‘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.