Credit: Janus Films/Films sans Frontiéres

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Joseph Owen

Virginia Woolf writes in her essay ‘The New Biography’ (1927) that the character of Hamlet is the ideal figurative emblem for documenting the ‘increasingly real […] fictitious life’ of the modern human subject. The drama which contains Hamlet functions as the prime mover for private complexity, the origin story for contemporary biography. Disputed, multifaceted Hamlet is preferable to an unadorned archetype or cipher, which Woolf designates, a little dismissively, as ‘John Smith of the Corn Exchange’. By this logic, the modern biographer should depict reality as derived from its subject’s personality rather than through his or her actions. Truth, in this rendering, is more likely found among fraught individual subjectivities than upon a mere depository of items, names and dates. 

As Woolf summarizes it, this mode of biography should complement the ‘granite-like solidity’ of fact with the ‘rainbow-like intangibility’ of imagination. The instability of these oppositions means that it is possible to indulge and lose both worlds; such is the delicate balance of truth and falsehood. Reality must be carefully sought amid the rubble of experience, in unfamiliar territories, through poetic abstractions, behind dark spots, and across unending icy tundra. Woolf identifies our motivation for this search in her novel-length satire of biography, Orlando (1928), as ‘a desire for distance, for music, for shadow, for space, [which] takes hold of us’. All of which seems to offer the infatuated biographer and its cinematic analogue, the documentarian, plenty of leverage to make a lot of stuff up. 

Admittedly, the movement between biography and documentary can be obfuscating. Although ambivalent about the ability of the cinematic image to adapt literary consciousness, Woolf acknowledged how silent film could offer a fresh artistic perspective. In her 1926 article ‘The Cinema’, Woolf generously speculated on the overall possibilities of the medium; in her diaries, she sedulously noted down her viewing habits. These included Man of Aran (1934), Robert J. Flaherty’s partly fabricated study of isle inhabitants living in relative isolation off the Western coast of Ireland. Given that Woolf intended to depict the human subject both in its dizzying multitude and as a necessary product of modernity, Flaherty’s nostalgic hankering for a primitivist, premodern existence must have supplied her with some form of jarring counterpoint. 

Not that they were without similarities in approach. Both drew on ostensibly sympathetic colonial imaginaries to distinguish between Western civilization and what they reverentially deemed to be far-flung and exotic social orders. Mostly for laughs, Woolf provides a sketchily drawn Constantinople in Orlando, while Flaherty, with apparent sincerity, captures arid plains of the Canadian Arctic as the setting for his dubious ethnographic classic, Nanook of the North (1922). Flaherty’s basic equipment and candid shooting techniques belied his byzantine development process and calculated deception of the audience. After initially filming the Inuit peoples, Flaherty dropped his cigarette, incinerating the original reels. With renewed focus, he returned to the Ungava Peninsula to fashion a narrative under more artificial conditions. This inevitably places the viewer, desirous of accurate representation, in an ethical and philosophical quandary. 

Flaherty made the character of Nanook, the taciturn provider and patriarch of a tight knit family, central to his new depiction. Among the acts of everyday survival, they are shown hunting walruses, building igloos, and, in a striking moment, emerging sequentially and impossibly out of a small kayak. One comic sequence has them meet jovially with ‘the white man’ at a trading post. The proceeding hijinks feature the children as they overconsume sea biscuit and lard, take remedy through castor oil, and bite, apparently innocently, into a gramophone record. Though unspecified, these scenes come imbued with a knowing theatricality. Something is up. What if we learn that Nanook, in real life, was previously aware of the gramophone and its purpose; that he was already using rifles instead of spears for hunting; that his name was not even Nanook but, in fact, Allakariallak; or that rather than dying of starvation in the desert, he was likely at home, succumbing to tuberculosis? 

What makes Flaherty’s effacement of his indigenous participants so galling today, but no less riveting in the cinematic instant, is the extent to which it allows the viewer to be morally complicit in their treatment. This is partly down to our fluctuating systems of knowledge. Recognition of subsequent postcolonial theory mitigates a broad appreciation of the film’s technical and dramatic devices. Critiques of anthropology and ethnography weigh against its circumstances of production. These types of questions haunt documentary filmmakers, who are now often less coy and more self-reflexive than Flaherty.

‘One often has to distort a thing in order to catch its true spirit’, Flaherty wrote in response to criticisms of his tendency to docudrama. This thesis does not sound too dissimilar to Woolf’s biographical manifesto, but it is fair to say that Flaherty’s embellishments in Nanook do not figure ‘the fearless, lovable, happy go-lucky Eskimo’ as Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Instead, Flaherty has a scant desire for historical or psychoanalytic explanations; everything, including the human subjects, appears as hard and immediate surfaces, as extensions of natural habitat and subsistence labour. Truths of Allakariallak’s internal life could be found in his various toils, in the barren terrain, and in the heightened atmosphere of stoicism and melancholy. Yet, in Flaherty’s subaltern translation of Woolf’s dictum, Nanook of the North may as well be John Smith of the Corn Exchange, as defined only by his material existence. 

Flaherty had his own set of ethical limits. He was reportedly antagonized by F.W. Murnau, the director with whom he co-wrote the silent Tabu (1931), because he thought the eventual script too Westernized, too explicitly in thrall to conventional theme and plot. The principal romance and dual tragedy in Tabu, which is indeed missing from Nanook, suggest themselves in the headings of each act, where ‘Paradise’ descends into ‘Paradise Lost’. Through inscribed parchments, which function as the film’s intertitles, Murnau outlines the Polynesian custom that establishes the predetermined, tragic fate of the narrative. After the death of the previous incumbent, a sacred virgin emerges as the new and big taboo, appointed to the island of Bora Bora, required to live free from male desire, for fear of incurring the gods’ wrath and the associated dishonour. Not before long, she and her lover have copped it to the nearest French colony, only to be corrupted and misled by nominally civilized systems of monetary exchange and bacchanalian excess.

In Nanook, the viewer’s melancholy is wrought from instabilities of fact, through Flaherty’s condescending summaries and our knowledge of the participants’ exploitation. But in Tabu, melancholy is wrought from traditional techniques of dramatic irony, because we see where the tale is heading, aided by the remarkable tragic score, which, to borrow from Jonathan Rosenbaum’s account, is ‘conceived musically and rhythmically as a gradually decelerating diminuendo’. Tabu was made with more budget and sophistication than Nanook, which might make the former’s use and depiction of indigenous inhabitants all the more disquieting. What qualifies as documentary footage is harder to spot, just as the concessions to storytelling are more in evidence. Both films have the phrase ‘A Story’ in their respective subtitles, which draw attention to them as works of fiction, though patterns of deceit regularly entwine following the colon. After all, Woolf’s century-spanning fantasy Orlando is only, in some ways, ‘A Biography’. And just as the gap between thought and action is unbridgeable for Hamlet, the riddle of truth and imagination within the play cannot be resolved. The power of the tragedy is located in its suggestion of reality. The taboo, then, is that which collapses the distinction between fact and fiction, combining the knowledge of trauma with the trauma of knowledge.