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Robert J. Flaherty

Robert J. Flaherty (1884-1951) was a filmmaker who directed and produced the first feature length documentary (Nanook of the North) in 1922.

Flaherty began his career as a prospector in the Hudson Bay region of Canada, working for a railroad company. In 1913, on his third expedition to the area, his boss, Sir William Mackenzie, suggested that he take a motion picture camera along so that he could record the unfamilar wildlife and people he encountered. He was particularly intrigued by the life of the local Inuit people, and spent so much time filming them that he had begun to neglect his real work. On the other hand, he received an avid response from anyone who saw the footage he shot.

To make the film, Flaherty lived with Nanook and his family for some time before beginning filming; the film was destroyed in a fire started from his cigarette and so Flaherty returned and reshot the film. He later claimed that this was to his advantage, since he was unhappy with the original footage. According to him, it was too much like a travelogue and lacked a cohesive plot. For the new film, Flaherty staged almost everything, including the ending, where Nanook and his family are supposedly at risk of dying if they could not find or build shelter quickly enough (the igloo had been built beforehand, with a side cut away for light so that Flaherty's camera would have a picture). Flaherty also insisted that the Eskimos not use rifles to hunt, though they had become common, and pretended at one point that he could not hear the hunters' pleas for help, instead continuing filming their struggle and putting them in greater danger.

Nanook of the North was a successful film, and Flaherty was in demand afterwards. On a contract with Paramount to produce another film on the order of Nanook, Flaherty went to Samoa to film Moana; the studio heads repeatedly asked for daily rushes but Flaherty had nothing to show because he had not filmed anything yet -- his method was to live with his subjects as a participant-observer, becoming familiar with their way of life before building a story around it to film. Flaherty was also concerned that there was no inherent conflict in the peoples' way of life, providing further incentive not to shoot anything. Eventually he decided to build the film around the ritual of a boy's entry to manhood. The film, on its release, was not as successful as Nanook of the North.

Lousiana Story was another heavily fictionalized "documentary"; this one was about the installation of an oil rig in the Louisiana swamp. The film stresses the oil rig's peaceful and unproblematic coexistence with the surrounding environment, and was in fact funded by an oil company.