.

But Nanook actively manipulates to the extent that some of it could qualify as a scripted, albeit loosely, narrative film. Facts filtered through an interview subject who may or may not be totally honest are one thing. Having your subjects pretend to do things they would never do or pretend to be family when they’re not is another.

I’m not trying to disparage the quality of Nanook. It’s a great film. But it feels more like docudrama than documentary to me.

Posted By Emgee : February 3, 2017 4:34 pm

If we want to get philosophical about it, is there such a thing as objectivity? Movies, or books for that matter, are made by people who have a certain point of view, or else why would they make it?

ASnd even when we could see all the footage that was shot for any documentary, you could still argue that the maker wasn’t objective, asked the wrong questions, shot too much of this and too little of that, etc.

People aren’t objective, so documentaries aren’t either.

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
If the legend turns out to be fact, it’s no longer a legend, so you might as well print it.” It’s like saying:”when a lie turns out to be true, print the lie.”

Posted By Doug : February 3, 2017 5:23 pm

The one way a documentary could be objective in it’s making: turn the camera on and let it go-no edits, no music-just record what happens. But then the viewers will apply their subjective filter, so it’s all still a mess.
Not quite the same as a documentary, but writer Rex Stout had a deal with his publishers: print what he sent them, no edits, period. Stout did all the editing in his head before putting it on paper-the draft was the finished product.

Posted By Jlewis : February 4, 2017 10:52 am

An interesting comparison story to NANOOK is covered in an excellent National Film Board of Canada documentary THROUGH THESE EYES.

In the 1960s and early ’70s, a huge educational experiment was conducted in the US school system called MACOS (Man, A Course of Study). Featured were a series of educational films aimed at grades 5 through 7 focusing on Inuit culture, “Netsilik Film Series”. These were filmed mostly in 1963 and we see the participants here interviewed in 2003.

Prior to this time, most social studies classes focused on European (and mostly Christian oriented) history with just occasional side trips to the “exotic” Orient and “darkest” Africa. The goal of this program was to expand children’s views of human existence with a culture very different than theirs.

Some of the material shown, like the killing of a seal, were too much for the some students to handle. However, this isn’t what caused all of the outrage among “concerned” parents and Republican politicians like John Conlan who succeeded in shutting the project down by 1975 or so. Many viewed this as “leftist” programming going against what schools were traditionally accustomed to in their teaching. One could easily extend the connection between NANOOK and MACOS to the modern day situation with Betsy DeVos. Should students learn about other cultures or should they only stick to what their families and local churches want them educated on? The more things change, the more things stay the same and we are not that different today than we were back then.

You can see the film here: https://www.nfb.ca/film/through_these_eyes/

Posted By Greg Ferrara : February 4, 2017 10:53 am

Chris, there is indeed a vast difference between the two. We start out with Nanook, which as you say is more docudrama than documentary, and end up with Bob McNamara talking about himself, and Errol Morris editing his statements. As I say in the piece, “And we really are getting some facts throughout about bombings during World War II and troop deployment during Vietnam.” So there’s a progression from obvious manipulation to a more straightforward presentation that nonetheless will never give us the whole truth.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : February 4, 2017 10:58 am

Emgee, I always felt like the most honest documentarian was Les Blank, also my favorite. His documentaries are, like any doc, edited the way he wants them, but there is no narration, no interview questions, no nothing. Just footage, and on camera commentary by the people involved. Blank never inserted himself into the doc either, like so many in the wake of Michael Moore, one of the most manipulative documentarians in all of cinema. The filmmaker becoming the co-subject of the documentary is a trend I absolutely despise.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : February 4, 2017 11:00 am

Doug, didn’t know that about Stout. I’ll be honest, I have had edits to my work that I couldn’t stand. When it’s published out of your control, as my articles are, there’s nothing you can do about it. And it’s maddening!

