Documentary: Film Primarily Documents Answers Assessment Answer



According to Sherman (2015), a documentary film primarily documents reality for the purpose of edutainment and preservation of history. The Polish filmmaker and writer Boleslaw Matuszewski first identified the genre. As discussed by Chapman (2007), his books “A New Source of History” and “Animated Photography”, published in 1898 in French Language highlighted the value of documentary. Over the ages, filmmakers have shown interest in documentary and their experiments have enriched the history of world cinema. In this essay, one of the finest documentaries “Nanook of the North” by John Grierson will be analyzed based on documentary as a genre and the particular mode of documentary filmmaking technique used by Grierson to channelize his ideas.

Documentary as a Genre

As discussed by Chapman (2007), to understand the difference between a fiction feature film and a non-fiction documentary one must identify the components that outline the features of a documentary. These are as follows:

  • Story telling
  • Information
  • Factual and fictional conventions
  • Narration
  • Mis-en-scene
  • Character
  • Rhetoric
  • Journalistic conventions- interviews/ subjects
  • Curatorial/History- archives and records

According to Walker (2013), the documentary ‘Nanook of the North’ includes all these elements. However, the contemporary documentaries utilize the new age technologies and Medias to address various socio-cultural, economical and political issues of the day. The objective of a documentary, as analyzed by Michael Renov in his book “Toward a poetics of Documentary”, has four modalities:

  • Record, reveal or preserve
  • Persuade or promote
  • Analyze or interrogate
  • Express

As discussed by Juhasz & Lebow (2015), ‘Nanook of the North’ records the real events in the lives of the characters in the North Pole through which it reveals their struggle for survival. Further discussion will focus on the use of this mode by Flaherty to evoke the thought present in the content.

According to Barclay (2015), John Flaherty documented through this film the lives of the Eskimos. It was in the years from 1910 to 1916 when he set out to make an expedition in place of Sir William Mackenzie and ended up by making this famous documentary. During this expedition, he lived with three Eskimos in the North Pole. All his experiences and findings found voice in the format of the genre profoundly. A detailed analysis of the particular mode that he has used which is the documentation of the true-life stories will justify the relation between the content and various components of documentary filmmaking. ("Nanook of the North - Best quality (HD) - Nanook el Esquimal HD - Full", 2016) 

The Mis-en-scene of the movie, i.e. the setting is North Pole of the planet. In the barren and desolate islands, Nanook and his family live struggle for survival. The condition is extreme because of too much coldness. The vast place breeds moss which they burn to warm themselves. The scarcity of food has made their struggles even tougher. Sometimes they get to eat salmon fish; otherwise, they have to hunt polar bear and Walrus for food. All these struggles are contradicted with the humanity found in them. It is not always that they live a human’s life but all the time they remain cheerful, and care for each another.

Nanook of the North and Performative Mode of Documentary Filmmaking

As discussed by McClintock (2015), whereas Renov identified four documentary modes, Bill Nichols had categorized five modes of documentary filmmaking styles. Nanook of the North can be viewed as applying the Performative Mode of documentary. The priority of this style is to project an atmosphere in which all the characters act. The depiction of a particular mood of the atmosphere is what the style aims at. In the Nanook of the North, Flaherty focuses mainly on the vastness of the land, the desolation, and the emotions of the characters, their actions and reactions.

According to Winston (2013), another aspect of the performative style is that it presents the reality in an expressive and stylized way to evoke the mood. The Mis-en-scene is the focus here. The performative style used in Nanook of the North will now be explored.

  • Locale: the film ends with the display of vastness of the barren land. During the fight scene of Nanook and his followers with the Walrus Flaherty’s setting was the half-frozen lake only. Rarely did he show anything other than ice or half-frozen water.
  • Character: At the very beginning, the close up shot of the people smiling at the camera evocatively establishes the inner nature of their soul. These people live with nature, with other animals and this is portrayed when the child and the dog in captured in the same frame. The way they eat after a long fight with the Walrus is portrayed in a stylistic way by focusing the camera only on the actor and his action. There is one scene in which the mother carries her child on her back. The viewers can understand their struggle from this scene. The smiling face of the child after sipping the castor oil, Nanook’s happy face after hunting the salmon evoke the true nature of the Eskimos.
  • Prop: Flaherty has used the boat as a prop. This is an expressive way to describe their struggle. By using this almost torn boat they sail through the half-frozen lake to search their food, they also use it to cross the lakes. Without this boat, Nanook has no other way of conveyance. The struggle is so hard that they carry as many people as many people as possible, even if it is quite an impossible task. Flaherty has shown how they stitch the torn areas of this boat with salmon flesh.
  • Costume: All the characters wear heavy woolen dress. Sometimes they shiver due to the extreme coldness, yet they have no other cloth to wear.
  • Actions: At the backdrop of such a setting, all the characters perform their regular duties. They interact with one another, although silently, yet it brings out the regular struggle of their livelihood.


Robert. J. Flaherty made this documentary at a time when cinema had not developed much and documentary style had started grabbing the eyeballs. Despite all the technological depravity, Flaherty dared to show the true-life stories of the Eskimos. The contradiction between the struggle and the true nature of these people is a successful application of Flaherty. Through this expressive and stylized mode, he achieved his desired objectives. Over the ages, this documentary is been analyzed and discussed as one of the finest documentaries of World Cinema. The discussion made in this assignment has tried to relate how the performative style enabled Robert Flaherty to project the lives of the Eskimos.


Barclay, B. (2015). Our own image. University of Minnesota Press.

Chapman, J. (2007). Documentary in practice: filmmakers and production choices. Polity.

Juhasz, A., & Lebow, A. (Eds.). (2015). A companion to contemporary documentary film. John Wiley & Sons.

McClintock, M. A. (2015). Performative non-fiction film and the future landscape of documentary filmmaking (Doctoral dissertation, Montana State University-Bozeman, College of Arts & Architecture).

Nanook of the North - Best quality (HD) - Nanook el Esquimal HD - Full. (2016). YouTube. Retrieved 31 August 2016, from    

Sherman, S. R. (2015). Documenting ourselves: Film, video, and culture. University Press of Kentucky.

Walker K. L., (2013). “I have beene a reall Actor”: Analyzing the Writings of John Smith Through the Lens of Performative Documentary Theory.

Winston, B. (2013). The documentary film book. British Film Institute.

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