A special anniversary

This year marks the 90th anniversary of the release of the first commercially successful feature-length documentary, “Nanook of the North.” It’s a silent film about Inuit hunter and his family’s struggle to survive in the Canadian Arctic.

Considered a masterpiece even today, it was Robert J. Flaherty’s first film. (It’s now available in parts on YouTube; part one can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bVbQWkdcFk.)

But what does this have to do with the Civil War – or making a documentary about the Civil War?


There are so many lessons to learn from Flaherty and his film.

First, in order to get a documentary done, you really need to be committed to it. Documentary filmmaking isn’t for sissies.

Chances are you’ll be spending years honing your idea, researching the topic and fundraising.

You also have to be prepared to face any weather – or any crisis – to get the footage needed to tell your story.

Flaherty faced freezing weather in the Canadian Arctic. He toted only one camera – a big, heavy Bell & Howell hand-cranked motion picture camera. After he returned from his 1913 expedition, he had 30,000 feet of film.

In 1916, while editing his film, Flaherty dropped a cigarette and most of his footage burned.

Now there are lots of lessons to be learned there – don’t smoke and always backup your files.

Second, don’t give up even when things look hopeless.

It took Flaherty about four years to find money to return to the Canadian Arctic. This time, a French fur company, Revillon Freres bankrolled his next venture.

The Nanook footage seen today was (re)shot in Flaherty’s filming August 1920 to August 1921.

Many criticize Flaherty’s ethical decisions – keep in mind in 1920 there were no rules for documentary filmmaking. Heck, the term documentary didn’t even exist then.

So Flaherty did some stuff that modern documentarians (I hope) would never even consider. Nanook (aka Allakariallak) was not married to the two women who played his wives. The children in the film – Allee and Rainbow – were not his. And some of the details in the film were added for dramatic effect.

Notwithstanding those decisions, when the Library of Congress considered preserving “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” movies in a National Film Registry, Nanook was quickly added to the list.

These days documentarians are very fussy about accuracy. At Rebels, we’ve reshot scenes and redone voiceovers because we wanted to be sure everything was right.

We faced the elements when we had to, from the sweltering heat to the bone-chilling cold. We’ve dragged cameras, lights, mikes. Everything.

But I’m real certain I wouldn’t come up with any idea that would require spending month in the Canadian Arctic. Luckily, there were no Civil War battles fought up there.

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