Posted By Greg Ferrara : February 4, 2017 11:04 am

Jlewis, thanks for the link, I’ll give that a look. I have to read up on it more to as I’m fairly unfamiliar with the whole brouhaha, though it’s not too surprising. People fighting about what we teach our children, and what we don’t, will probably never end.

Posted By Jlewis : February 4, 2017 11:19 am

The story of MACOS is a very fascinating one, but you can just watch the 55 minute documentary to get the whole point of it. Teachers sure deal with a lot because nothing will ever please both parents and politicians equally. What added to the problem was that, in the sixties and seventies, the federal government was spending a lot on educational media. This, of course, was the golden age of 16mm educational film. NANOOK probably received a whole new generation of viewers at this time as well, often in smaller film sizes.

Flaherty resembled Burton Holmes and other travelogue film-makers in wanting to preserve on film a world that was disappearing fast. It is easy to understand why spears rather than guns were important to him. Today you see Starbucks in Seoul, Tokyo, Calcutta and everywhere else. Everybody has cell phones and every city is looking much the same. In THROUGH OUR EYES, we see the natives getting new modern homes and grocery stores within four years after they appeared in the films.

Posted By Doug : February 4, 2017 12:04 pm

Greg, I am kind of a book guy; I have all of Stout’s Nero Wolfe stories. As this post is about documentaries, in a few minutes I’m heading to lunch with a friend who is going to be borrowing one of my treasured books:
“Collier’s Photographic History of the European War” published in 1915 BEFORE the United States was drawn into the war by the sinking of the Lusitania. Hundreds of photographs/drawings, from all of the nations at war~as at that time no one knew who would win, Collier’s is careful not to take sides/propagandize. They remain as objective as was possible when the world was at war.

Posted By Emgee : February 4, 2017 2:46 pm

“writer Rex Stout had a deal with his publishers: print what he sent them, no edits, period.”

If you’re succesful, you can do that, otherwise your work is gonna get messed with.

Posted By George : February 5, 2017 12:23 am

I’m sure Stout’s publishers reserved the right to edit his books for content and language, especially before the 1960s. If Stout had turned in a manuscript full of F-words in the ’30s, ’40s or ’50s, no way would it have been published as written.

Nobody can avoid editors unless you self-publish. But, despite the usual griping from writers, a good editor almost always improves a book (or newspaper article or magazine article).

Posted By Doug : February 5, 2017 10:14 am

George, we’re getting far afield from talking about documentaries, but Stout had that agreement because he was that good. From his first Nero Wolfe mystery until the last, he was basically printing money for the publishers.
“If Stout had turned in a manuscript full of F-words…” Never would have happened-Stout was a master of language and had nothing to gain or prove by fighting with/against his publishers. Instead, both he and the publishing houses made fortunes by his talent, his delivering an excellent product consistently for decades.
Here we can move the conversation back into movies-Quentin Tarantino makes his movies his way without interference because he is that good. He prints money for the studios/production companies, and consistently delivers a great product. Despite the fact that his manuscripts are full of F-words.

Posted By George : February 5, 2017 4:26 pm

Doug, being “good” has nothing to do with getting final cut on a movie, or not having to deal with editors on a book. That comes from financial success, and financial success ALONE. After a string of flops, a director can lose that freedom, regardless of his films’ quality. The studios giveth and the studios taketh away.

If he wants to keep his freedom, he can direct low-budget independent films where not much money is at stake. Woody Allen gets final cut because he keeps his budgets low. Very few of his films of the last 20 years have made any money in America. Robert Altman also went the low-budget indie route.

Or a director can go the Chaplin/Harold Lloyd/Mel Gibson route and finance his movies with his own money. Of course, you have to be wildly rich to do that.

Posted By George : February 5, 2017 4:36 pm

After the box-office disappointment of THE HATEFUL EIGHT (a movie I liked but many people hated), who knows how much freedom Tarantino will have on his next movie. He may have to accept studio supervision, or work on a lower budget or accept a lower salary (like Johnny Depp did to get BLACK MASS after several flops).

