Robert Flaherty and Richard Linklater are on opposite sides of the same film can.
Flaherty, whose 131st birthday would have been this Monday, February 16th, is, of course, one of the pioneers of documentary film. We’ll get to Linklater, the director from Texas who made last year’s Oscar-nominated Boyhood, in a moment, but it’s Flaherty I’ve been thinking about. Or, rather, I’ve been turning his seminal 1922 film, Nanook of the North, over in my mind.
Like many, I saw Nanook in grade school, and took it the way most people have up to pretty recently; as a true, nonfictional account of the way Inuit people in the Canadian Arctic lived. And yet, more recent scholarship, and all the attention documentary has been getting, have established that Flaherty actually staged much of the film. Nanook wasn’t the actual name of the primary actor, Allakariallak. And his wife was played by another Inuit woman. Allakariallak also used a gun rather than a spear to hunt, and Flaherty enacted other manipulations to make the film fit the ideals of then-Westerners.
Here’s the thing, despite what appears to us now as his obtuse cultural imperialism, Flaherty gets a pass. I’m sure he could be taken to task, but the film itself, I think, maintains its integrity because of the era within which it was introduced. There was so little knowledge then of the way different cultures lived, that this was, although manipulated, still a documentation of a foreign world. Yes, it was a projection of the ‘savages’ mentality, but it’s hard to judge Flaherty with 21st century goggles. Filmmaker Richard Leacock, who worked with Flaherty, has said that his mentor never claimed to be an anthropologist.
Also, the documentary form, or even the name, hadn’t been created yet. The idea of depicting real life and telling it as a story through film was radically new. There was no form to fit into. He was creating it.
And this brings us to Linklater, the narrative feature director who has made many great films, including several that skirt the line of real life, including Slacker, the trilogy that started with Before Sunrise, and now Boyhood, the film that captures a real actor (Ellar Coltrane) playing a part over the 12-year shooting period from when he was six years old.
A recent story in The New York Times took a jaundiced view of Linklater for following in the footsteps of another documentary pioneer, Michael Apted, director of the Up series of documentaries that tell the real life stories of his English countrymen in seven-year chapters, but I wouldn’t go so hard on Linklater. Like Flaherty, Linklater is pioneering a new form — he certainly isn’t the first, but he’s made a fictional film that hues so close to being real that it feels like real life. It’s a beautiful film. I think it’s a marvel.
It was inspiring to see, even in our age, that the film medium could feel so new. It must have been somewhat like what audiences felt watching Nanook when they first watched it.
So where Flaherty bent the rules of nonfiction to create a cinematic documentary, Linklater bent the rules of narrative fiction filmmaking to create realistic cinema.
Bravo to both.