Do you feel that snow softly falling on your face? That cool breeze ruffling your hair? That warm cocoa against your lips? That hellspawn Mariah Carey song playing everywhere you go? That can only mean one thing — December has rolled around, and with it comes Christmas cheer.
Each family has their own traditions. Some have a special Christmas Eve dinner, some set up lights together and some make snowmen every Saturday until Dec. 25. But my favorite tradition has got to be those damn Advent calendars. Each day kids wake up in their jammies pumped up to check for the new treat of the day. What a wonderful way to build hype for the holidays — or at least that’s what it seemed like back then. Every company that makes these calendars does them differently. Hershey makes them with chocolate. Lego fills theirs with a menagerie of minifigures and pieces. I distinctly remember an amazing Hot Wheels calendar with a whole new car every single day of December, which I desperately asked for, up until my mom reminded me that we did not actually celebrate Christmas, forcing me to live my Advent calendar dreams vicariously through my friends and movies, just as I (sadly) had been up to that point.
So, this December, I thought it apt to make my own mini-Advent calendar for every movie-lover out there, this time built around something that I love: the documentary. Documentaries are an oft-neglected genre of film, left to the wayside in favor of … literally any other genre. I get it. You think documentaries are boring, old-fashioned and lame, that you’d never want to spend an evening watching one. To that I say, yeah, well, you know, that’s just like, uh, your opinion, man. And it’s not just any opinion, but a bad one. So at least let me try to change your mind here. And I get that you think these are boring, so, to make it interesting, I’ll set this filmographic calendar to a tune — and not just any tune, but perhaps the most famous holiday melody of them all. I have prepared twelve documentaries, all of which are worthwhile viewing. Starting today, a new part of this set will be released every other day, culminating with the final part on Christmas Eve. So get your hot cocoa in order, and without further ado:
On the first day of Docu-cember, my true love gave to me…
A genre new for me.
Day One: A Genre New for Me
Let’s start at the beginning of the documentary genre itself. Now, there are a lot of “films” that could technically hold this title, emphasis on the quotes around “film.” There are the Lumière Brothers’ first-ever films, shot with the cinematograph in the late 1890s, capturing simple train arrivals, town squares or even a really adorable 1890s snowball fight (check the guy on the bike getting decked). While impressive for their day, how can mere recordings of worldly scenes with no context constitute a documentary? (We’ll find out two weeks from now, later in this series.) There are recordings of boxing matches from 1897. Again, cool, but I wouldn’t call the Super Bowl a sports documentary. Doctors like Eugène-Louis Doyen filmed neurosurgery tutorials as early as 1900. But I don’t consider my strikingly similar 8:00 a.m. lecture recordings to be documentary films. While these are all technically documentaries, none of them are films in the sense that we would consider them today. It wasn’t until 1922 that the viewing public was treated to the first ever documentary: Robert J. Flaherty’s groundbreaking “Nanook of the North.”
Following the life of an Inuit family and its titular patriarch, “Nanook of the North” pioneered narration, documentation and “life as it is” cinema. The life of Nanook ensnared the viewing public, making it one of the most successful films of 1922. Flaherty used intertitles to narrate a number of the film’s most shocking scenes, like Nanook hunting a walrus with a spear and using a sledding-based transportation system. But by far the film’s wildest segment is the building of an igloo. Flaherty commissioned his subjects to build a complete igloo right in front of him for the purpose of the documentary, all without using complex tools or saws, just rudimentary technology. It’s incredible to watch someone build such a daunting structure in 1922, all without using any modern tech.
Wait, what? They did all that? Why? That seems like too much work to do for some guy with a camera. Well, the truth is they did use saws, hammers and modern technology. They simply faked using traditional tools when on camera. But that’s not the only thing Flaherty lied about. First of all, the man’s name wasn’t Nanook. His wife wasn’t really his wife, and he used a gun (not a spear) to hunt. The film includes scenes of Inuit people acting shocked at the sight of phonograph and records, all of which Flaherty set up to make them seem more otherworldly. Truth be told, most of his camera crew were Inuit, and the majority knew their way around his camera better than he did. According to some, Flaherty reworked the facts of the film to preserve the knowledge of the Inuit for future generations. According to others, he did it for purely “artistic” reasons. And according to Inuits who worked on the set with Flaherty, he did display some genuine care for Inuit culture. This does not change the fact that he dumbed down and stereotyped an entire group of people for white, Western audiences. In doing so, he blazed a trail that would be traversed by future generations of documentarians: Film the real, and make it fake.
Nonetheless, this is one of, if not the most important documentary ever made. Flaherty’s framing of Nanook as not just the subject of a documentary, but as a triumphant hero, pushing his way through the dangers of the frozen North, was a wholly novel idea, especially given the fact that Nanook, unlike nearly all Western film protagonists at the time, was nonwhite. This film was the first of its kind to find financial success, proving the power of the genre. But most experimental of all, the pure idea of a film primarily centered on examining the true nature of real human beings through narrative was one completely new to the world at the time. For everything this movie did for the genre, and filmmaking as a whole, it easily earns its spot as the first film of Docu-cember.
Daily Arts Writer Rami Mahdi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.