Sunday, July 23, 2006
Mysteries of the Human Condition: Nanook of the North and Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life
Preferring factual to fictional storytelling, I enjoyed viewing these two titles identified as some of the first documentaries filmed. When the double feature concluded, rather than coming away with a pure documentary experience, I had many questions about the differences between fiction and non-fiction and the meanings of ‘documentary’ and ‘feature’.
Nanook of the North (1922) is a noteworthy film. Witnessing the lives of an Eskimo tribe firsthand is fascinating, disturbing, perplexing, disgusting and at times, funny. It is a poignant portrayal of life.
Robert J. Flaherty, the explorer turned filmmaker, explains in an introductory text that Nanook was not his first attempt to film the Eskimo tribe. He filmed during a previous expedition, capturing random events while he lived with them. Returning home, he developed and edited together this first collection of film. When the editing was near completion, the film caught fire and “all was lost.” Whether this destruction was intentional or accidental is not clear, as Flaherty says that he felt the completed film was not good due to the lack of narrative.
Reconsidering his objective, he decided to focus his attention on one family of Eskimos, and so he returned to film once more. His aim was to bring an emotional and personal aspect to the new film that the first attempt lacked.
Although the ‘story’ of Nanook’s family is unscripted, Flaherty approached them with a preconceived idea of what he would film. Accounting for decisions about what would and would not be filmed, the notion that he has captured ‘real life’ becomes vague. The Eskimos look directly at the camera, aware that they are being filmed. Flaherty even brought film processing equipment with him, so he could develop and view the reels as he shot them. The Eskimos viewed the reels as well and understood what was going on.
Furthermore, Flaherty intended to create a ‘feature’ film, as ‘features’ were popular in theaters at the time. He included aspects of features in his work such as dramatic narrative, characters with personalities, conflicts and resolutions. At 79 minutes, it was considered ‘feature length’ at the time. Flaherty simply chose to use unscripted, uncostumed non-actors in a natural setting. Long after its completion, others labeled Nanook as a documentary.
The difference between feature and documentary is even more blurred in Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life. The film shows thousands of animals and ‘Forgotten People’ traversing vast deserts and towering mountains, migrating to greener pastures. The first characters shown in the film are the filmmakers, themselves, because during the film, they were behind the camera. It was thoughtful of them to feature themselves at the beginning.
Merian Cooper, the explorer who conceived the idea (not long after Nanook was created) to film the migration, is dressed in safari hat and smokes a pipe as he peers into the camera with a stern, thoughtful expression. Seated next to him is the boyishly handsome Ernest B. Schoedsack who, instead of looking into the camera, never takes his eyes off Merian. They silently banter in a masculine way that raises the eyebrows of those of us who know certain things. A third person is presented, separate from the two men. Marguerite Harrison, an ‘author and traveler’ is ‘shown here in her role’ of wearing dark lipstick and head scarf and tipping her head in a coy, tartish manner. One can only guess at what sorts of reasons Marguerite was included with the two men in the expedition. All of them come off as posers.
As in Nanook, witnessing the tribulations of native people living primitive lives is horrifying, enthralling, but really not at all humorous unless one is a person who would find amusement in seeing animals whipped and forced into incredibly harsh terrains. Referred to as the ‘Forgotten People’ of the East, the beduoin tribe is the focus of the film.
The titles throughout Grass provide more insights about the filmmakers’ attitudes rather than the film’s subjects. The migrants are regarded as objects of study, presented by the filmmakers to an audience like themselves, an audience that would be able to complete the phrase: “Everywhere that Mary went...” Joking remarks such as this appear between scenes of terrific hardship and make light of the agonizing journey, turning it into an awe-inspiring spectacle. It is the Victorian attitude about discovering, naming and classifying all of the oddments of the world for the entertainment of the well-to-do. King Kong. After viewing barelegged women and small children treading through swift moving rapids, we are reminded that “BRRRR! This water’s COLD!”
As the tribe is named ‘Forgotten People’, they are not attributed with any nationality or ethnicity. Only the tribe’s leader and his son are named, leaving the rest of the people in an ambiguous herd very much like the goats. Flaherty’s focus on Nanook’s family evokes a personal sympathy with the native people, which Cooper’s Grass lacks. Unfortunately, it helps this viewer understand how First World people can view Third World people as less than human. They live with and like animals.
The overreaching question, however, is: How in the hell can people live like this? The author, residing in rural Oklahoma, fully comprehends the paradoxical irony of this question. Regardless of the fiction/factual axiom in these films and despite the rough treatment of animals, they ultimately serve as a testament to the endurance and resourcefulness of mankind.