Documentary filmmaking got its start in 1922 when Robert Flaherty (1884-1951) successfully produced Nanook of the North, the first feature-length documentary film. It put him on the road to fame and established his reputation as a filmmaker. He became known as Robert Flaherty, a man with a camera.
Flaherty's father was an Irish prospector, and his mother was German. Robert studied at the Upper Canada College in Toronto and at the Michigan College of Mines. Following in his father's footsteps, he worked as a prospector in the Hudson Bay area of Canada. He spent most of his time working for the local railroad company.
First filmmaking attempt
Flaherty made a prospecting trip to the Belcher Islands with his boss in 1913 and took along a motion picture camera. He became so intrigued with the Inuit people that he spent most of his time filming them. He filmed more than 70,000 feet of film during the trip, only to see it catch on fire in his editing room once he returned to Toronto. The editing print was saved, but Flaherty was never satisfied with it. He deemed it boring and was certain that the viewers would, too.
In 1914, Flaherty married Frances Hubbard, a writer. She wrote the scripts for several of his films, and in 1948, she received an Academy Award for Best Original Story for the film Louisiana Story. They were married until Flaherty's death.
In order to make his first film, Nanook of the North, Flaherty went to Port Harrison, Quebec, where he lived in a cabin that was part of the Revillon Freres trading post. The film followed the life of a typical Inuit man and his family and was the filmmaker's most successful work.
His later years
With the success of his first film, Flaherty was in great demand as a filmmaker. He completed two short films, but the rest of his movies were documentaries. By the end of his life, he had a reputation as one of the most important pioneers of documentary filming. His greatest contribution to the industry was combining a documentary subject with a fiction narrative.