Reel Life Stories: Documentary Film and Video Collections
in the UC Berkeley Library's Media Resources Center

The Origins of Documentary Film:
Robert Flaherty and Nanook of the North

Robert Flaherty's ethnographic impulse was born in the course of his repeated encounters and interactions with native people during his work as a surveyor and prospector. As early as 1913, his growing desire to record life in another culture led him to bring along a motion picture camera on his explorations. Between 1920 and 1922, Flaherty used his camera to chronicle the lives of a group of Hudson Bay Eskimos. The finished work, Nanook of the North, was released in 1922, and is cited by most film historians as the first feature-length documentary. Flaherty himself recounted numerous details about Nanook’s making in his 1924 book, My Eskimo Friends. By the time it was published the film had become an international success and Allariallak, the Inuit hunter who portrayed "Nanook the Bear," had died of starvation on a deer hunt.


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