Film: 5518

Social History | 1920 | Sound | B/W


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The life of the chief of the Itivimuits, an Eskimo tribe on the East Coast of Hudson Bay, Canada, and his family and community.

Close-up of Nanook's face in his fur-lined hood, mottled with bits of ice. Nanook's smiling wife, Nyla, also in a large fur hood and coat, rocking and chatting as a wind ruffles the fur.
Sunrise seen from a bobbing boat: a brilliant orb of light emerges from behind a headland as ribbon-like clouds recede, throwing light over ice drifts in a placid sea.
A map showing the northeast coast of the USA, Canada, and Hudson Bay: an arrow points to a small black shaded area on the east coast of Hudson Bay. Close-up of the map of Hudson Bay, a semi-shaded area covering the coast and part of the sea ('Ungava') off Cape Dufferin and Nastapona Falls.
Nanook in a kayak, his young son lying stomach-down on the boat in front of him. Nanook paddles to a halt at a stony beach, climbs out of the kayak and picks the boy up, putting him on shore; amazingly, the rest of his family emerge one by one from beneath the seemingly bottomless boat through the single opening as Nanook holds it steady: his wife, who carries off a baby, an older child, and finally a puppy!
The family make a stove with stones and a block (of ice?). They shove a small bundle of dried grass into the crack beneath the block, setting it alight and blowing the smoke.
Two adults bend over, attaching animal hide to the skeleton of a boat (kayak?) with thick strings/
A white seal pup flounders around on an ice floe. It pauses and barks. It splashes clumsily through the ice stream, clambers onto a mass of ice where an adult seal waits.
White birds (Canadian geese? Gulls?) dotting a stretch of land and in flight. A nest with three eggs in it, and long grass. Spotted chicks chirping, wandering around another nest. Still another nest, with five of a different kind of egg in it. A grouse in grass ruffled by the wind.
Nanook, followed by his family, trek along a gentle uphill incline, packs on their backs. Several Eskimoes carry a long wooden boat on their shoulders along the ridge of a sheer rock face, into the water. The open boat in the water, filled with women and children who cooperate in rowing with four oars; they all have on thick fur coats with their hoods off. The moving boat, silhouetted in brilliant sunshine, over a shimmering sea; two upturned boats on a ledge in the foreground. The boat reaches shore; its passengers alight or are lifted out as two others hold it still; the water is crystal-clear against the rocky beach.
The boat is set down, upturned, in front of a trading fur post - several layers (several feet high) of hanging bundles of narrow strips of white fur; everyone, including children, carry in more such bundles and animal hides, and arrange them on the ground or across the upturned boat. Active puppy dogs are emptied from a sack onto a fur-lined surface into a wriggling pile. Nanook's baby, stark naked, sits amid two of these dogs, putting his arms round them as they remain quietly; Nyla smiles and holds him; for some reason his face crumples in the middle of all this and he starts to cry.
Nyla, rocking her baby now swathed in her fur hood against her, and Nanook, sit with Robert Flaherty, presumably, looking bemusedly at a phonograph; Nanook is clearly intrigued by it, cocks his head, touches it tentatively; Flaherty places the needle on the record and turns the handle as Nanook peers curiously; Nanook places his ear to the speaker and laughs in delight as he hears the music. Flaherty demonstrates how the record player works as Nanook looks on intently; he removes one of the discs and gives it to Nanook, who examines it and bites it a few times.
Nanook's two children eat a white moussey substance from small platters. One of these children, clutching his stomach, stands before Flaherty and Nanook, while Nyla, holding him, pats his stomach, indicating he has indigestion. Nanook rises, brings back a glass bottle of 'Italian Castor Oil', which he hands to Flaherty, who pours a tablespoonful and feeds it to the boy; a grin breaks out on his face after he swallows it, and he licks his lips, apparently fond of the taste.
Intertitle: 'Life in the far north is a continual battle against Hunger. Only for a short period in summer is game plentiful. For ten months of the year, wild life almost disappears, and only the Eskimo's prowess as a hunter can keep his family from starvation.' [Poignantly ironic as Nanook died soon after the film was made, of hunger on the ice]
An adult husky stands watching as Nanook races towards a kayak, calls his family out of their shelter; they stream out hurriedly, grab the kayak and take it to the water together with harpoons; at sea nearby are several other kayaks moving in the same general direction. Shots of Eskimos in single opening kayaks paddling on choppy waves.
Eskimos on land look out to sea, one of them (Nanook?) with a pair of binoculars. The heads of walruses bobbing in the waves. Walruses on the stony shore, their backs slick and visible in a row. Eskimos armed with nets and harpoons walk down to the water. Nanook belly-crawls very slowly towards the row of unsuspecting walruses. The walruses eventually spy him: a rapid succession of tusked heads rear up, they turn and clamber back into the water as Nanook rises and sprints towards them, trailing a harpoon on a rope; more Eskimos dash towards him as he hurls the harpoon at a walrus. The Eskimos, one behind the other, strain to haul the battling walrus out of the water with the rope. The animal is dragged in as the two Eskimos behind scrape their bottoms along the beach in their efforts. The struggle continues for a while, the walrus thrashing in breaking waves near shore, the three men tumbling and straining on the beach. Walrus heads bob in the water near the shore. One or two venture near the trapped walrus. The Eskimos, now standing, succeed to beaching the now limp form of the walrus; two of them pull the ropes while the other to drag it by its paws. Close-up of them rolling the large carcass onto drier land.
