Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Monday, March 3, 2014
Written by Patricia R. Zimmermann, Professor of Screen Studies and AFS Film Envoy
Three continents—North America, Europe, Africa—three flights, and three days of travel.
Africa—well, more exactly, Guinea—is harder to get to than Beijing.
My vaccination card secured by a rubber band in my passport verifies I have a yellow fever vaccination. Guinea requires this documentation for entry into the country.
The nurse practitioner at the Cornell University travel office insisted I take two cards. She has heard of immigration officers in Nepal , Benin, and Guinea Bisseau apprehending the vaccination forms and then selling them on the black market.
I politely share there are several countries called Guinea: Guinea, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Papua New Guinea. She knows: pointing to the Center for Disease Control site for travel to Guinea shining on her Dell computer, she cautions me about malaria, yellow fever, tetanus, diarrhea, dengue fever.
I’m in Charles DeGaulle Airport in Paris for a second day. It’s 8 a.m. Ensconced with travel carts, backpacks, carry ons and earbuds dangling, everyone in this lounge stretchesout. Shoes off, hats shrouding their eyes, they sprawl across the taupe couches. Comment t’allez-vous,? I ask a two year boy staring at my Kindle.
I’m thinking: An airport that actually understands the deepest desires of travelers to stretch out and sleep. But I am nervous. Will I ever make it to Guinea?
In his Emerging Africa: How 17 Countries Are Leading the Way (Brookings Institution Press, 2010), Stephen Radelet points out the staggering size of Africa, the world’s second largest continent. The continental United States fits snugly into West Africa. Most West African countries have been postcolonial for 50 years.
Africa is a complex place. It is also a place completely overdetermined and smothered by Western literary, cinematic, and missionary fantasies. Think Joseph Conrad , Heart of Darkness. Think Out of Africa. Think King Solomon’s Mines. As a corrective, think Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (Nigeria); Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah (Nigeria); Tierno Monenembo ,The King of Kahel (Guinea).
It is maybe the only place in the world reduced and vacuum pressed to the generalizing, essentializing, unifying, problematic of one word: Africa, a shorthand, covering term for a western, racialized white imaginary of the vast, the unknowable, the chaotic, the undecipherable. In The Economist magazine’s view, Africa looms as the last frontier, a place rich in untapped resources to be extracted to meet the ravenous demands of globalization and rapid development.
West African countries differ significantly in terms of culture, language, economic growth, the rise of democratic and accountable institutions, environmental conditions, agriculture.stability, civil society, anti-corruption, and health. HIV/AIDs continues in epidemic proportions compared to the rest of the world.
Radelet identifies emerging and threshold countries that have featured annual income growth and declines in the percentage of citizens living in poverty. Nigeria has oil. Ghana has cocoa. Over the last 15 years, both have posted economic growth. Guinea is not on these lists.
Ibuprofen, immodium, albutorol inhalers, malarone, ambient, zyrtec, DEET, giner chews, and five small bottles of anti-bacterial cleaners bulge in Ziploc bags in my suitcase. According to our contacts at the Embassy post in Conakry, the meds are not to be trusted in Guinea due to procurement issues.
Stewart, my partner, teaches international public health. As a result of his background and my asthma, I’m always on high alert about health issues in countries where I travel, researching conditions and problems.
According to the World Health Organization, the life expectancy in Guinea, a country of 11 million, is 54. The leading causes of death in children under 5 are malaria, pneumonia, and diarrhea. Access to maternal health care is limited.
The Guinea Development Foundation, a health nongovernmental organization, claims that health conditionsin Guinea are among the poorest in the world. Potable water is inaccessible. 73% of the population live in areas inaccessible to health care.
According to the BBC News country site, Guinea’s vast mineral wealth in bauxite (a key component of aluminum), iron, and diamonds, ranks it as one of the most resource rich countries in Africa. Yet its people are among the poorest, in the lowest 25% of the least developed countries. Some contend Guinea is actually one of the three poorest countries in the world. Most people live on $1 a day.
