When Robert Flaherty proposed filming an Inuit hunter and his family for a year, following them from igloo to igloo and from kill to kill in the harsh Arctic waste, no American movie company was willing to finance the project. In the end, the French furrier Revillon Frères backed the project, and the American branch of the French film company Pathé agreed to distribute it. The result was a film that may fairly be described as the foundation of the documentary genre. Nanook of the North went far beyond the actualities and travelogues of early cinema to present something new, a fictionalized version of a real person's life. Taking his cues from successful Hollywood films, Flaherty blended realistic and beautifully composed images with a loose narrative and a strong central character. While not, strictly speaking, an objective record of actual events, the work that emerged was nevertheless true to the spirit of the life it was trying to convey. Ever since Nanook of the North premiered, documentary filmmakers have been grappling with issues of objectivity versus subjectivity and reality versus invention that the film (unintentionally) raised.
In undertaking to shoot a narrative-based film that would demonstrate the character and majesty of the Inuit people of the Hudson Bay, Canada, Flaherty chose as his protagonist a revered hunter. He accompanied the man, named Nanook in the film, and his extended family for a year from igloo to igloo, from kill to kill. Technical ingenuity and the collaboration of the Inuit were key to the film's success. When an actual seal killing could not be filmed, for example, the Inuit dragged a carcass under the ice and re-created its fight for life.
An explorer who charted the Canadian tundra for mineral and railroad interests, Flaherty first brought a movie camera with him on an expedition of 1913 in order to make visual notes. Filmmaking soon became his primary focus. Nanook of the North was financed by a French furrier, Revillon Frères, and distributed by the French movie giant Pathé. America's top movie companies had turned it down, but the film became a huge critical and commercial success, and the progenitor of all documentaries to come. Unlike the typically detached travelogue, Nanook of the North blended realistic, stark, and beautifully composed images with a loose story line and a strong central character. Moreover, with its fictionalization of real-life events, and with Flaherty's romanticization of his subject, the film continues to raise issues about the objectivity of the documentary genre.