Sep 17, 2013

Nanook of the South: screening notes on rare archival films, descendants and step-sisters of Flaherty's Nanook.

Below are screening notes written for the 57th Robert Flaherty Film Seminar in 2011, a week of programming entitled Sonic Truth.  

Kivalina (photo in Earl Rossman' book
Black Sunlight: A Log of the Arctic
Oxford University Press, 1926  

SESSION 11:   Nanook of the South

            Too often Flaherty’s landmark Nanook of the North has been discussed in isolation, as the “first” documentary, a masterpiece, or singular achievement. In this session -- a completist’s archival look at the Flaherty legacy -- we see other silent-era films derived from Nanook. These have only recently been rediscovered by archivists -- in Argentina, Austria, and the U.S. Their first-time appearances at the Flaherty Seminar are intended to refocus the discussion on Nanook’s international influence rather than Flaherty’s “genius.”
            Intertwined with this is the remarkable work of rediscovery and access being achieved by the Museo del Cine, a film archive and museum governed by the city of Buenos Aires. As its director Paul Félix-Didier said in the wake of publicity surrounding her rediscovery of the director’s cut of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), that well-known movie might be one of the less interesting ones in this significant archive of world cinema.

Coming Attractions: 1928-1929 trailer compilation  3.5 min., 35mm on DigiBeta
            In 2010, the Academy Film Archive preserved this rare reel of MGM trailers, which includes a preview of White Shadows in the South Seas (1928), the first film MGM released with a recorded soundtrack. Robert Flaherty shot extensive amounts of footage in Tahiti (some of which appears in the final version) before W. S. (Woody) Van Dyke replaced him as director.

Nanook of the North (Robert Flaherty, 1922) looping 8 seconds, HD
            In June 2011, the Library of Congress’s National Audiovisual Conservation Center made this test 4k scan of its 35mm nitrate print of Nanook, for possible use in an upcoming IMAX production about the Arctic. LOC sent the Seminar this high-resolution footage of Inuit children appearing in the film.

Die Entdeckung Wiens am Nordpol (The Discovery of Vienna at the North Pole)
(Peter Eng, 1923) 10’ 35mm on QuickTime
Piano accompaniment: Elaine Brennan (recorded live, 2010)
            This odd but lively topical riff on Nanook was commissioned to promote the Vienna International Trade Fair (W.I.M., in German), combining animation with live action sequences. As in Flaherty’s film, there is a joke about Eskimo children taking cod liver oil; but this North Poler encounters not a phonograph but a movie projector. While the cartoon section retains its humor (the animator’s hand comes on screen to turn on the Northern Lights), the transition to an actor playing the “Lapplander” makes the character more grotesque than comic.
            (Thanks to Nikolaus Wostry, Filmarchiv Austria, for permission to exhibit. Michael Loebenstein and Michael Cowan provided English subtitles.)

En las Orcadas del Sur (In the South Orkney Islands) (José Manuel Moneta, 1927)
ca. 15 of 60’ DVCAM of 16mm print made from 35mm original
            A meteorologist doing research in Antarctica, José Manuel Moneta wrote in his memoir, Cuatro años en las Orcadas del sur (1940), that he saw Nanook of the North in Cordoba, Argentina, then decided to make a film himself. In 1924, the prominent producer Federico Valle financed the project and trained him to shoot film during his return to island research base. Valle’s writer provided a scenario to guide the shooting -- suggesting the film center on a family of penguins[!]. Ironically, like Flaherty, Moneta saw the first version of his film destroyed in a fire. In 1927, he returned and remade it. The results include a surprising degree of cinematic play: matte shots, long dissolves, 
            Decades later, Moneta recorded himself narrating his original documentary (with music from commercial recordings added). In 2011, Paula Félix-Didier tracked down the audiotape and rediscovered a 16mm print of En las Orcadas del Sur. The ¼” magnetic tape has begun to deteriorate and requires professional preservation before it can be played and replicated.

Kivalina la esquimal [Kivalina the Eskimo] (Earl Rossman, 1925) 87’ DVD / 35mm
            Excerpt of 47 minutes, from Acts 1-2, 7-8.  Live accompaniment by Suzanne Binet-Audet (ondes Martenot) and Kareya Audet (percussion, computer, and vocals); English narration (also live) by Tan Pin Pin.
           Shot in Alaska with an Inuit cast, of the American film Kivalina of the Ice Lands survives only in this Spanish-language edition. A worn 16mm reduction negative taken from a 35mm print was found in the Museo del Cine’s Manuel Peña Rodriguez Collection (also the source of the complete Metropolis, famously rediscovered in 2008). Although the copy is apparently complete, Kivalina remains “lost” in another sense. In the voluminous writings about Nanook of the North over the past ninety years, there is barely mention of this feature-length production, which had a major distributor behind its theatrical release.
            Earl Rossman, like Flaherty, was a genuine Arctic explorer, photographer, and cinematographer. He too lost all of the footage he shot on his first expedition. Like Flaherty, Rossman cast indigenous people as themselves, directing them to recreate hunts, build igloos, and the like. Like Nanook, Kivalina received theatrical distribution from Pathé. How has this step-daughter [step-sister?]of Nanook escaped discussion until now? 
The footage of the aurora borealis that frames the story was originally in color, and Rossman claimed his was the first such recording. However, Kivalina of the Ice Lands is not a documentary but an archetypal narrative: a great hunter must overcome harsh elements to secure the pelt of a rare silver fox, which a shaman requires of him before allowing his marriage to Kivalina.