Delayed by over two hours, my Air France flight from Kennedy Airport in New York City landed in Paris Sunday afternoon. I missed the flight to Conarky by 90 minutes. Kate Amend did not even get on the flight. Her flight from Los Angeles was on time but circled Kennedy for nearly 40 minutes. Then, she discovered the flight to Paris was booked. She spend the night in New York, booked the next day.
The Air France customer service desk booked me on the next and only flight to Guinea—on Monday morning. Kate texted. Rewarding herself with a glass of wine, she wanted to confirm we were booked on the same flight to Conarky. The original plan entailed traveling together from New York City, a plan we both looked forward to so we could chat about and plan our presentations on documentary in Guinea. At least the last leg of our journey would be together. Our plane will stop first in Mauritania, then onward to Conarky. 8 hours of travel south from Paris.
The efficient and smiling Air France representative handed me vouchers for a night at the Ibis Style Hotel, with dinner and breakfast. The quest to sleep in a bed after 25 hours of airports and airplanes got me through the disorienting maze of DeGaulle to find Niveau Cinq , where the complimentary hotel buses would pick us up. I make a note in my iPhone to remember to take my Malarone, the expensive anti-malarial drug, after I eat dinner. My two and a half week prescription cost $110.
The free airport WiFi refused to load. I worried that our contacts at the US Embassy in Guinea—Emily and Kimberly—would not get news of our delay. I figured they were probably accustomed to flight delays into Conakry. I texted Kate. I asked if she might let them know our new flight plans. Jet lag and fatigue amplified my worry we would end up in the airport in Conarky with no one to expedite us through customs. We were told to not go through alone.
Kate got through to post. They would pick us up at the Conarky Airport at 6.
Now it’s time to walk to gate M46. I’ll take a shot of Kate and I, united at last. And then I ’ll board the plane to Conarky with hand sanitizers, backpack, and Kindle loaded with books on West Africa and Guinea. 8 more hours.
Saturday, February 15, 2014
Post written by Patricia R. Zimmermann, professor of screen studies and codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
Since the first film made in 1966, Guinea has produced 14 films.
To put this astonishing number in context, that’s the same number of films fourth year undergraduates produced in the advanced Cinema Workshop at Ithaca College last Spring.
These comparisons between heavily resourced and technologically rich film schools of the Global North and under-resourced media movements of the global south crack open a divide worth considering more deeply.
The staggering but often unconscious privilege of American film schools contrasts with the enormous capacity building and infrastructure challenges for Guinean independent media. In Guinea, media makers operate in one of the poorest countries of the world, where electrical outages ignite demonstrations and where five-star international hotels advertize their generators.
I write this sitting in Kennedy airport in the food court by Wok and Roll, gray skies creeping over the skylights in Terminal I. I have an 11 hour wait for my flight to Paris and then to Conakry, the capital of Guinea, a port on the Atlantic coast.
Due to my worries about upstate New York weather, I flew down to JFK yesterday from Syracuse. I spent the night watching the Olympics, with men’s figure skating and giant slalom.
I thought, no Africans skate those rinks or slalom those slopes. But I also spent the night reading about the history of Guinea, a country rich in bauxite, iron ore, and diamonds but with few roads to aid in export. The significance of mining--or extractive industries, as historians and the World Bank call them-- is suggested by the organization of some of the Guinean news websites: along with politics, culture, economics, opinion, many sites feature a separate category called mining. Companies from Isreal, China, and Brazil converge in Guinea in five star hotels, complaining about the maid service on Yelp sties while they spend months dealing with mineral mining.
I am traveling to Guinea as a film envoy for the US State Department’s American Film Showcase. My iPhone weather app says its 90 degrees in Conakry.
As the flight boards show delays, my anxiety about connecting to Air France to Guinea in Paris with only a 60 minute turnaround lessen a bit knowing I will be traveling with Kate Amend. Kate is the well-known , award-winning documentary film editor of the compelling and moving First Position, which chronicles young, focused ballet dancers competing for spots with the world’s top ballet companies.
The documentary will be screened in Guinea to various arts and media groups. Kate will explain how she conceives and organizes the editing process of these complex, beautiful works.I have been asked to do some presentations on the ways in which new media has moved documentary into more participatory, accessible terrains.
