Robert Flaherty: Defining the “Flaherty Way”

When Robert Flaherty (1884-1951) released his first and most famous film “Nanook of the North” in 1922, the term ‘documentary’ had not yet been minted. Talkies were still five years away. It was during the silent era that motion pictures came of age. They evolved from celluloid curiosities shown in kinetoscope parlors and fairground tents. By then, motion pictures had become a full-blown industry of assembly-line production in Hollywood’s studio entertainment factories. Nanook came out at the peak of cinema’s first golden age. At the time, film technology was being refined, movie production was organized into departments and narrative structure was firmly entrenched as the universal story delivery form.

Non-fiction film presentations had also come a long way. The short film loops of local scenes and public ceremonies disappeared. Instead, long-form travelogues, or ‘scenics,’ accompanied by lectures brought distant places and exotic cultures to music hall audiences. 

“Robert Flaherty’s whole life was a passionate and stubborn fight for the exploratory way.”


The fact that RobertFlaherty was the first filmmaker to point his camera at actual events and people living their daily lives set him apart from all other ‘fact-film’ producers at the time. He crafted what he shot into non-fiction narratives with dramatic structures much like the feature films coming out of Hollywood. 

Odyssey of a Filmmaker

In her 1960, 48-page pamphlet, “Odyssey of a Filmmaker,” Frances Flaherty points to her husband’s three film biographies — “Nanook” (1922), “Moana” (1926), and “Man of Aran” (1934) — as models for what she called the Flaherty Way. 

"Nanook of the North" directed by Robert Flaherty
"Moana" directed by Robert Flaherty
"Man of Aran" directed by Robert Flaherty
“Nanook of the North” (1922), “Moana” (1926) and “Man of Aran” (1934) make up Flaherty’s trio of film biographies. All three focus on how humans overcome the challenges of their environment.

“They have been called films of the spirit of man,” Frances Flaherty wrote. “All have the same theme – the spirit with which these people come to terms with their environment.” 

Flaherty describes her husband’s approach to the making of these classic ‘man versus nature’ films: “The word I have chosen is ‘non-preconception,’ an explorer’s word. Non-preconception is the pre-condition to discovery.” Flaherty’s observation fits particularly well to the circumstances leading to the making of Nanook, the film that cemented her husband’s reputation as the father of the documentary.

Robert Flaherty’s Backstory

Born to Irish and German parents Robert Flaherty came to filmmaking through the side door. “He is not a motion-picture director by profession, but an engineer and explorer interested in people,” wrote Louis D. Froelick, a magazine editor in 1923.

As a schoolboy Flaherty was a free spirit who couldn’t sit still for his lessons. However, he showed enthusiasm for photography. It was a hobby that grew into a passion. According to the museum society of Thunder Bay in Northwestern Ontario, where he spent his early years, “He was determined to make ‘beautiful pictures’ even if it did mean lugging a bulky camera and tripod into homes, soda parlors and classrooms.” 

However, Flaherty did not pursue an education in the arts. Instead, he followed in his father’s footsteps. After training as a prospector and surveyor, he went on to map out regions around Hudson’s Bay. There, he discovered the main island of the Belcher archipelago, which now bears his name. In 1913, Robert Flaherty set out on his third expedition into the northern wilderness. His aim was to complete the mapping of the Belcher Islands and to prospect for iron on behalf of the Canadian government.

His boss, Sir William Mackenzie, was a Canadian railway contractor and developer of the north. He suggested, “Why don’t you take up with you one of those newfangled things called a motion-picture camera?” Flaherty concurred with Mackenzie and decided to bring to the subarctic a hand-cranked Bell and Howell 16mm motion picture camera. He didn’t yet know it, but the prospector from Iron Mountain, Michigan was on his way to making cinema history. 

From still portraits to moving stories

On previous expeditions, Flaherty had shot photographs to record where he had been and who he had met. “Most striking of these were his portraits of the people of the North. By a combination of charm and artistry, he captured beauty and heroism and made them seem real,” reports the Thunder Bay Museum Society. Frances Flaherty would take on the task of organizing, cataloging and later marketing her husband’s vast treasure of still photographs of people in the north. 

Before he was a filmmaker, Flaherty was an ethnographic photographer. His early photographs document the people he met and an places he explored on his expeditions.

On his first outing as cinematographer, Flaherty was able to seamlessly transfer his passion and sensibility for still photography to making motion pictures. Once he came to know and interact with Inuit locals — mostly hunter and fisher families — Flaherty couldn’t stop filming. His film project frequently at the expense of his own prospecting work. His wife Frances recalls in her diaries Flaherty’s child-like delight for his new visualization device. “This new eye opened up to him nothing less than marvels,” she writes. “I remember so well in those days that the most overworked word in his vocabulary was ‘marvelous’ in a tone of voice that implied all capitals and at least three exclamation points. It was, indeed, an extraordinary, a magical thing-the camera’s eye.”

Robert Flaherty’s Amateur mistakes

Flaherty finally completed the mapping of the Belchers in 1916. From them, he went to Toronto to edit 70,000 feet (13 hrs.) of film footage. On his trip, he captured of the lives of Inuit friends and collaborators who he had depended on to accomplish his exploration and mapping work. But then, disaster: 

“Amateur that I was,” Flaherty reported in his diary, “I dropped a lighted cigarette on it and it went up in flame. But I wasn’t sorry. It was a bad film; it was dull… little more than a travelogue, simply a scene of this or that, no thread of story or continuity whatever, and it must have bored the audience to distraction. Certainly, it bored me. I had learned to explore; I had not learned to reveal.” 

