Now Playing! Controversial Doc 'Nanook' Gets a Live Soundtrack

Polaris prize winning Inuk-punk throat singer and activist Tanya Tagaq. (Photo courtesy of Nadya Kwandibens)

Close the laptop, drop that tablet, pause the smartphone and join your fellow humans in Bay Area theaters this week with recommendations from our film critic Michael Fox.

Promotional poster for 'Nanook of the North,' directed by Robert J. Flaherty, 1922.
Promotional poster for 'Nanook of the North,' directed by Robert J. Flaherty, 1922. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Robert Flaherty invented the modern documentary in 1922 after returning from his second extended filmmaking sojourn to the Canadian Arctic. His initial footage went up in flames while he was at his editing table -- early film stock was notoriously flammable -- but, surprisingly, he wasn’t devastated: He realized the images weren’t especially gripping, in part because they didn’t add up to more than a travelogue. For his do-over, Flaherty seized on the strategies and techniques of narrative films, building his movie around an exotic but recognizable (read: universal) central character. He paired up with a respected hunter named Nanook and other Inuits (Eskimos, to your grandfather), and staged and/or captured a variety of hunting and igloo-building scenes. Nanook of the North became a global sensation, to such a degree that the news of Nanook’s subsequent death from starvation in 1924 ran in newspapers around the world.

Nine decades on, Nanook of the North retains its fascination, charm, human interest and beauty. It also continues to provoke debates about reenactments posing as reality and shaping truth to accommodate the demands of a story. Controversies about cultural appropriation routinely dog documentaries, although to be clear Nanook’s making-of saga is one of collaboration, not exploitation. Nonetheless, an element of reclaiming one’s heritage is embedded in Inuit throat-singer Tanya Tagaq’s live accompaniment of Flaherty’s silent classic. Tagaq delivers her one-of-a-kind performance (backed by an assortment of musicians) on Thursday, Nov. 17, at 8pm at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Tagaq also discusses her personal background and inspiration on Wednesday, Nov. 16, at 6:30pm, and performs music from her new album Retribution on Friday, Nov. 18, at 10pm. Details here.

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