- notes and research by Dan Streible
A version of this text was published in:
57th Robert Flaherty Film Seminar: Sonic Truth (New York: International Film Seminars, 2011). 

Rossman shooting on location in southwest Alaska.
photo in Black Sunlight 

Kivalina fact sheet

Kivalina of the Ice Lands (1925) 
Director: Earl Rossman
B.C.R. Productions
Distributor: Pathé Exchange (35mm; 5,946 ft.)
Kivalina, la esquimal (16mm transferred to video at 18 fps runs ca. 87 min.)

Kivalina (The Heroine), Aguvaluk (The Hero), Nashulik (Witch doctor), Tokatoo (Kivalina’s brother), and Nuwak (The Master Hunter).

AFI Catalog, plot synopsis:
Aguvaluk, a great Eskimo hunter, plans to marry Kivalina and goes to the witch doctor for his consent. The witch doctor tells Aguvaluk that he may not marry until he has discharged all of his father's debts by bringing back the hides of 40 seals. The great hunter accomplishes this incredible feat and returns with the hides only to be told that, in order to pay off the interest on the debt, he must also bring in the hide of a silver fox. After great privation, Aguvaluk captures the fox, but before he can return to safety, he is caught in a fierce storm. He builds an ice shelter that protects him from the bitter cold and the following morning kills a small reindeer, satisfying his hunger with the meat and using the hide to make a small sled. Finally reaching home, Aguvaluk prepares to marry Kivalina, and there is a great feast.
* * * * *
Mordaunt Hall, “An Eskimo Romance,” New York Times, June 29, 1925.

            As an antidote to the sultry weather, "Kivalina of the Ice Lands," the principal attraction at the Mark Strand this week, undoubtedly served a purpose yesterday, as for more than an hour one felt all the cooler for centering one's attention upon a frozen background with scenes of the "restless Arctic Ocean, silenced by the grip of the deadly Winter." This film was produced by Earl Rossman, who has succeeded in making an informing and interesting effort. It, however, melts into mediocrity when compared with Robert J. Flaherty's masterpiece, "Nanook of the North," which was presented at the Capitol three years ago.                    
            We are informed that in producing this new Eskimo picture Mr. Rossman endured the hardships of life in the Northern regions for approximately two years. An important result of Mr. Rossman's earnest efforts are two prismatic sequences of the majestic aurora borealis, which are impressive in spite of being all too short to give one a really comprehensive pictorial conception of this stirring phenomenon. There are the shooting lights and the giant rays of gold, green and red streaking up from what appears to be the other side of the world, looking like a blurred and constantly moving rainbow of vast proportions.
            The producer claims that this is the first colored motion picture taken of the northern lights. In these stretches there is an occasional fringing which causes one to wonder whether the colors are as true as they might be.
            Mr. Rossman has endeavored to increase the interest in this Arctic film by an Eskimo romance in which the hero accepts an appalling task from the Witch Doctor, one Nashulik. Aguvaluk, this gallant lover of Kivalina, is told that he must bring the wizened old Witch Doctor forty seals so that his father's spirit will rest in peace. The courageous Aguvaluk goes forth to bring back what is needed so that he may wed Kivalina, and through his adventures one has an insight into the colorless existence of the Eskimos. They are seen protecting themselves from a wicked wind by building a wall of great slabs of ice. The thousands of reindeer are driven into this Arctic camp and the unperturbed denizens of the North proceed to construct the comfortless igloos of blocks of snow and ice. The dogs are seen blinking as they squat, obviously eager for protection against the blizzard. Never have they known the comfort of a hearthrug before an open fire!
            One has a glimpse in another stretch of a so-called village "sprawled on the edge of a frozen ocean." Yet these stories of the North make the most of their lives, for Mr. Rossman shows what one might allude to as their Derby. Here one sees them in groups watching the reindeer, attached to sleds, racing.
            There are hard, glum Eskimo countenances, others that now and again light up with a flicker of a smile, and still others that appear quite contented. The grimness of the life stirs one, as for months these folks have no color on which to gaze. There are only the bleak, boundless wilds of snow and ice.
            Aguvaluk is seen busy spearing a seal. Actually there is not much of this business, as no sooner has Mr. Rossman depicted the hero killing one of these animals than follows a scene in which he has the quota of forty. He hastens back to the old parchment-faced Witch Doctor, who strikes one as an old villain. Aguvaluk is told that it is all very well to bring the forty seals, but how about the interest? His father's spirit cannot rest until that is paid. What is the interest? It is that Aguvaluk at the most difficult season of the year must bring a silver fox. Thereupon ensues the hero's adventures in finding and killing the silver fox.
One of the most stirring chapters is where Aguvaluk is caught in a terrific blizzard, and to save himself he has to construct an igloo in great haste. One perceives here that by the time the camera man starts to turn his crank Aguvaluk has already prepared several blocks of snow and that his cutting them out with a small knife is but a perfunctory action. Mr. Rossman later shows Aguvaluk crawling out of the top of his igloo, which is completely covered by the deep snow.
            It strikes one that even a sticky day in New York is better than camping on the edge of a frozen ocean. There is a deal to be learned from this picture, and much credit is due Mr. Rossman for his courage and energy in putting forth such a production. That he had to follow a veritable masterpiece on the same subject does not diminish the sterling worth of parts of this effort. •