WHO is he?
American screenwriter, cinematographer, producer and director of documentary films who directed seven feature films and about half a dozen short films between the early 1920s and the early 1950s. His last film The Titan: Story of Michelangelo won the Academy Award for Best Documentary feature in 1950.
WHAT are his films about?
Flaherty’s films deal with peoples and tribes far different from those of Western civilization. On one level they do function as conventional ethnographic records that provide the Western audience an exotic tour of worlds untouched by modernity. Flaherty’s characters are akin to Rousseau’s Natural Man, untainted by the scourge of civilization and in harmony with nature. However, despite this distance between the audience and his subjects, these films have a genuinely universal resonance in the way they evoke Man’s eternal struggle with Nature and his seemingly infinite capacity to endure.
Flaherty’s films are not purely ‘documentaries’, in the conventional sense of the term. They combine fictional forms like role playing, scene-writing and storytelling with more straightforward documentary elements of documentation and exposition. While some have understandably criticized Flaherty for unethically ‘betraying’ actuality by manipulating the events depicted on screen, it is this very intrusion of the director, along with the cooperative playacting of his subjects, which prevents the film from being unethical.
WHY is he of interest?
Flaherty is generally considered the father of American documentary filmmaking and, to date, remains one of the key figures in the history of international documentary cinema. A case could be made that Flaherty’s films are some of the earliest examples of participatory visual ethnography, in which the subject of the documentary ceases to be a passive object of anthropologic study and instead collaborates with the filmmaker and participates actively in the work in progress.
WHERE to discover him?
One of the most iconic documentary films ever made, Nanook of the North (1922) centers on the everyday life of the eponymous Inuk man living in the Canadian Arctic. We are shown the quotidian routines of Nanook and his family, his interaction with the world around him and his indefatigable spirit of survival. What, on the surface, seems like a document about a particular person from a particular tribe gradually becomes a supremely poetic investigation into mankind’s tiny little place in the vast universe.