Kate and I represent some contrasts as well. She works as a highly respected, legendary editor of feature length documentaries. My experience is less glamorous: I am a screen studies historian and theorist who researches the intersections between new technologies, participatory practices, and documentary. Together, perhaps we show the wide ecology of documentary practices in the United States ranging from features to more modest new media projects.
The differences between gray and sun, between New York City and Conakry, between English and French (Guinea is a francophone country) do not seem as extreme as these differences in capacity, access, infrastructure, voices.
As scholar Roy Armes points out in African Filmmaking: North and South of the Sahara (Indiana, 2006), of these 14 films produced, 7 were first films. Dansogho Mohamed Camara and Cheik Doukoure (who lived in France for most of his life) are two key names in Guinean film history.
In comparison, Senegal, to the North, whose filmmakers often receive French government funding, has produced 47 films since 1964. Since 1971, Burkina Faso, the country that hosts the famous Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO), has produced 40 films since 1971.
In a chart itemizing film production in the Maghreb and Subsaharan Africa since independence, Armes reveals a staggering fact: only 588 films have been produced across almost five decades.
One of the first countries in West Africa to assert its independence from France, in 1958, Guinea, a largely Muslim country also known as Guinea Conakry, was ruled by Sekou Toure, a nationalist, dictator, and a Marxist, until 1984. As film scholar Manthia Diawara, a Guinean of Malian descent, contends in his compelling critical memoir In Search of Africa, Sekou Toure brought change to Guinea, one of the poorest in the world. He prioritized education. He nationalized the arts, forming the famous Les Ballets Africains. He also incarcerated and tortured opponents in the notorious Camp Boiro in Conakry.
Toure also instituted iconoclasm, an assault against traditional icons. In Unmasking the State: Making Guinea Modern (Chicago, 2013), anthropologist Mike McGovern details the impact of the banning and burning of masks and dances on life in the forestierre region of southeastern Guinea. He points out that while Toure destroyed masks , banned dances, and prevented rite of passage rituals, his minions saved outstanding masks for display in the national museum.
The vast, almost incomprehensible differences between access to financing, production, distribution, and exhibition across the globe--whether comparing Ithaca College to Guinea, or France to Guinea, or mega-million transnational special effects Hollywood to Guinea--remind me of the absolutely urgent necessity of thinking seriously and in concrete ways about capacity building, infrastructure, exhibition, and the role of media in community. These differences also remind me to never think of where I am as the center of the world, but to think of where I work as a place connected to other places across the globe.
These sobering differences also push me to think beyond the resource-rich privileges of my own position as screen studies professor, where we faculty often complain that we do not have the latest Blu Ray,high end head sets for lectures, or best digital cameras.
About ten summers ago, a visiting delegation of Cameroonian filmmakers and journalists toured the Park School. I bumped into them picking up my mail.
I asked one of them how they were finding their trip to Ithaca. One filmmaker shared that he was completely stunned. The Park School, he claimed, had more cameras and studios and facilities than all of francophone Africa combined.
Friday, March 1, 2013
48 hours to go until our FLEFF Kick Off event, Upstate Filmmakers Showcase, on Sunday, March 3 at 4 pm..
Why do we need to sell out this screening?
Digital conversion is the biggest challenge facing the film industry since the coming of sound in 1927.
The digital conversion offers pristine images and perfect sound. Scratches, sound compression, ripped films, and torn sprocket holes disappear, spectres of legacy analog forms.
No more yelling “focus” from your seat. It will be perfect: a blissed out nirvana of image, sound, popcorn.
But behind all perfection lurks a nasty political economy that constitutes a David and Goliath story pitting the large and monied against the small and underresourced.
The large transnational media corporations and their ancillary boutique distributors have successfully pushed for DCP, the new format. The cost savings for distributors is enormous: a 35mm print of a feature can cost anywhere between $2,000-5,000 for one print, while a DCP-basically a movie on a hard drive the size of an evening bag- of the same film costs as little as $500.
The transnational media corporations stand to save over $1 billion a year through the conversion. And yes, that was NOT a typo. 1 billion a year.
But what represents an enormous, greedy cost savings for distributors--most of whom are corporations larger than most nation states-- translates into a huge expenditure for exhibitors, especially for smaller art cinemas without corporate backing.
