Friday, August 17, 2007

Robert J. Flaherty - Nanook Of The North (1922)

The first commercially successful documentary was a 1922 visual ethnography of Inuit life: 'Nanook Of The North'. It was filmed by Robert Flaherty, who was a prospector turned filmmaker and by no means an academic ethnographer. In the film, elements of 1922 Inuit life that were westernized (such as the use of firearms for hunting) were repressed, and replaced by elements which the filmmaker deemed more truly part of Inuit culture.

Such an ethnological approach was quite common in the early days of ethnography: it is usually referred to as 'salvage anthropology'. The purpose of the approach was "to salvage a record of what was left of a culture before it disappeared".

The approach was bound up with a functionalist view of society, which sees all elements which comprise a given culture as acting towards maintaining that society's structure. Not only the disjointed nature of cultures, their fissures of meaning and their incongruities, interruptions, and breaks were either carefully kept out of the picture or given a purely negative meaning. More importantly, the entire dimension of Time was often ignored or even repressed in documenting these societies, presenting them as static and unchanging. Changes in a non-western society as an effect of contact with western cultures was seen as threatening to the social and cultural life of those societies.

That societies in which elements of western and other cultures intermingled might be relevant to study ethnographically, was an insight which became prevalent only after the breakdown of colonialism. Nevertheless, the first interest in 'creole cultures' already arose during the interbellum. French ethnographer's Marcel Griaule's entry "Gunshot" in the surrealist review 'Documents' is a scathing analysis of "salvage anthropology":

"The height of absurdity is reached when the other party refuses the African the right to “make art” with a European motif, claiming first that is European —a somewhat amusingly self-castrating remark— and, secondly, that it looks “modern.” One could say that a gun is not a decorative motif. Fine, but such is not the view of the servicemen who outfit trophy rooms (...) And if it took a mere rifle to spoil a work of art, how many paintings and sculptures would one have to destroy? This would not, of course, be tragic, but what an effort!
Furthermore, if a black cannot without debasing himself use an exotic element, namely a European one familiar to him, what is one to make of our blind borrowings, from an exotic world one of colour about which we must in self-defense declare we know nothing. (...) Boring though it may be to repeat it, ethnography is interested in both beauty and ugliness, in the European sense of these absurd words. It is, however, inclined to be suspicious of the beautiful —a rare, and, consequently, a freakish event within a civilization. It is also self-doubting (because it is a white science, and therefore tainted with prejudice) and will not deny an object aesthetic value because it is either ordinary or mass-produced. (...) An informed contradictor might say that I am confusing ethnography with folklore. What of it! I call folklore the ethnography of pretentious peoples, of those colourless peoples whose habitat lies north of a sea of low tides and weak storms, the Mediterranean, the ethnography of those who fear both words and things, and who refuse to be called natives".

Nonetheless, I highly recommend 'Nanook Of The North'! The film itself becomes so much more interesting if one realizes it itself is a creole product - and a very melancholic one at that.

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