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Robert Flaherty: Celluloid Blooper

As an explorer for Sir William Mackenzie's Canadian railroad, [legendary documentary filmmaker] Robert Flaherty spent many months making arduous journeys in the far north searching for iron ore and cod and mapping areas around Hudson's Bay. Though he failed to find his fortune, in the course of his travels he did shoot some 70,000 feet of film. To salvage something from his expeditions, Mackenzie encouraged him to edit the film and make a documentary. Flaherty agreed and set to work.

After toiling for weeks in a tiny garret, he finally completed the editing of what he felt was a fine motion picture. Then, he lit a celebratory cigarette -- and dropped the match on the floor. In an instant the room was an inferno. Every inch of the highly flammable celluloid was destroyed and a badly burned Flaherty narrowly escaped death by jumping through a window onto the fire escape.

[Flaherty redoubled his determination to produce a film about Eskimo life "that people will never forget." With a sponsor (the French fur company Revillon Freres) and $50,000, he embarked upon a 16-month expedition halfway to the North Pole. The result was the critically acclaimed documentary Nanook of the North (1922).]

["A film," Flaherty once remarked, "is the longest distance between two points." After traveling the world making documentaries, Flaherty posted a Celtic motto above the fireplace in his Vermont home (Black Mountain Farm). Its meaning? "Wander No More."]

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