Often called the first documentary filmmaker, Robert Flaherty (1884-1951) was the creator of such classic landmark films as Nanook of the North (1922), Moana (1926), Man of Aran (1934), and Louisiana Story (1948).
by Anna Siomopoulos
The son of a mining engineer, Flaherty first became a filmmaker in attempts to document his travels as an explorer and prospector in the then uncharted Candadian Arctic. He lived and worked closely with the Inuit, who served as his guides, companions, technical crew, navigators, dog sled drivers, and collaborators on many expeditions to the Arctic. He made over 1500 photographs of the Inuit from 1908-1924, now housed in the National Photography Collection in the Public Archives of Canada and the Robert and Frances Flaherty Study Center, Claremont College, in California.
Perhaps one of the earliest known independent filmmakers who worked outside the commercial studio system, Flaherty made films that were funded by a diverse group of backers, including Revillon Freres, Paramount Pictures, the Department of Agriculture, and the Standard Oil Company. All of his documentaries share similar themes, such as the beauty and grandeur of the natural world, and the dehumanizing effects of technology and modernity.
Some anthropologists and historians argue thatm Flaherty was one of the first collaborative visual ethnographers; Nanook of the North was shot with the assistance of the Inuit, who provided suggestions for scenes, developed the film, viewed the rushes, and agreed to reenactments and stagings to tell their own story. Other scholars contend that Flaherty, a product of the early 20th century's racialized fantasies, reproduced the Romantic notion of the "noble savage," a primitive man unsullied by industrialization and unconstrained by modern society whose individualism and masculinity are unfettered. Either way, the Flaherty films and Flaherty myth are still debated and written about with fervor, raising important issues about documentary representation and history.
One of Flaherty's lasting legacies in the world of international cinema is the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, begun by Flaherty's widow, Frances, after his death to pass on the tradition of a committed, passionate independent filmmaking to future generations in a dynamic environment fostering discusion and debate. Frances sought to continue the Flaherty legacy by creating a forum that would evoke the fiery discussions Robert enjoyed entering into about film, philosophy, travel, the Inuit, life. She also created the "Flaherty myth" of a particular style of documentary that does not employ a script or a deductive argument. Flaherty himself was not only a legendary storyteller and raconteur who relished discussion, but was also a larger than life presence who brought others into his projects: most notably, the composer Virgil Thomson and filmmaker Richard Leacock, who photographed Louisiana Story. The Seminar is one of the most important and long-running international forums for media artists, critics, scholars, curators, librarians, and students to screen and discuss films past and present.
"You ask me what I think the film can do to make large audiences feel intimate with distant peoples? Well, Nanook is an istance of this. People who read books on the north are, after all, not many, but millions of people have seen this film in the last 26 years" it has gone round the world. And what they have seen is not a freak, but a real person after all, facing the perils of a desperate life and yet always happy. When Nanook died of starvation two years later, the news of his death came out in the Press all over the world-even as far away as China.
"The urge that I had to make Nanook came from the way I felt about these people, my admiration for them; I wanted to tell others about them. This was my whole reason for making the film. In so many travelogues you see, the filmmaker looks down on and never up to his subject. He is always the big man from New York or London.
"But I had been dependent on these people, alone with them for months at a time, travelling with them and living with them. They had warmed my feet when they were cold, lit my cigarette when my hands were too numb to do it myself; they had taken care of me on three or four expeditions over a period of eight years. My work had been built up along them. In the end it is all a question of human relationships." - "Robert Flaherty Talking," in Cinema 1950, edited by Roger Manvell (London: Pelican, 1950) 18-19.
Anna Siomopoulos teaches film studies in the Department of Cinema and Photography at Ithaca College, where she co-curates the Cinema on the Edge film, video, and new media series. She was associate producer and writer for Arctic Requiem.