Nanook of the North: A Story of Life and Love in the Actual Arctic (1922) – Robert Flaherty
+ The Girl Chewing Gum (1976) – John Smith
Reviewing Nanook of the North in 1922, Kinematograph Weekly said that the film would “grip the public, not merely by its novelty value but also because of its appeal as a human document.”
“Watch the father, on whom all hope of avoiding starvation depends, when he is patiently and anxiously poising his trident over a fish, or his harpoon over a seal-hole… and you will begin to understand… that a bad day hunting spells tragedy.”
What this reviewer failed to mention was that Flaherty, in pursuit of ‘the right air of authenticity’, asked the Inuit to use these primitive weapons instead of their usual guns. Other traces of the modernised world were also effaced: clothes, motorized kayaks, building materials. These stories of the film’s fakery are now as easy to find as its date of production or running time. Delve deeper,however, and one finds that even more of the film was staged: Nanook’s ‘family’ is no such thing, but rather a cast of appropriate looking Inuit.
At one celebrated point in the film, when Nanook appears to play tug of war with a seal, he is actually pulling against a group of off-screen friends.
If Nanook’s fakery is now a badly kept secret, it is at least a secret of sorts. The Girl Chewing Gum on the other hand, makes its own fakery part of its content. We might realise that we have been led up the garden path at the moment when the narrator orders time itself to move forward, or perhaps grasp this earlier on from subtler clues.
In any case, by the time of the confession that the narrator is not on Dalston’s Kingsland Road, but standing with a microphone in his hand in a deserted field miles from the action (a very Pythonesque image), it is clear that the soundtrack is separated from the image-track in both space and time.
In a recent talk, John Smith mentioned that The Girl Chewing Gum was conceived after having his naivety shattered by scenes in Francois Truffaut’s film Day for Night (La Nuite Americaine) (1973) that showed realistic street scenes being composed of directed extras rather than ignorant passers-by.
While the film plays on this idea of directorial control and intervention, pretending to excessively micro-manage every movement in the frame, its image track seems to adhere to the strictest rules of documentary filmmaking. As a current John Smith exhibition (at Hoxton’s PEER gallery) makes clear, one role the film performs today is as a record of ten or so minutes of life on the corner of Stamford Road and Kingsland road in Dalston, sometime in 1976. As a documentary, the film shows a now-vanished Odeon cinema and Steeles before it became Scooter Den.
If then Nanook is a documentary that tricks us, The Girl Chewing Gum is a trick film that documents.
While Smith may not have set out to record the subjects of his film for posterity, Flaherty certainly did. His efforts to remove evidence of the modern technology from the mise-en-scène of Nanook were not to stage a complete fiction but to stage a historical moment that had already passed. For this reason at least we might refrain from criticising the fakery present in Nanook too harshly. The opening quotation describes the film as a ‘document’. In current descriptions of Nanook the term has slipped to the more loaded ‘documentary’. If it is a documentary it can only be labeled so retrospectively. Nanook was produced years before the term was coined, and decades before the practitioners of Cinéma Verité or Direct Cinema argued for a code of ethical documentary filmmaking aimed at preventing the filmmaker and the camera from interfering with the action. Flaherty makes no claims of documentary in the text itself.
While there are benefits in thinking about how closely the film adheres to these principles, it should not be judged by them. The same issue of Kinematograph Weekly mentioned earlier also reviewed another film set in the Canadian Arctic but filmed in a studio. Now forgotten, Out of The Silent North (1922) was judged only “a moderate attraction” while the release of Nanook was enough of an event to warrant decorating cinema foyers with stuffed animals and a snowy backdrop. Comparison with its contemporaries rather than a documentary ideal reminds us how rare a film like Nanook was in the early 20s, and just how much Nanook does succeed in informing, despite its deceptions.
The Screen Shadows season on Fakery in film continues on Friday the 2nd December with Storm Over Asia (1928). PEER Gallery on Hoxton Street currently have a John Smith exhibition revisiting The Girl Chewing Gum.
.Kinematograph Weekly, September 14 1922
.Duncan. Dean, ‘Nanook of the North’, Criterion Collection Essay, 1999
.Dixon. Bryony, 100 Silent Films, 2011
.Rees, AL, A History of Experimental Film and Video, 1999