80% of all theaters in the United States have converted to digital projection. Almost all of them are large chains like Cinemark and Regal, monsters in the entertainment industry food chains.
The remaining 20% are small art cinemas, local cinemas, museums, repertory venues, and specialty houses. They are community-based, often either locally owned, coops, or non-profit. They show films no transnational multiplex would touch, such as almost any film with subtitles from a country other than the US.
According to entertainment industry trade press sources, somewhere between 1,000 to 2,000 cinemas will go dark by the end of this year. They will go out of business, leaving a larger chunk of the viewing landscape to large corporate multiplexes.
According to Scott Bliss, executive director of Cinemapolis, 35mm prints will be extinct as a first run exhibition medium by July 2013.
A digital projector costs between $65,000 to $80,000. Cinemapolis has five screens--in fact, it is one of the only multiplexes for art cinema in the United States. Two cinemas have at this writing been converted to digital. The theater needs to raise $350,000 for the conversion. They are about 2/3 of the way there,thanks to the generosity of contributions from the Ithaca community and its loyal movie-goers.
The Upstate Filmmakers Showcase will be held in Cinema 5, which has 185 seats. If we sell out, the digital conversion campaign receives in influx of $1,500--a significant contribution towards their goal.
All of the filmmakers, the curator, and the moderator are donating their time and films on Sunday to help the theater in this effort.
What can you do?
Spread the word to all of your friends, explain to them how serious and pressing this current situation is. Forward the link to this blog. Let them know their $8 is the best 8 bucks they ever spent. It's the cost of two lattes.
And this 8 bucks--less than a a month's subscription to Netflix-- makes a strong stand for cinema beyond action films, superstars, spectacles, CGI, special effects.
8 bucks says NO to going dark.
It's a stand for cinema across borders.
It’s a stand for cinema with subtitles, bringing us into other worlds.
It’s a stand for cinema with other people gathered together in a public place.
It’s a stand for cinema for the rest of us ,with the rest of us.
Will we see you on Sunday, March 3, at Cinemapolis, at 4? I hope so.
Sunday, February 3, 2013
By Patricia R. Zimmermann, professor of screen studies and codirector, Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival, at Ithaca College
Monday afternoon in megacity Guangzhou, China, in Guangdong Province in south China, for the American Film Showcase.
I’m popping Zyrtec and inhaling Albutorol daily to prevent gagging from pollution so thick my face and hands feel grimy all the time. My lungs feel like I smoked a pack of unfiltered Camel cigarettes.
Famous in China for its cuisine rich in vegetables and complex spicing, Guangdong has become known as a bit of a hotbed for its active and courageous civil society in labor, women’s, LGBT, and environmental issues and its bold investigative journalism that rejects party control and censorship. Guangzhou journalists are renowned, for example, for their fearlessness in breaking the story of SARS-- initially denied by the Chinese government-- ten years ago. Guangzhou was ground zero for this transnational pandemic.
Another long van ride through stalled traffic, grey particle-infused skies, and endless new highrises jutting out in every direction took me to Sun Yat Sen University, one of the top universities in Guandong Province. Professors and students road bikes around campus, an image summoning up older images of China before Deng Xiaopeng's Opening and Reform policies instituted after Mao's death in the late 1970s got translated into “everyone needs to own a car.”
My presentation was entitled “Open Space Documentary: Participatory Media in Action,” a look at new ways of considering documentary as it migrates to online and interface forms.
My argument is simple.
Documentary is undergoing a radical, tectonic change in form and format as significant--if not more so-- as the coming of sound. Transmedia forms migrate across interfaces in digital, analog and embodied domains, recalibrating documentary practice and theories in the process.
At the opening of my lecture, I drew a large triangle on the board and then an arrow to an equally large circle.
The documentary triangle of director, subject, audience has recalibrated into the documentary circle, where designers, participants, audience and form feed into and change each other.
The Chinese Department Building was comprised of 7 floors. My lecture was in Room 207. Two architectural details confronted me immediately.
First, in contrast to the five star Garden Hotel with its Western-style toilets and marble, the Chinese Department Building bathrooms featured squat toilets. Second, every single classroom featured fixed lecture hall seating with about twenty rows on an raked incline, each with a long table for note taking.