Nanook sharpens a large flat blade. He starts slicing the walrus open at its neck. The Eskimos stand around the carcass, now open, eating pieces of flesh from their blades. Nanook tears chunks of meat from a large piece with his teeth, files part of it away with the blade, eats some more, looking quite contented, licks his blade.
Ice-drifts in calm water, snow-capped mountains in the background. Nanook kayaks his way through narrow strips of water between the ice, using his oar on the ice to help steer. He parks the kayak next to an ice-floe, drags it by the bow onto the ice. Nanook crosses ice 'bridges' briskly, wading through water and using his spear (?) for support and to test the ice with genuine ease and familiarity. He takes a mat of bound wooden branches from his kayak, places it on the edge of an ice-floe, rests his elbow on it and with a harpoon/fishing spear and bait dangling from a small rod, begins fishing in the water. He lies on the ice, dangling his bait, suddenly plunges his spear in. Close-up of a large speared fish being lifted from the water. Nanook pulls a still-thrashing fish from the water and appears to lock lips with it to kill it (??). More fishing as the ice-floe drifts slowly. Nanook drags a particularly large fish the length of his arm up, hits it on the head with his bait rod to kill it, and holds it up like a prize catch, grinning.
Nanook replaces his mat, rods, etc. in his kayak, its surface now lined with his catch. He puts still more fish onto the kayak and climbs in.
Intertitle: '"The dead of winter" is a phrase that has grim meaning in the far north - all land and sea locked in solid ice - long nights - short bitter days - the sun, a mocking brass ball in the sky - the wail of the wind - fields of smoking snow.'
A barren landscape with dark craggy rocks; the 'smoking snow' - wisps of white, almost like a mist, sweep across the land, some of it whirling and rising in the air under the sun. A snowstorm (?): gentle dunes of snow have formed, while more of it is swept across by a strong wind; Nanook goes underground into his shelter.
Eskimos clamber around on large blocks of ice formations, some of which have formed a mound/hill. Nanook with his pointed staff (?) stands on top of it, motioning to others still clambering up - children, long pointed sled and dogs included. The dogs are pulling the sled with children clinging to it, helping to push it up. The Eskimos gradually push the sled up and down the snow and ice, sometimes tumbling over rather comically. Nanook, still perched where he is, appears to see something and motions to the children pulling the sled. He climbs down, approaches a small mound of the ice very carefully/stealthily, first crouching, then on his hands and knees cuts a hole through the mound with his blade, sticks the upper half of his body in the hole and emerges seconds later with a small white animal with a bushy tail (a fox?) that was probably trapped inside. He holds it aloft by its neck and carries it to the waiting sled. He places it inside and tightens the folds around the opening so that it is warm and safe. A young girl kneels by the sled smiling at it, taking delight in its barks at her face. The Eskimos pull the sled, together with the little animal's face peering out, away.
The party ascend a gentle slope, pause. Nanook walks ahead, prods the snow with his stick, starts cutting it with his blade. Nanook stands in a small depression which he has made, licking his blade thoroughly. The backs of children as they launch themselves down an incline, one riding the back of another, who slides down on his stomach, head-first. Another one kicks off and slides down head-first on his back.
Nanook in the depression, still cutting large blocks of ice: it turns out he has built an igloo round himself, as he fits another block in place. He hacks expertly at the top of the wall next to him, trimming it. Nyla, her baby on her back inside her hood, cuts away at the ice outside. Nyla smiles, tucks her droopy-eyed baby further into her hood. A young child smiles from under his thick hood, his hands poised over a tiny anvil-head wooden sledge. He scrambles after it, his hands still on the sledge, as a puppy pulls it along. Nanook, barely visible, behind the blocks, fits the igloo roof. Nyla and others smooth its exterior. Nyla's baby has fallen asleep, his head on her neck. The blocks on the roof of the igloo are put in place. A child perches on the rounded side of the igloo, being passed blocks of ice. A little 'window' is cut away from the igloo's side; Nanook's grinning face pops out a second later. Nanook sticks his torso out the gap, and appears to be slightly stuck and laughing.
Nanook approaches a layer of thin ice and starts prodding the snow next to it with his spear. He jabs the outline of a circle into the snow, removes the circle of snow that has resulted, and hefts it onto his shoulder.
End of Part One.

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