Posted By swac44 : February 6, 2017 11:18 am

I was lucky enough to see a screening of Nanook of the North accompanied by a live performance by Cambridge Bay-raised Innu singer Tanya Tagaq and her trio. Appropriately, she had a disclaimer before the screening that not everything in the film is legit (specifically the spear and phonograph scenes) but stating that as an onscreen portrayal of the Inuit and the presence of Allakariallak himself, it remains an important document. It was refreshing to see the film presented in an appropriate context rather than dismissed out of hand for its inaccuracies, and letting it stand on its own strengths, with the weaknesses also made apparent.

Posted By Chris Wuchte : February 6, 2017 11:21 am

Frederick Wiseman is often described as simply letting the cameras roll in his documentaries, but even he would claim that there’s still bias. Camera placement, interview subject, editing (even something as simple as when to begin and when to end) all have an impact.

For me, the most intriguing thing about Nanook is not stuff like the use of spears in the hunt, but that apparently the two women in the film were not wives of “Nanook”, but common-law wives of Flaherty. As compelling a film as Nanook is, I sometimes think a behind the scenes look would be even more interesting.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : February 8, 2017 4:30 pm

Is there a good doc out there on Flaherty? I’ve never seen it if it is. Docs about filmmakers are some of my favorites to watch but they seem to be reserved for HBO Behind the Scenes or American Masters in which we get, invariably, someone either still active or at least still alive. I’d like to see more good documentary work on the early filmmakers. The one doc that I absolutely love in this regard is the 1980 Thames production on the silents, Hollywood. It’s an amazing document of the silent filmmaking days but I’d still like to see a more thorough one to one doc on some of the many silent filmmakers out there that weren’t Chaplin, Keaton, or Griffith.

Posted By swac44 : February 8, 2017 7:12 pm

In a similar vein to Nanook, there’s the contemporary documentary White Thunder which chronicles the short life of filmmaker Varick Frissell, who made the early on-location talkie The Viking, about the lives of sealers who make their living on the treacherous rolling ice fields off the shores of Newfoundland. Frissell started off as a documentary filmmaker, chronicling his trips to the vast wild interior of Newfoundland and Labrador, before making the dramatic feature that would claim his life when a load of dynamite used to break up the ice destroyed the ship he and many of his crew were aboard.

You can watch White Thunder for free on the National Film Board of Canada website, or hunt down the Milestone DVD that also includes the original feature of The Viking, which only survived because its elements were preserved in the cold of a fish processing plant that also served as its production base. I’ve been to the Newfoundland fishing village of Quidi Vidi where Frissell shot exteriors, and amazingly it still looks pretty much the same as in the film.

Amazing story, all around.

Posted By Emgee : February 9, 2017 5:37 am

“I’d still like to see a more thorough one to one doc on some of the many silent filmmakers out there that weren’t Chaplin, Keaton, or Griffith.”

I’m with you there (also love the Hollywood series).One major problem there is that most of the silent movies are gone; it’s reckoned about 80 to 90 percent (!)

Posted By Emgee : February 9, 2017 3:04 pm

One docu i can recommend is about Erich von Stroheim called The Man You Loved To Hate; it can be found on a wellknown site for moving images.

Posted By swac44 : February 9, 2017 3:35 pm

I believe that Von Stroheim doc is also a co-feature on one of the Kino Video DVDs of one of his films … ah yes, a quick search reveals it’s on the DVD and blu-ray of Foolish Wives.

Posted By George : February 10, 2017 6:30 pm

There are some interviews with/documentaries about Josef von Sternberg, who began his career in silents, on YouTube.

Sternberg had mellowed a bit by the time he was interviewed in the ’60s. He was never Mr. Warmth, but at least he was willing to answer questions by then. Of course, his view was that he did all the creative work on his films, and the other people on the set were his puppets.

Posted By swac44 : February 13, 2017 8:33 am

Especially The Great Gabbo!

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