As one Flaherty chronicler put it: “His subject he knew and loved; no one could have known and loved it better. What he did not know yet was his instrument, his camera. He was determined to go back.” 

The making of a masterpiece

Robert Flaherty would redouble his efforts, determined to apply what he learned about filmmaking from his initial attempt. He found that, although his first film faithfully captured aspects of the Inuit way of life, the material and presentation didn’t permit audiences to identify with participants on the screen. With backing from French fur trading company Revillon Frères, Flaherty returned to the north. This time, he took two Akeley hand-cranked cameras, a tripod with a newly-developed gyro head. He also brought along developing, printing and projection equipment. The purpose of this journey was not to explore and survey uncharted territories, but rather to make a second film. The result after two years of shooting (1920 – 1922) was the “Nanook of the North” that continues to delight, enchant and captivate audiences world-wide to this day. 

Flaherty would redouble his efforts, determined to apply what he learned about filmmaking from his initial attempt.

Flaherty set up headquarters in Cape Dufferin on the northeastern shores of Hudson’s Bay.

“And there on the bleak, barren coast of the Bay, half-way to the North Pole, in a one-room hut snow-walled to the eaves in winter, he began his thirty years’ research of the motion-picture camera,” writes Frances Flaherty in “Odyssey of a Filmmaker.” “For, this time, he took up with him, besides his camera and film, a developing, printing, and projecting outfit, so that he could see what he was getting as he went along, what his camera was doing, what it could do, what the capacities were of this new machine.” 

Local help

Flaherty hired a renowned hunter, Nanook (“The Bear”) to not only act as the main character in his film but also to manage the logistics of the project. These included transportation, sheltering cameras and building a cut-away igloo to permit interior shooting by the daylight. Nanook frequently acted as an associate producer, as well. He even came up with some story ideas and action sequences for Flaherty to shoot. To meet the challenges of shooting film in the subarctic, Flaherty also hired three other Inuit: Wetaltook, Tookalook and Little Tommy. 

“Nanook of the North” serves as a family portrait. It reveals the daily struggle of survival in the Arctic Circle.

“They did everything,” writes Frances Flaherty, “They brought water for developing the film, chiseling six feet down through river ice and bringing it in barrels sloshing with ice and deer hair that fell into it from their fur clothing. They strained it and heated it. They built a drying reel out of driftwood, combing the coastline for miles to pick up enough wood to finish it. When Bob’s little electric light plant failed to give a light steady enough for printing, they blacked out a window all but a bit the size of a single motion-picture frame, and through this slot, Bob printed his film, frame by frame, by the light of the low arctic sun.” 

Flaherty reports that her husband’s Inuit helpers possessed exceptional mechanical skill. “The cameras fell into the sea and had to be taken apart, cleaned, and put together again. When Bob couldn’t put his Graflex (camera) together — it has a complicated shutter — he turned all the scattered parts of it over to Tommy, and Little Tommy put them together for him.”

Making a movie in the arctic

Graphite lubricated the many moving parts of the film cameras because oil would freeze. The crew has to protect the film stock from the extreme cold as it frequently shattered moving over camera sprockets. Nanook would carry the reels under his fur clothing next to his body to keep the negative warm. Western civilization had long ago encroached on the Inuit way of life. This meant the crew had to construct costumes; traditional clothing was no longer every-day dress in Nanook’s community. 

Robert Flaherty’s core motivation

Cultural critic and film theorist Siegfried Kracauer described Flaherty as a filmmaker of the flow of life. He captures the explorer-turned documentarian’s motivation for making what many observers have referred to as ethnographic or anthropological films. “Most Flaherty films are expressive of his romantic desire to summon, and preserve for posterity, the purity and ‘majesty’ of a way of life not yet spoiled by the advance of civilization.” 

Producing “Nanook of the North” meant enlisting help from the locals. Without the support of Nanook and the other Inuit cast and crew, the film would not have been possible.

When Flaherty completed Nanook, he had trouble finding a distributor at first. “Who would want to see a movie about ‘Eskimos,’ without a story, without stars?” distributors repeatedly asked. Eventually, Pathé Exchange an American subsidiary of French studio giant Pathé Films, took over distribution. And to Flaherty and Pathé’s surprise, the film met with both critical and box office success upon its release in 1922. 

Celebrating the human condition

Audiences had never seen a film like Nanook before, a reality-based screen story chronicling a year in the life of an Inuit family and their struggle for survival. Belgian filmmaker and author Luc De Heusch explains the film and the filmmaker’s reception. “Nanook was a family portrait,” he writes. “The epic of a man, of a society frantically struggling to survive. Family life, the human condition, are conquests from which animals are excluded. Such, in essence, is the theme of the film. Nanook, the hero of the first ethnographic film, is also the symbol of all civilization. Nanook was praised as a film of universal reality. Robert Flaherty was held up to be a “real” filmmaker, untainted by commercial concerns.”

Frances Flaherty sums up her husband’s legacy by setting it apart from that of John Grierson’s: 

“A Flaherty film must not be confused with the documentary movement that has spread all over the world, for the reason that the documentary movement (fathered not by Robert Flaherty but by a Scotsman, John Grierson) was from its beginning all preconceived for social and educational purposes, just as many of our most famous films have been preconceived for political purposes, for propaganda, and, as Hollywood preconceives, for the box office. These (Flaherty’s) films are timely, and they serve, often powerfully and with distinction, the timely purposes for which they were made. They are timeless in the sense that they do not argue, they celebrate.”

Peter Biesterfeld
Peter Biesterfeld
Peter Biesterfeld is a non-fiction storyteller specializing in documentary, current affairs, reality television and educational production.

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