Nanook of the North (Robert J. Flaherty, 1922)
The film itself is infamous. Robert J. Flaherty’s depiction of “life and love in the actual arctic” in Nanook of the North (1922) has been part of pop culture for decades. From being parodied in the Legend of Korra as Nuktook, The Hero of the South to being analyzed in first year film classes: Nanook has had its moments under the microscopic lens. Part of this attention comes from the film Nanook Revisited (1990), where filmmakers returned to the locations of Flaherty’s original film, and effectively debunked many of the Eskimo stereotypes and images portrayed in the 1922 film. Part of the attention also comes from its false reputation as the first documentary, and its inclusion in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1989. It is also a film that came from a larger ethnographic movement, and works in canon with most anthropological work of this time period. In any case, this film has come to carry quite a lot of significance. And placing its meaning back into the hands of the culture depicted on screen is a powerful movement that effectively creates a new history.
As a Inuk throat singer from The North (Iqaluktuutiaq, Victoria Island, Nunavut), Tanya Tagaq’s relationship with the film goes beyond pop culture experiences. When she first saw this film as a child, she recalls feeling embarrassed and annoyed. The people being depicted on screen are, after all, her ancestors. In 2012, the Toronto International Film Festival approached her with the idea to re-score the soundtrack with her own music, and she resonated deeply with the idea. In interviews conducted around her first year of touring, Tanya talks about the emotional places her music often comes from, and how she had been invoking these memories of seeing the film for the first time into her performances. There is perhaps no proper way to describe what Tanya sounds like when she is performing, as her version of throat singing goes beyond the traditional form. She engages in a multi-layered narrative when she sings, using her entire body to articulate characters and stories through which she brings the audience. Her performances are entirely captivating, which no doubt led to this piece’s popularity.
The Banff Centre for Performing Arts’ has an annual exhibit each fall on reclaiming silent films through interventionist means. Last year (2015), the centre featured Tanya and Nanook, as this piece fits perfectly into their larger series of works. As part of an ongoing interdisciplinary project, they have a call for submissions for Fall 2016 that asks for pieces using “live performance, music creation, composition, song, storytelling, spoken word, dance and silent film, to subvert the gaze behind the camera and bring a fresh voice to an era of silence.”  This process of reclaiming art appears in many forms, but this particular focus on the era of silent film as an opportunity to rewrite history is particularly striking. Tagaq is not only addressing the colonial gaze in this piece, she is also creating a new filmic world through the interjection of her own voice. And in order to understand this process more clearly, it is integral that we turn to film theory to understand the components of what is occurring in this piece.
Non-diegetic Sound and Sound-Image Relations
In its original form, Nanook of the North does not feature audiovisual diegetic sound. Created during the era of silent film, there is no dialogue present, or sound recordings meant to be attached to the images depicted. The non-diegetic sound featured in the video above was composed by Stanley Silverman in 1976 to accompany the film. This, in many ways, opens up opportunities for reconstructing the images in this film.
In film, the relationship between the visual and auditory is complex. In many instances, “we accept seen space as real only when it contains sounds as well, for these give it the dimension of depth.” The absence of sound in this film’s original format removes that possibility of depth, and renders the images unreal, or superficial to the modern viewer. At the same time, sound also embodies space. The gap that is filled through re-scoring this film therefore is not just an addition to the main event, but it is in fact integral to the images and overall simulacra. Specifically in cinema, we can see the connection between these two modes of input as deeply interwoven and significant to the film viewing experience. This leads us to the question: Is sound an aid or a counterpoint to the visual? Are they meant to work in unison with one another, or in contention? In the case of Tanya’s re-scoring of Nanook, it is both.
The use of her voice – and its abilities to build upon the tradition of throat singing with the influence of punk and other genres – in conjunction with the original function of the film is incredibly empowering. She is able to subvert the colonial gaze in this sense, because the authorship no longer lies in the hands of the ethnographer and the non-indigenous viewer. The sound acts as an aid to the visuals, as it speaks for the voiceless characters being portrayed. This act of un-silencing a visual that was previously intentionally silent gives direct agency to that character. Despite the fact that the images and scenes used in this film were staged and contrived, the people on screen were very real. The use of Nanook as an image is thus subverted through Tanya’s interjections, thereby making the purpose and history of the film change as well.
Sound is simultaneously a counterpoint to the images created by Flaherty, as Tanya is intentionally attempting to deconstruct the camera’s gaze and rewrite the voyeurship occurring. The improvisational aspect of Tanya’s music un-scripts the rigidness of Flaherty’s film, breaking Nanook from the tightly bound container of colonial gazes and disrupting the diegesis created to capture him. The influence of sound is unparalleled in this sense, and its ability to reclaim cinema is remarkable. While it was once a visual document that served to relegate the northern community into a realm of “under-developed savage”, it now has the ability to deepen the narrative and subvert the gaze, effectively relocating this film in history.
Film is thus an avenue through which history can be revised. The history of ethnographic exploration and the institution of anthropological work in the 1920s that creates harming, objectifying pieces of investigative work can be altered through the intricate nature of audiovisual pieces.
A trailer to Tanya Tagaq’s performance at TIFF, 2012.
- Dong Liang, World Heard: Sound, Film Theory And The Cinematic Experience, 3.
Balazs, Theory of the Film; Character and Growth of a New Art, 207.
EMBERLEY, JULIA V.. 2007. Defamiliarizing the Aboriginal: Cultural Practices and Decolonization in Canada. University of Toronto Press. http://www.jstor.org.proxy.lib.uwaterloo.ca/stable/10.3138/j.ctt2ttj6q.
Huhndorf, Shari M.. 2000. “Nanook and His Contemporaries: Imagining Eskimos in American Culture, 1897-1922”. Critical Inquiry 27 (1). University of Chicago Press: 122–48. http://www.jstor.org.proxy.lib.uwaterloo.ca/stable/1344230.
MacKenzie, Scott, and Anna Westerståhl Stenport, eds.. 2015. Films on Ice: Cinemas of the Arctic. Edited by Scott MacKenzie and Anna Westerståhl Stenport. Edinburgh University Press. http://www.jstor.org.proxy.lib.uwaterloo.ca/stable/10.3366/j.ctt14brwjm.