Nanook of the 21st century

A review about the documentary film Makala (2017) by by Emmanuel Gras

A man is sitting near the huge tree that he just cut, and the leaf shadow is moving on his head as it strokes him. Such scenes are the core of the film Makala by Emmanuel Gras. It has more to show than to tell.

“Nanook of the North” was the first film about which, in 1922, the term documentary was used as a movie characteristic. Nowadays, when the film Makala is shot with a similar topic (the daily struggle of the “man of nature), there is a worldwide tendency to erase the border between fiction and documentary as it’s difficult to define. And really, if the story of Makala wouldn’t be too simple, it would be less likely to believe that that it’s a documentary. Everything that happens in the film is more than natural, more than well-prepared. The only scene when the camera gets into a documentary panic is when the heavily loaded bicycle falls down on the road and obviously, the protagonist can’t fix it alone.

It’s usual to say that films are good if they create a feeling of identification and empathy in the audience with the protagonists. That makes it easier to follow the story. The author of Makala – Emmanuel Gras, didn’t try to follow this principle: who would like to work hard to make coal and get paid for it almost nothing, as the protagonist does? On the other hand, there are not many obvious conflict situations. So why it’s still interesting to follow the flow of time showing nothing special? The secret is the HOW. First, it’s joyful to follow how the camera plays with objects, lights and shadows. For example, the bike is overloaded with an impressive big-size shipment. It’s riding on a sand road. Its shadow is sliding on the ground and the wheel shadow close-up can make the spectator emotionally experience the suffering of the bicycle. There are also hidden conflicts throughout all the film – a conflict between man and the rules of the world where he loses and which is metaphorically shown in the road scene when the protagonist is lost in the dust made by cars driving nearby.

Though the peaks of the storyline are on-the-road scenes, but the key point is in the end, which makes the film complete, reasonable and independent from being called a remake of Robert Flaherty’s “Nanook”. It’s about the Christian church gathering scene, especially the sentence with the following message – if you are an honest man, then the torture of daily life will not affect you, if you are not honest, then it will.

So the film is about honesty – the protagonist is no t stealing to build his dream house, not taking taxes from other workers like he is being stopped on the road. The director created so an honest character that even the tree he cuts is “stroking” his head.

The work with people shot in the film is another subject worthy of paying attention to. There are 3 main ways to make people not be constrained by the presence of the camera:

  1. hidden camera;
  2. task giving (like actors);
  3. long-lasting shootings.

The director didn’t leave signs in the film to understand which one he used. For example, in the scene where another man (antagonist) asks the protagonist to pay a tax and the camera is shooting from a distance a doubt can appear – does the tax collector knows about the camera? If yes – is he acting, or why did he let them shoot? Usually, people don’t welcome the idea of being filmed while doing illegal actions. If he doesn’t know, then how the flip-on microphone and the camera (probably with a tripod or steady-cam) were not noticed by the people around. But such kind of doubts during the film don’t harm the documentary value of Makala (the word means coal in Swahili) as love and an honest look of the author are present in the movie, and they are dominant compared to the hardly noticeable issues.

At the end of all, Makala is here to prove once again that the documentary cinema didn’t change its nature within 1 century – as worse it is for protagonists in real life as better for the documentary film. It’s crucial to accept but in the 1920s, Flaherty didn’t help his protagonists anyhow to survive the heavy living conditions but only captured it. 2 years later, after the premiere of the film about himself – Nanook died because of hunger. A century later, Emmanuel Gras still captures heavy living conditions and it’s so beautiful on the screen, so poetic.

Seg Kirakossian

The review is written in frames of the film critics’ workshop by Olivier Pélisson during the Golden Apricot international film festival 2019