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  • “Cold Pastoral”: Werner Herzog’s Version of Empson
  • Oleg Gelikman

Quoi donc? Faut-il détruire les sociétés, anéantir le tien et le mien, et retourner vivre dans les forêts avec les ours?


L’homme ordinaire est déjà dédoublé et se sent une âme; mais il n’est pas maitre de lui-même.

—Marcel Mauss2

The origin of the documentary genre is an accursed question of film theory. Insofar as the answer exists, it usually involves a reference to Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North.3 It is easy enough to undermine this response on historical grounds: after all, was not the entirety of early cinema documentary in its approach? Wasn’t regular or fictional film, built as it was out of vaudeville, sideshows and theater, a later phenomenon? True as these objections may be, they still do not warrant dismissing Nanook as an arbitrary fabrication. On the contrary, they raise an additional question: why, out of the tremendous range of documentary material accumulated over the first three decades of cinema, was it Nanook, a primal drama about an Inuit hunter that came to define the genre of the documentary? What expectations did Flaherty’s Nanook fulfill that other films did not? What imaginary satisfactions did it discover? What desires did it capture or conjure for cinematic use? And what reasons, if any, may one still have for [End Page 1141] continuing to refer to Nanook as a definitive documentary in the face of all the evidence to the contrary? The key to answering these questions, I believe, lies in recognizing Flaherty’s choice of the pastoral as his fundamental convention.

Robert Flaherty was not a filmmaker by trade but a prospector for Sir William Mackenzie, a Canadian railroad baron. It was Mackenzie who suggested that Flaherty take a camera on his third expedition in 1913, thereby changing Flaherty’s life and, eventually, the course of world cinema. Flaherty made no secret of the fact that his film had undergone long gestation before its triumphant release in 1922. On the contrary, he was proud of the artistic choices he made over the nine years he spent working on the Nanook idea. From the standpoint of documentary representation, these choices are consequential: the early version of Nanook was a travelogue replicating a newsreel structure conventional to the films distributed by the Lumière company. The 30,000 feet of original footage was lost in a fire in 1916. Flaherty had barely escaped the flames himself. Having secured the sponsorship of the Révillon Frères, a fur-trading group, Flaherty returned to the northeast coast of Hudson Bay in 1920. The film he shot at this point was quite different from the first one. It recounts two dramatic days from the life of Nanook, whose real name was a considerably less catchy Alakariallak. Flaherty exercised his Adamic privilege and rebaptised his subject the “bear,” derived from the indigenous nanaq.4 Over the course of the film, the legendary hunter and his family canoe to the trading post, build an igloo, traverse icy expanses of the Arctic, and participate in a climactic seal hunt. The cult of simplicity dominates the film: it appears in the emphasis on Nanook’s stoicism in the face of harsh conditions; his childishness; his endless cheerfulness, for a smile appears on his face whenever he is in the frame. The joy Nanook derives from satisfying his basic needs represents a truth so primal and secure as to make explanation superfluous. In a revealing comment on the evolution of the film, Flaherty elevates Nanook into a judge of the destruction which the West had already inflicted upon pure life:

I am not going to make the films about what the white man has made of primitive people. . . . What I want to show is the former majesty and character of these people, while it is still possible—before the white man has destroyed not only their character, but the people as well. 5

Through these isolated remarks, we can see Flaherty discovering the ideological framework within which cinematic narrative can appear [End Page 1142] incontestable. Suppression of criticism...


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