Sunday, August 1, 2010

Robert Flaherty's Secret

It seemed ironic that the global popularity of “Nanook”, had served to freeze the Arctic and the people who live in it, including Robert’s (Flaherty) own son and granddaughter, in a version of a past that never was, in a land that could never be.’ (The Long Exile by Melanie McGrath, 2006).

After reading The Long Exile - a tale of the betrayal of the Inuit people – in their 1950s relocation to barren islands far away from their homelands, I found Martha Flaherty's email address and wrote to her. In my mind the relocations and subsequent struggles for justice by the Inuit people cry out for a broad contextualising of Flaherty's 1922 documentary Nanook of the North, from its time of production right up to the present. Martha Flaherty wrote back and told me about a new film about her life, Martha of the North and how she is planning a book about the true story of what happened during the relocations. I have been very touched by this correspondence and how it contributes depth of understanding around the complex site of documentary film-making process and ethics.

One of the exiles was Robert Flaherty's son- Josephie Flaherty - a child he had (and abandoned?) with Inuit woman, Maggie Nujarlutuk (who plays Nyla in Nanook of the North). The story of Flaherty's relationship with Maggie (and his son) is never told in the documentary film scholarship (or rhetoric) of Flaherty's film-making - so obsessed is it with textual analysis and 'the past' and whether the dramatizations are ‘documentary’ or 'ethnographic'. Such debates may be functioning as smoke screen to developing a contextual analysis that really changes the way we think about Flaherty and his film. Martha Flaherty's documentary (and for me also McGrath's book) opens up present day realities of the Inuit people and the role Nanook of the North played in forming a certain idealized and heroic narrative of the Inuit people that fed into racist stereotypes - which contributed to the disastrous relocations of the Inuit people in the 1950s.


  1. So glad to have come across this post, and Martha's film! I studied Nanook of the North several years ago in a U.S. film history course at university. It can be such an overwhelming load of information -- early film, early documentary/visual anthropology/docufiction, stereotypes & staging and on and on! I think it is a film that nearly perfectly captures the imperialist/white American mythological view of native peoples as well as an attitude toward nature, as Flaherty was a part of a larger early movement into the "unknown Alaska" after it gained status as a territory in 1912. But there are many ways to read this film and its larger context. I'm so glad that Martha's film is in circulation and that another perspective and experience of that film (Nanook) and the experience of relocation of native peoples is being discussed. That is, quite lamentably, virtually completely absent from American cultural discourse.

  2. I agree. It was so revealing to read "The Long Exile" this year and then to see if I could find Martha Flaherty on line - and then write to her and her to write back about Flaherty's film and the later relocations. To find out about her own fight for justice for her people. It began to context/ground "Nanook of the North" creating a personal dynamic continuity between then and now. It confirmed for me how ethical and caring relationships are the most important aspect of the filmmaking process. I am so touched by this unfolding story. Thanks for your sharing! Jeni

  3. yes, flahertys film now requires intertextual analysis. that is things that inform the film, unknown to the auidence. His relationship with an Inuit women , during fiming which produced a son, is an interesting relevation. does the son feature in Martha Flahertys film? tracie walsh

  4. Seeing promotes understanding &
    understanding promotes the most practical kind of body education. The body doesn't lie. -Dr. Roy Glover, Chief Med.Dir. of Bodies Revealed. My life was changed when after i saw this exhibition disPlayd at GrandRapidsPublicMus.
    4-18-2011 & again when after i watched Martha of the North 12-2011 on Freespeech tv-- i cried during both times, alot of human loss, endurance/perserverance & hardship
    --i am a different woman posting this comment today:24jan.2012, btw Jen, keep up the good work

  5. Thanks Regina, Martha - who made Martha of the North has incredible strength to tell this story- I am in awe of her courage and determination. So glad you saw her film - a film that gives such insight into the history of her people and their long struggle for their rights to self determination. Thanks for your post.