Robert J. Flaherty

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Robert Joseph Flaherty, F.R.G.S. (February 16, 1884; Iron Mountain, Michigan – July 23, 1951; Dummerston, Vermont) was an American filmmaker who directed and produced the first commercially successful feature length documentary film, Nanook of the North (1922). The film made his reputation and nothing in his later life equaled its success, although he continued the development of this new genre of docufiction, e.g. with Moana (1926), set in the South Seas.

He is a progenitor of ethnographic film. Jean Rouch and John Collier Jr. would practice and theorise the genre as visual anthropology, a subfield of anthropology, in the 1960s.[1]

Flaherty was married to writer Frances H. Flaherty from 1914 until his death in 1951. Frances worked on several of her husband's films, and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Story for Louisiana Story (1948).

Contents

Early life

Flaherty was one of seven children born to prospector Robert Henry Flaherty (an Irish Protestant) and Susan Klockner (a German Roman Catholic); he was sent to Upper Canada College in Toronto for his education. Flaherty began his career as a prospector in the Hudson Bay region of Canada, working for a railroad company.

Nanook of the North

In 1913, on his expedition to prospect the Belcher Islands, his boss, Sir William Mackenzie, suggested that he take a motion picture camera along. Flaherty brought with him a Bell and Howell hand cranked motion picture camera. He was particularly intrigued by the life of the Inuit people, and spent so much time filming them that he had begun to neglect his real work. When Flaherty returned to Toronto with 70,000 feet of film, the nitrate film stock was ignited in a fire started from his cigarette, in his editing room. His film was destroyed and he received burns on his hands. Although his editing print was saved and shown several times, Flaherty wasn't satisfied with the results. "It was utterly inept, simply a scene of this or that, no relation, no thread of story or continuity whatever, and it must have bored the audience to distraction. Certainly it bored me."[2]

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