A live soundtrack to the classic documentary Nanook of the North

One of the UK’s most innovative ensembles, melding heart-rending improvisation with gritty folk and roots music, Dead Rat Orchestra present their own live soundtrack to the classic, and possibly first ever, feature length documentary Nanook of the North. Released in 1922, R. J. Flaherty’s film portrays “love and life in the actual Arctic”, following the daily trials of Inuits on the edges of the Arctic circle.

A film not without its controversies: following the performance, Professor Marcus Banks (University of Oxford) led a discussion alongside Dr Charlotte Gleghorn (University of Edinburgh) and Dead Rat Orchestra, into the film’s complexity, examining Flaherty’s romanticised construction of a pre-industrialised Inuit family, and other ethical issues of representation and identity.

Dead Rat Orchestra’s interests now lay in shifting through the infinite stratum of the film’s interpretation. By researching the film’s biography; the controversies, praise and criticisms, they uncover new ways of reading the images. They use their soundtrack as a way to liberally, yet sensitively, explore, contrast and emphasis the viewer’s understanding of the film.

Nanook of the North (Robert Flaherty, 1922) is widely considered the first feature-length documentary film ever made. From an early stage in the history of documentary film, we can see how the purported authenticity of the genre was to a large extent invented, as the reconstruction of Inuit reality in Nanook attests. The film participates in an erasure of Inuit modernity in an effort to represent the lead character (played by Allakariallak) as a technologically primitive and naive human being. Yet the film continues to hold an ambivalent place among Indigenous communities in the Arctic region, symbolising a key reference point for their own photographic and film practice. This reinvention, and reinterpretation, of ethnographic and imperialist representational forms in contemporary Inuit artistic practice is a fascinating aspect of Nanook’s continuing circulation. Dr Charlotte Gleghorn

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