At Ithaca College, where I teach, it’s hard to book one of the very few large lecture halls on our campus. The emphasis in American higher education, at least at private (read expensive and “student-centered”) four year colleges, drills down into small classes in the round privileging discussion and student engagement. At Sun Yat Sen, I saw only lecture halls.
But even that cursory observation as we looked for the lecture hall ended up being more culturally complicated than I anticipated. I also encountered much better and more seamless smart classroom lecture podiums and projection than I have at Ithaca College.
I was slated to give a lecture on open space transmedia documentaries to undergraduates and graduate students studying theory in the Chinese department. I was not sure what “theory” meant in a Chinese university context. Was it Continental theory? Postcolonial theory? Cosmopolitanism? Or work in Freud, Marx and the poststructuralists? I was intimidated and a bit insecure, not sure what to expect.
I had a bit of anxiety about whether the concepts of participatory new media I was exploring would connect with students of literary theory. I also had some anxiety about talking about new media projects in a country where Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google are blocked.Both anxieties ended up being ungrounded in unexpected ways.
Coached by the ever-generous and astute Janice Engelhart from the U.S Consulate in Guangzhou, my powerpoint was composed of two elements: images and then short headlines of the theoretical concepts of open space. It featured screen grabs of the American open space transmedia projects like Lunch Love Community, Cotton Road, Preemptive Media Collective, Sourcemap, Triangle Fire Open Archive, Precious Places, The Counter Kitchen. Janice and her excellent editing skills helped me to craft a punchy title for my talk.
Uncertain whether the content would be blocked on Chinese servers, and uncertain as to whether the venues where I was speaking would have a live internet connection, I made my PPT (as it was referred to by my Chinese contacts) with screen grabs from these web-based projects.
I worried that these exciting, user-generated projects would lose their vitality and “liveness” as they became immobilized in a still image.
But I was wrong.
Instead, showing static shots of these various projects and headline concepts spurred the audiences to want to see more on their own. It also gave me space to show many more projects and examples.
Dr. Wang Dun, associate professor of Chinese, warmly greeted me and my fabulous and patient English to Chinese translator, Jean. I could not read the computer as all the symbols were in Chinese characters, so Dr. Wang set up my PPT. When I asked whether there was an internet connection, he apologized and said no. He then offered the more positive spin that students would not be surfing or doing social media networking during my talk.
But most importantly, Dr. Wang wanted me to provide him with two ideas: first, my bio (which I had printed out just in case), and second, a short précis of my theoretical model so he could position my talk for these advanced students.
I explained my model combined documentary theory, new media theory, and postcolonial historiography, particularly ideas from Ranajit Guha and the subaltern school. It was not based on one theory, but an intersection of ideas, like a good stir fry, I offered. He said he was very happy that my talk would have theory, since that would be more congruent with the students work.
My talk argued for a consideration of these new forms of documentary as participatory rather than as arguments from a director. Rather than taking on large events, these projects focus on microterritories like good food in Berkeley schools in Lunch Love Community by Helen de Michiel, or deconstructing the chemicals in hair products in Brooke Singer's The Counter Kitchen.
Open Space transmedia documentaries utilize combinatory, user-generated storytelling to create mosaic forms. I emphasized to the students that these projects move from pushing out an idea or an argument towards a pulling in of participants. In this way, they are constructed on ideas not of fixity but of permeability.
The audience surprised me.
First, out of over 100 students ( I multiplied the number of rows by the number of seats in each row), only six were men.
Throughout my lecture, I noticed students smiling at me warmly, nodding their heads, and taking notes with a ferocity and focus I do not see in my American classrooms. In the US, not a week goes without a student pulling down their baseball cap, stretching out,and sleeping during a lecture or even a small group discussion. Almost every week I need to ask a student to stop texting during class--and I have an strict electronic gadget policy.
At Sun Yat Sen University, not one student texted on a smartphone or surfed on a computer while I spoke. Jean asked me to say a few sentences and then wait for her to translate. This process helped me to focus on expressing myself clearly and slowly, a challenge since I tend to lecture rapidly. The students all spoke English, but the professor, Jean, and I decided that the theoretical ideas and digital works would be clearer to the students with some assist in translation into Mandarin.
