The film was shot near Inukjuaq, in arctic Quebec, Canada. In the tradition that would emerge of salvage ethnography, Flaherty captured the struggling life of the Inuit Nanook and his family. However, often Flaherty would encourage Nanook to hunt in the method of his ancestors (without the use of a gun) in order to capture what was believed to be the way the Inuit lived before European influence. Flaherty has faced some criticism for this and other stagings present in the film; Flaherty defended himself by stating that a filmmaker often has to distort a thing to catch its true spirit. One defense that later filmmakers have made is that the only cameras available at the time were both heavy and large, not allowing the cinema verite style or mobility popularized later with smaller cameras. Nonetheless, nearly everything in the film was staged, including the ending, where Nanook and his family are supposedly in peril of dying if they can't find shelter quickly enough (they had already built a special igloo for Flaherty's camera, with one side of it cut away to allow more light in so that Flahery could pick up an image) Since Flaherty's time, both staging action and attempting to steer the action have come to be considered unethical among documentarians, as has any sort of re-enactment which is not immediately obvious as a re-enactment.
Criticism aside, Nanook of the North was ground breaking cinema. It filmed an exotic culture in a distant location, rather than creating a facsimile using actors and props on a studio set. Traditional Inuit methods of hunting, fishing, igloo building and other customs were shown with accuracy.
Nanook starved to death while on a hunting expedition, two years after the film was released.