Robert J. Flaherty (1884 - 1951)

One of the first documentary filmmakers, and the first filmmaker to whose work the word "documentary" was applied. His most famous films were Nanook of the North and Moana.

As a teenager, Flaherty started going on prospecting expeditions to northern Canada with his father, exploring and mapping the uncharted wilderness, and it was then that he started his lifelong fascination with exploring and native cultures. He said, "I was an explorer first and a filmmaker a long way after." As he was about to leave for an expedition to the North in 1913,

Sir William said to me casually, "Why don't you get one of these new-fangled things called a motion picture camera?" So I bought one but with no other thought really than of taking notes on our exploration. We were going into interesting country, we'd see interesting people. I had no thought of making a film for the theatres. I knew nothing whatsoever about films.

Though that first film was lost crossing an icy river, a filmmaker was born, and Flaherty went on to a long and successful career making documentaries about all kinds of people and places.

His filmmaking tended to be more dramatic than historic, however, and he was not above asking eskimos to hunt stuffed walruses or south sea natives to dress up in something a little more showy. "Sometimes you have to lie," he said. "One often has to distort a thing to catch its true spirit."

His films:

  1. Nanook of the North (1922)
  2. The Pottery Maker (1925)
  3. Moana (1926)
  4. Twenty-Four Dollar Island (1927)
  5. Industrial Britain (193l)
  6. Man of Aran (1934)
  7. Elephant Boy (1937)
  8. The Land (1939)
  9. Louisiana Story (1945)
  10. Guernica (1949) (Unfinished)


Rotha, Paul. Robert J. Flaherty: A Biography University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia 1983

Schwartz, Hillel. The Culture of the Copy Zone Books: New York 1996