At the end of my lecture, I asked if there were any questions. In higher education, the stereotype of Chinese undergraduates never speaking, writing down every word, and obediently memorizing constitutes a powerful meme in the so-called "west." However, when deconstructed for its colonizing phantasmatic, it only serves to reinforce an somewhat unexamined ideology of United States academic superiority founded on individuality, feeling, consumerism, and opinions.
I actually found myself charmed by the respectful lecture hall environment at Sun Yat Sen Univesrity, where the students seemed more interested in how these works provoked "civil society" and "participation" than in dismissing anything not related to internships or careers as inconsequential because it was not instrumental. It was exhiliarating to be with students interested in big philosophical questions--and ones that China as a rapidly developing world economy is grappling with, such as the tensions between state control, the global market, human rights, and emergent civil society.
These students complicated the Chinese stereotype advanced in places like The New York Times and The Economist. Many hands popped up with questions.
How did these projects get people to participate? Did the designers ever fear going to jail? Why did they combine analog and digital? How did they use social media? Why did they reject documentary as a form a propaganda to tell people what to think? Were there projects like this in China? How did the designers and communities use social media networks to get their projects out? What if too many people wanted to participate? How did the designers figure out how to embody a polyphonic historiography? Did the government pay for these projects or did the designers? How does one think through and structure many ideas and arguments instead of one idea from a central source?
At the end, Professor Wang thanked me for my presentation . He then lauded the students for their active participation in the discussion. Three young women dressed in black came down and asked to photograph me with their friends. They snapped photos of me with their smartphones. I noticed one smartphone case was decorated with glittering orange and purple sequins. The orange sequins were a Chinese character.
These young women thanked me for sharing ways to design encounters for participation and told me that social media networks in China crackled with “issues that were the same but looked different.”
These women students shared in private that they could find any of these projects or even shorts on YouTube with their “secret” networks, which I assumed were VPN (virtual private networks with servers outside China).
Then one asked me something that I do not think I have ever encountered in an American college classroom.
“Professor Zimmermann, “ she inquired “would you mind if we copied your PPT to this flash drive before you leave? We want to study the examples and the theories and see if there is a match in China. We want to discuss more.”
I said, of course, ideas are to be shared and circulated.
They quickly inserted a purple flash drive into the university PC, downloaded my slides, and then slipped out of the room while I spoke with Dr. Wang about the challenges of teaching theory.
Wednesday, January 16, 2013
By Patricia R. Zimmermann, professor of screen studies at Ithaca College and codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
This essay, together with an essay by Sami van Ingen (Robert Flaherty's great grandson), is also published as the catalog essay for the 2013 Black Maria Film and Video Festival catalog.
The name Robert Flaherty conjures up a maelstrom of complex debates in documentary: representation of others, ethics, the role of the director, ideology, argument, the imperialist gaze, racialized bodies, gendered imagery, the blurring between fiction and non-fiction, manipulation of the pro-filmic world, collaboration, politics, deep immersion in the field, ethnography, amateurism, non-preconception, realistic or idealized cinematography, modes, community, voice, authenticity, filmmaker/subject relations, fantasy.
Flaherty directed and worked on only ten documentary and docufiction films in his lifetime. The most recognized and analyzed are Nanook of the North (1922), Man of Aran (1934) and Louisiana Story (1948), in part because those constitute the works his widow and collaborator, Frances Flaherty, screened and dissected in the late 1950s at the Robert Flaherty Film Seminars, a gathering she founded after his death to advance his ideas of artisanal filmmaking as a form of exploration.
Rarely screened due to theatrical copyright legalities with Paramount, Moana (1926), a production financed by the Hollywood studio of Famous Players Lasky (which later morphed into Paramount Studios) and shot in Samoa, occupies a somewhat awkward, obscured position in the Flaherty legacy. It is neither a documentary exemplar nor a well-wrought silent film narrative. Documentary scholars consider it among the first docufictions.
