Sunday, January 16, 2011

Whose Reality?

First, here is a link to the full length Nanook of the North by Robert Flaherty:

I have a friend who is documentary filmmaker and when I told her I was doing research for a presentation on Robert Flaherty, her reply was, "I hate him.  He isn't a real documentary maker."  What she was referring to, of course, is something that I brought up during my presentation; Flaherty often fabricated what he filmed, from the rituals to his characters.  I must admit that after seeing The Man of Aran for Jans' class last year, I felt the same way as my friend.  How can Flaherty be a documentarian if what he is filming is a lie?

In the discussion of what makes a documentary, Aufderheide focuses on the silent contract between viewer and director that what is being shown is the truth (or as close to it as possible).  This I believed Flaherty had failed in.  My opinion shifted slightly with my research on him and the movie Nanook of the North.  Barnouw wrote that, "Flaherty was not recording a current way of life, but one filtered through memories of Nanook and his people.  Unquestionably the film reflected their image of their traditional life.”  As a read more about the making of the film, this became apparent.  Different scenes, such as the famous walrus hunting scene, were suggested by Nanook himself (although it was something the Inuit people no longer practiced).  Flaherty and his camera provided a way, albeit for the entertainment of Western society, for Nanook and his people to document their dying traditions.  It documented the truth as Nanook and Flaherty saw it.

 My friend sees her unobtrusive method of documenting as more pure and until recent reading I have more or less accepted this.  But isn't it a lot like Heisenberg's uncertainty principle?  Doesn't the camera just being there change what actually happens (people's reactions to different situations)?

The ultimate conclusion I have drawn is that I can no more fault Flaherty for interference than anyone who chooses to insert themselves into someone's life.  Just by being there with a camera, some sort of fabrication is happening as the filmmakers reality intermingles with their subject's.

So even though it isn't "real," watch Nanook of the North because it is gorgeous.  

1 comment:

  1. When you mentioned the fact that the camera's presence may create a sort of "intermingling" between the reality of the filmmaker and the subject, I remembered this psychological phenomenon that you might be interested in. In psychology, there is a theory called the Hawthorne Effect - basically, this theory states that human experimental subjects will change their behavior simply because they are under observation, or subjects of some kind of study. You can read about it here:

    The implications are pretty interesting - because even in the case of your friend, who makes "pure" documentaries, if human subjects are involved, there will be a skewed reality. Often interview subjects will alter their behaviors in an attempt to please the interviewer/filmmaker. Interesting stuff!


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