The essay critically discusses two documentary films – Searching for Sugar Man and Nanook of the North. The visual narratives of the films are analyzed in the essay from a critical distance. The movies are analyzed based on the site of image, site of production, and site of reception. The questions that are answered in the essay about the two movies are –
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- if the narrative scheme seamlessly merges with the image that we see in the film,
- the role the writer, producer, or director played in making the film,
- if the film was successfully accepted among viewers.
In the following paragraphs, I will discuss the two movies from a critical distance.
Sugar Man is a documentary about the search for a lost artist. The inconspicuous American folk-rock artist from the seventies, Sixto Rodriguez, was believed to have committed suicide during one of his concerts. The documentary opens with the story of unsuccessful career of Rodriguez in the US and his immense success in South Africa. The documentary was filmed from the point of view of two ardent followers of Rodriguez and musicologists from South Africa who took up the initiative to search for him.
The narrative of the documentary is slow, and presents clues as is seen in case of detective novels or films. The documentary builds up suspense around the death of Rodriguez and the money that he might have earned as royalty from the record sales in South Africa. The documentary climaxes when the reporters find out that Rodriguez was actually alive and living in Debonair, Michigan, they fail to believe that the had come across the man they all believed to be dead (Norris 16).
The documentary presents the search of two South Africans, Stephen Segerman and Craig Bartholomew-Strydom, since the 1970s for the obscure Detroit-based singer Sixto Rodriguez (Palmer 33). The only clues they had were the two records that Rodriguez had recorded in the 70s, Cold Fact and Coming from Reality. These two albums were little known in the US however, had made an immense market in South Africa.
The appeal of the songs lay in their revolutionary appeal against suppression, injustice, and prejudice that made lasting impact on the young liberal South Africans. Rodriguez became more famous than Elvis and Rolling Stones in South Africa and his record sales were higher than the latter mentioned legends. However, Segerman and Bartholomew could find nothing about the singer and his life except for what was printed on his records. Rodriguez was rumored to be dead, possibly by committing suicide, mid-performance. The documentary narrates the search of Segerman and Bartholomew-Strydom for the roots of the legendary singer Rodriguez and their final revelation, that the singer was not dead.
The documentary by Bendjelloul is shot in a clean, non-haphazard manner, narrating the stories of Bartholomew-Strydom and Segerman and the search for their rock icon. This obsessive pursuit by the pair provides a unique insight into the history and evolution of popular music. The documentary initially interviews the pair who has been searching for Rodriguez since the 70s and moves on to interview the people, the makers of the records, the producers, and the record company owner who had actually worked with Rodriguez. The documentary teases the viewers with the hunt for the mythical rock artist who is believed to have killed himself.
The movie has some clever animation scenes to suggest the life of the lost legend and his shadowy existence. The documentary climaxes when one of the daughters of Rodriguez reveals to the South African pair that he was actually alive and lived in Dearborn. The revelation of the star is set in an oxymoronic shot of a recluse who lives in a run down house in a working class neighborhood, reluctantly revealing himself in the window, that he had inhabited for four decades.
The documentary then records his side of the story and how he had spent his life in obscurity, poverty, and desire for political and social justice. When Rodriguez is told of his apparent success in South America, he is pleasantly surprised. The story ends with the concert that Rodriguez performed in South Africa amongst twenty thousand audiences. It almost accounts the birth of a dead artist, a man who was dead returned from the ashes.
The movie ahs received many critical acknowledgements and have been awarded best documentary in prestigious award shows like the Academy and Bafta. However, some believe that the movie has overtly concentrated on Rodriguez’s success in South Africa and omitted the popularity of the singer in Australia and New Zealand. This, though may be true, does not diminish the credit of the documentary by Bendjelloul. Bendjelloul traced the journey of two men, Bartholomew-Strydom and Segerman, and their search for their idol and successfully demonstrated why Rodriguez was an immense impact on the South African youth in the seventies and how his music had influenced many Africana musicians of the time. The film documents the life of an artist who rises from obscurity to immortal fame.
The second documentary review is a classic flick of the 1920s of an exploratory in the frozen arctic tracing the social life of the Inuit near Hudson Bay. The documentary presents the life of the indigenous Inuit people living in the Quebec region of northern Canada. The production of the film has certain fictional elements, however, the film clearly depicts the social life of the people and how they cope with the harsh life in the frozen lands of Canada. Nanook is Flaherty’s ethnographic documentary narrates the story of a year in the life of an Inuit inhabitant in the frozen northern Canada. The documentary is staged in many parts; however, the characters play their life and demonstrate to the world how harsh their surroundings can be (Flaherty, How I Filmed Nanook of the North 633). The movie documents the primal struggle of the life of the Inuit in the extremities of the Arctic.
Nanook of the North opens with the poetic description of the frozen districts of the Arctic: “The mysterious barren Lands – desolate, boulder-strewn, wind-swept – illimitable spaces which top the world –.” (Nanook of the North) These words are followed by shot of the melancholy arctic landscape that remains the enduring charm of the film, testifying the assertions made by Flaherty in his narrations, of the wind-swept land. The movie then moves on to show that the human inhabitants of this mysterious land are as real and fantastic as the mythical land.
The life of the inhabitants in this harsh land is depicted in the documentary. They are flesh eating, part-savage, part-fearless heroes who demonstrate their survival skills. Nanook initially makes clear that the picture “concerns the life of one Nanook (The Bear)” (Nanook of the North). However, the documentary not only presents Nanook and his family in the title of the documentary but also poses them as characters around which the story revolves (Rothman 2).
Many believe that Flaherty had distorted the story of the life of the life of Nanook that opposed the true essence of a documentary. However, it must be noted that Flaherty’s attempted distortion aimed at telling a particular story and that of the life of Nanook in the harsh environments of the north and how he struggled to keep his family alive. Flaherty claims that the protagonist is a real person and not a fictional character that revolutionizes documentary filmmaking. Flaherty’s title presents Nanook as a mythical fantastic character created simply for the film. The two main characters Nanook and Nyla are presented as fearless heroes who endure unimaginable rigors.
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The production of the film is based on Flaherty’s expeditions in the land of the Eskimos since 1910. In his third expedition, he took his camera along, to document his findings. It was then that he decided that he wanted to document the hardships in the life of the Inuit. He filmed the movie in 1914 and 1915 and started test screening in 1916. However, Flaherty believed that his initial attempt was more of a travelogue than a documentary. In 1920-21, he decided to film the life of the Eskimos and it was then that the shooting for the film was completed.
Flaherty’s work has often been criticized as being staged as later works revealed that the Nyla was not actually wife of Nanook. Further, Nanook hunted with gun, though Flaherty depicted him hunting in the traditional way of the Eskimos. However, Nanook was considered as a groundbreaking film when it was initially released. Its aim to capture culture little known to modern man completely enthralled its audiences.
Flaherty, Robert J. “How I Filmed Nanook of the North.” World’s Work 1922: 632-640. Print.
Nanook of the North. Dir. Robert J. Flaherty. Pathé Exchange USA.1922. DVD.
Norris, Chris. “Almost Famous – The Curious Comeback of Sixto Rodriguez.” In Focus 2012: 16. Print.
Palmer, Bryan D. “The Artist Formerly, and Again, Known as Rodriguez; A Life Beyond Imagination.” Against the Current 2013: 31-44. Print.
Rothman, William. Documentary Film Classics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Print.
Searching for Sugar Man. Dir. Malik Bendjelloul. Studio Canal UK. 2012. DVD.