The less-than-enthusiastic Famous Players Lasky response to Moana propelled Robert and Frances Flaherty towards their anti-Hollywood views, especially after the studio held back on the marketing and exhibition of the film after its New York City debut. Later, after he left the MGM production of White Shadows of the South Seas, Flaherty exhorted that working for Hollywood was akin to “sailing over a sewer in a glass-bottomed boat.”
In the mid-1920s, Famous Players Lasky viewed overseas markets as lucrative. Producer Walter Wanger imported realist filmmaking into the studio, connecting the profit motive with generating greater world knowledge by shooting films in foreign locales. He advocated for what he called “natural drama,” a film that constructs a story by focusing on a family, native actors, and animals in natural settings.
Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoesdack (directors of Grass, 1924) were brought under the wing of the studio and sent to Thailand, where they produced Chang (1926). The Vanishing Redskin (1926) was about Monument Valley, Redskin (1929) about the Navajos, Stark Love (1927) about the mountain people of North Carolina. Within this larger studio and market context, Lasky approached Flaherty to produce another Nanook of the North and offered a blank check for production: “I want you to go off somewhere and make me another Nanook. Go where you will, do what you like, I’ll foot the bills. The world’s your oyster.”
The cultural fantasy and imaginary of Polynesia as an uncontaminated, pastoral paradise that countered the realities of urbanization and industrialization infused popular culture in the post-World War I period in the United States. Robert Flaherty contacted Frederick O’Brien, author of the novel White Shadows of the South Seas (1919), thinking that he should shoot in a warmer locale-- opposite from the frozen north—so that his wife, Frances, and three daughters, ages 2, 4, and 6, could accompany him. O’Brien had lived in Samoa between 1919-1920.
MGM later acquired the book and hired Flaherty, who had directed Moana, and W.S. Van Dyke, to go to Tahiti to make the film, which premiered in 1928. Flaherty quit the production, as his working method was too slow for the efficiencies of Hollywood production system.
The Flaherty family left for the village of Safune on the Samoan island of Savaii in 1923, accompanied by David Flaherty (Robert’s brother), an Irish nanny, 16 tons of filmmaking gear, generators, and projectors. They stayed for two years. He screened Nanook for the Samoans, an odd fit to show a snowy, white, barren terrain to people who lived on a tropical island. He also brought some Famous Players Lasky features to screen as examples of studio-produced narrative films. Frances Flaherty functioned as a key—and credited—collaborator on Moana. She shot thousands of photographs with her Graflex still camera that served as storyboards for the film.
However, Samoa posed a cinematic conceptual problem for the Flahertys: the easier life of the tropics did not offer up the man vs nature thematic structure of Nanook. Instead, as Richard Barsam has observed, the absence of obvious struggle among the island people and abundant natural environment presented casting and narrative problems, resulting in a somewhat disjointed, idealized, romanticized episodic structure of a romance between Moana, whose name means ocean, and Fa’angase, his young lover.
Flaherty stripped all evidence of the 20th century and the effects of Western missionaries on Samoan life from the film, requiring the cast to wear the traditional siapo outfits from the 19th century, even though many wore Western-styled clothing at the time. Replicating the collaborative production style of Nanook, Flaherty trained two Samoans to process his film. Flaherty himself became quite ill from water contaminated from photographic processing chemicals. The Samoans carried him to medical care in another village.
Working without a script and shooting with a hand-cranked camera, Flaherty shot 240,000 feet of film, one of the first uses of panchromatic stock. He elected this stock to highlight the skin tones of the Samoans and to deal with the intensities of the tropical sun. Flaherty also deployed a wider variety of lenses than in Nanook, in particular, a longer telephoto lens so he could shoot subjects from a distance. According to Monica Flaherty, Robert and Frances staged episodes that eventually became scenes in the film.
Moana employs the day-in-life episodic structure found in so many travelogues of this early, pre-sound period. The film focuses on daily rituals. Men harvest coconut, taro, leaves, banana, mulberry boughs, firewood, hunt wild pig, and fish for turtle. Women beat mulberry strips with a mallet to create fabric. They crush candlenut seeds for dye. Men ride outrigger boats looking for fish.
