Edgar Cochran’s review published on Letterboxd:
Nanook of the North was, for many years, the second and last documentary that can be found on my favorite movies' list. There are several reasons why Nanook of the North became one of my favorite movies ever, making emphasis on the fact that I have already mentioned the differences of my evaluation standards for both feature films and documentaries before. Without a doubt, Nanook of the North is officially considered as one of the best documentaries ever made in cinema history, and it is definitely the best classic documentary I have seen with the length of a normal movie. Whereas giant cinema icons such as F.W. Murnau, D.W. Griffith and Sergei M. Eisenstein were establishing themselves as memorable legends of silent classic cinema mainly through their work, Robert J. Flaherty was one of the first and most important filmmakers that understood that movies could provide much more than just a story of fiction, and that it could portray a portion of an existent and actual reality of any part of the world, in this case the North Pole. It was precisely Nanook of the North the first anthropological documentary with the length of a feature film that was released in the history of cinema... ever.
Nanook of the North tells the real story of Eskimo Nanook and his family and documents it for a whole year, including the way of life they had for hunting, searching for food and preparing it, and the migrations they made to other places in the area, considerably far away from a world governed by modern technology. The igloo in which they lived is also shown here.
The project was sponsored by the French fur company Revillon Freres, which provided around 50,000 dollars to the filming crew and to the director so the making of the documentary could be possible, including the fact that they had to organize an expedition to the North Pole that would last approximately 16 months. They resorted to those means because they naturally didn't have the required amount of budget which would be mostly earmarked for the journey itself. Once that the documentary about Nanook and a sample of his way of life was completed, it was rejected by five different distributors, but due to the huge success it had in Paris and Berlin when it was first released, the film went to New York City movie theaters as well, gathering around 40,000 dollars in its first week, which already made evident that the amount of used budget would be promptly gotten back.
Independently of the reasons that general audiences and film critics may have for considering Nanook of the North one of the best documentaries ever made in cinema history, my reasons are the following. Nanook of the North was the first project that actually ambitioned to show a part of the world from a different perspective, this means, not portraying it through a fictional story or through a plot adapted from literature, but from real life. This was a concept that, besides having an enormous influence in modern filmmakers and directors, created new genre itself which can be completely separated from the definition of cinema. Nanook of the North has most of the elements that a documentary possesses even nowadays. From the moment that Robert popularized the genre through his projects such as Nanook of the North, which was the first documentary he ever directed, and the least popular but also influencing Man of Aran (1934) and Louisiana Story (1948), movie for which he got an Oscar nomination along with his brother for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story, a new form of narrating a story through films had been born.
However, there is a lot of controversy in whether if Nanook of the North is really a documentary or not. The idea of making such a filmic project came originally from Robert's brother, Frances H. Flaherty, and it was Robert who elaborated the script. Why did he have to elaborate a script if we are talking about a documentary in the first place? He did it because although Nanook of the North gave birth to a new genre, it wasn't really a documentary per se. Each and every one of the scenes were staged and simulated, and the way of life of Nanook that was portrayed in here wasn't accurate at all. The igloo isn't the original one he lived in. Robert wanted the half of an igloo of 25 feet in diameter to be built because the crew found several difficulties while filming some scenes caused by lightning problems, so the igloo was constructed so the actions that took place inside it looked more believable and had natural light.
Despite the details mentioned above, Nanook of the North effectively works as a documentary that depicts the way of life that Inuits have even nowadays. One sad aspect of it is that Nanook died of starvation months after the film was completed. Nanook of the North is also one of the most critically acclaimed and respected documentaries and in 2002 it was considered as the 6th best documentary ever made, just after Bowling for Columbine (2002), The Thin Blue Line (1988), Roger & Me (1989), Hoop Dreams (1994) and Salesman (1968). The seventh spot is proudly occupied by masterpiece Nuit et Brouillard (1955).
Nanook of the North may not completely belong to the genre, but it undoubtedly created it, and if it hadn't been because of Robert J. Flaherty the documentary genre wouldn't have been created in the same way it was or perhaps it would have been born much more lately. Moreover, many documentaries that nowadays exist would have never been created in the first place. Nanook of the North is a gorgeous piece of art with a perfectly adequate length, detail, depth, some extraordinary cinematographic shots throughout and it is pretty much accessible and easy to watch. It is also very informative, not only with the Inuit way of life, but also with the fauna that inhabit the North Pole. It may also serve well for educational purposes. That is why we owe total credit to this documentary, because besides being one of the most influencing feature films ever created by mankind, it is an invaluable treasure that even nowadays is still seen and worshiped.