Nanook of the Northwest
A century ago, Edward Curtis was famous for his photography of American Indians, especially tribal life in the Pacific Northwest, which documented the old ways before they vanished. In Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis (published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), biographer Timothy Egan draws attention to one of Curtis’ less heralded accomplishments: he was also a pathfinding documentary filmmaker.
Or rather, a filmmaker set upon staging something that no longer existed—a pseudo-documentary of a time gone by as he imagined it. Curtis’ 1914 film, In the Land of the Head-Hunters, was shot on location (and using real Indians) amid the Kwakiutl tribe of British Columbia. He was determined that every prop would be authentic—or at least an accurate recreation of artifacts used before the Kwakiutl traded birch bark for Western clothing and hand-carved tools for store bought. Acting as an independent producer, he pulled together investors for his ambitious project, which may have been the world’s first feature-length documentary.
Curtis’ first problem was that many native rituals and traditions had been outlawed in Canada; he risked imprisonment making his movie. But a dispute with his distributor entangled In the Land of the Head-Hunters in lawsuits; it disappeared from view but not before exerting a profound influence on Robert Flaherty, whose Eskimo docu-drama Nanook of the North is usually credited as he first film of its kind. Egan’s biography is devoted mostly to Curtis’ still photography, but uncovers a forgotten episode in early cinema.