This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
There is an astonishing sequence in Robert J. Flaherty's "Nanook of the North" (1922) in which his hero, the Inuit hunter Nanook, hunts a seal. Flaherty shows the most exciting passage in one unbroken shot. Nanook knows that seals must breathe every 20 minutes, and keep an air hole open for themselves in the ice of the Arctic winter. He finds such a hole, barely big enough to be seen and is poised motionless above it with his harpoon until a seal rises to breathe. Then he strikes and holds onto the line as the seal plunges to escape.
There is a desperate tug of war. Nanook hauls the line 10 or 12 feet out of the hole, and then is dragged back, sliding across the ice, and pulls again, and again. We can't see, but he must have the line tied to his body -- to lose would be to drown. He desperately signals for his fellow hunters to help him, and we see them running across the ice with their dogs as he struggles to hold on. They arrive at last, and three or four of them pull on the line. The seal prevails. Nanook uses his knife to enlarge the hole, and the seal at last is revealed and killed. The hunters immediately strip it of its blubber and dine on its raw flesh.
There has been some discussion among critics of a possible interruption in the filming; we never see the seal actually being pulled up to the surface. Was the quarry shot with a gun that Flaherty did not want to show, because that would affect the purity of his images of man against nature? Such questions are part of a decades-old debate about the methods of a man who has been called the father of the documentary, whose films are masterpieces, and yet whose realities were admittedly assisted.
Seeing "Nanook of the North" a week ago at the Toronto Film Festival, magnificently projected in 35mm and accompanied by a live performance of a new musical score, I did not much care about the purity of Flaherty's methods. He shot his footage in 1920, when there were no rules for documentaries and precious few documentaries, certainly none shot so far north that nothing grows except a little moss, and 300 Inuit could inhabit a space the size of England. (At about the same time, at the other pole, a photographer named Frank Hurley was filming Shackleton's expedition, which ended with his ship, the Endurance, broken by the ice, and the crew escaping to South America on a 700-mile journey in an open boat, with not a life lost. That film is also on DVD.)