In 1898, newspapers advertising the Battle of San Juan Hill as a triumphant charge presented documentarian Albert E. Smith with an uncomfortable ethical challenge. Theaters as well as the press expected an exciting photoplay of the Spanish-American war, but Mr. Smith’s footage was hardly riveting: Erik Barnouw, author of Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film, describes the “charge” as more of “a dull uphill walk” (24).
To disappoint the audiences could easily mean financial losses, and so Vitagraph, the studio handling the distribution of Smith’s film, combined Smith’s authentic footage with faked scenes of sinking ships and smoky battles, and the added dramatic flair resulted in a smashing success. According to Barnouw, “The public apparently did not suspect [the film’s] true nature” (24). Such a conclusion would be ethically damning in a world obsessed with historical accuracy and suspicious of financially-motivated portrayals, as it is today, yet Barnouw suggests that filmmakers at the turn of the 20th century viewed the actions of Vitagraph “not so much [as] deceit as enterprise” (24). He explained that “the public was accustomed to news pictures having an uncertain and remote link to events. The relationship was scarcely thought about” (25).
Alternatively, the current zeitgeist is highly concerned about the virus-like spread of “fake news” on the internet, and many a warrior of social justice will reach out to decry the slightest historical or geographical inaccuracies even in fiction films.
Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that a 2017 screening of Nanook of the North – Robert Flaherty’s 1922 documentary about the Eskimo peoples in Quebec, Canada – received a rather negative reaction from several film students at Brigham Young University. The discussion centered around moments of perceived inauthenticity: The roof-less igloo built as a set to allow the camera to film “inside” and the multiple takes of Nanook’s actions, but more importantly, instances that portrayed primitive behaviors in what was already the beginning of modern times. For example, Nanook and his team hunted with spears for the camera although they typically used guns, and they paddled their kayaks despite the fact that many already had motors.
Most film students can acknowledge the occasional necessity of sets and multiple takes in documentary film, given that, as Barnouw notes, “history does not always happen where one waits for it,” and neither do individual events (27). What concerned the students most was the potential misrepresentation or exploitation of a culture without the subjects’ full understanding or consent, and as such, the film becoming an unethical manipulation of the audience’s expectations of honesty and accuracy. I would like to address the students’ primary concerns using evidence from Erik Barnouw’s book to examine whether Nanook of the North is indeed truly an “enterprise of deceit.”
It is true that a documentarian may be financially motivated to misrepresent his/her subjects, or that s/he may do so accidentally through lack of experience. Robert Flaherty is cleared on both these fronts upon closer examination: Flaherty spent twenty years “exploring and living with the Eskimos,” re-shooting his film until he felt he got it right, pushing through in spite of a fire that destroyed his original footage and years of effort with no guarantee of success (47, 35-36). While a documentary about Eskimos made through the lens of a white man rightly raises suspicion, it is clear that Flaherty was no tourist or Hollywood fortune-seeker there for a quick superficial glance in order to make a profit.
Robert Flaherty’s intent in the creation of his groundbreaking documentary is recorded abundantly both in his own journals and the accounts of others, and these records may help us to decide whether the filmmaker truly intended to exploit the Eskimo people or trick the audience into believing that the Eskimos were an utterly uncivilized society. In his own writings, Flaherty’s love for the native people of northern Canada, in addition to his concern for the negative effects the white settlers had on their society, is well-documented. Flaherty wrote,
“I want to show… 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. The urge 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” (45).
Notably, an audience member wrote that Nanook “show[s] the primitive existence of a people in the way they lived before being brought into contact with explorers. [Flaherty] is looking to bring them out in the best way” (35). Such a statement reveals that the audience was informed that the Eskimos were being portrayed as they might have been anciently and not as they were currently, putting to rest any concerns of intentional duplicity. Contrast these accounts with the Johnsons’ documentary, Congorilla (1932), which purposely mocked its African subjects as “savages” or the previous example of the Battle of San Juan Hill, and it becomes clear that exploitation and deceit were far from Flaherty’s mind (51).
As subjects, Nanook and his team were extremely excited about the documentary, and Nanook himself actively suggested scenes to be portrayed (36). Barnouw emphasized that “the film reflected their image of their traditional life” – in other words, how Nanook believed his forefathers lived – and acknowledges that “a people’s self-image may be a crucial ingredient in its culture, and worth recording” (45).
Accusations of ‘inauthenticity’ viewed in this light are thus hypocritical, given that today’s modern audience fully accepts filmic reenactments of past events or ways of life that pre-date the camera’s existence (such as the civil war) as long as said events are portrayed with as much historical accuracy as possible. It is clear that Nanook and Flaherty worked together to create what Barnouw calls “salvage ethnography,” reenactments of one’s heritage – e.g. hunting with spears – on film to better preserve its memory. Such a practice could hardly be considered deceit.
In conclusion, it seems that an audience’s perception of a documentary’s ethicality depends largely upon its expectations and experience. Early audiences had comparatively few expectations since documentary as a genre was still in its first stages of evolution. Given that in the decades since the creation of Nanook of the North, audiences such as film students at BYU have become more suspicious of ulterior motives that lead to deceptive filmmaking, and also that we, unlike the original audience member in the account above, are probably less aware of when the Eskimos first became ‘modernized’ and thus may have thought that the film was actually portraying a primitive culture that still existed in the 1920s, a simple explanation of the documentarian’s intent may suffice to remove any remaining concerns regarding Nanook of the North’s authenticity.
Barnouw, Erik. Documentary: a History of the Non-Fiction Film. 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 1993.