The apex of the film pivots on two key controversial scenes: Ta’avale and Fa’angase dance the rite of the Siva, and Ta’avale undergoes ritual tattooing. As Margaret Jolly has shown, Flaherty’s fantasies course through both scenes, erasing any ethnographic veracity. The Siva dance would have been performed between a brother and a sister, and not rendered as a heterosexual romance.
The tattoo episode, reimagined as a quest for manhood, reveals that many other adult male Samoans in the scene were not tattooed. Richard Barsam has also pointed out that not only did the Flahertys include customs that had long been abandoned in Samoa, but ignored contemporary challenges to Samoan life by neutralizing the pain of tattooing and the dangers of the ocean.
Ironically, Moana’s place in film history resides not so much its artistry but in the category of film it launched. Moana, a docu-fiction, ushered in the term “documentary.” In his 1926 New York Sun review, “Flaherty’s Poetic Moana,” John Grierson noted that “Moana, being a visual account of events in the daily life of Polynesian youth, has documentary value.” Grierson later contended he derived the term “documentary” from the French term “documentaire,” which referred to travelogues or expedition films. He claimed he employed the term “documentary” in his review as an adjective, not a noun.
For a filmmaker often hailed (by Frances Flaherty and other devotees) as one of the first independent filmmakers, Moana is a studio-financed film. For a filmmaker whose wife linked his filmmaking process with Zen concepts of non-preconception, the film creates what some critics like Brian Winston have noted is a white man’s imperialist fantasies figuring Polynesian life as an idyllic quest for food and rituals.
Nearly every scholar writing about the film underscores the deep ethical problem of Flaherty’s payment to Ta’avale, the local Samoan actor who played Moana, to endure a painful, weeks-long ritual tattooing from the waist down that was no longer practiced in Samoa.
In his memoirs, Ricky Leacock, who shot Louisiana Story, defends Moana and Flaherty against scholarly critics like Brian Winston and Margaret Mead. He argues that Flaherty rejected Hollywood-style large crews and preferred to do everything himself. He collaborated with his subjects, claims Ricky, and showed them rushes for feedback. During Flaherty’s lifetime, no alternative cinema circuit or art cinemas existed.
Even more historical and theoretical complications augment the intellectual disorders and fantasies surrounding Moana. 50 years later, in the 1970s, Flaherty’s daughter Monica and her childhood friend and direct cinema guru Richard Leacock returned to Samoa with a lightweight Nagra tape recorder to record a new soundtrack of Samoan songs, voices, poetry, and chants to replace the classical music of Felix Mendelssohn, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Pyotr Ilyich Tschaikovsky on the original studio-produced soundtrack.
Monica idealized her childhood in Samoa, remembering the power of the Samoan songs. Monica, Flaherty’s youngest daughter, had self-appointed herself the family archivist after the death of her mother Frances in 1972, keeping many Flaherty letters and films at the family farm in Vermont.
Repeating Robert Flaherty’s strategies from the early 1920s, Ricky and Monica screened Moana for the islanders, tracked down some members of the cast who were still alive, and went about gathering sound in a direct cinema style. To match the sound to the image, Monica had the original film step-printed, doubling each frame so that the new soundtrack, recorded at 24 frames per second, would match the film, previously shot at the silent film speed of 18 frames per second.
The Monica Flaherty/Richard Leacock version of Moana, with the new soundtrack, premiered at the Cinemateque Francaise in 1981. 14 years later, programmers Marlina Gonzalez-Tamrong and Bruce Jenkins programmed Moana with sound at the 1995 Robert Flaherty Film Seminar entitled “The Camera Reframed: Technology and Interpretation,” with Monica herself explaining her sound recording and mixing process. In 2012, Josetxo Cerdan, the programmer of that year’s Flaherty Seminar called “Open Wounds,” invited Flaherty’s great grandson, Finnish filmmaker and visual artist Sami van Ingen, to present the sound version of Moana. Van Ingen explained the complicated and wrought family legacy surrounding Moana, the collaborative process of sound recording and design, and the limitations on the film’s theatrical exhibition.
This reconstructed Moana soundtrack raises issues of what constitutes the “authentic” or “original” Moana. Is it the original film produced by the Hollywood studios that was marketed and read as a realist fiction? Or the reclaimed version with the new Monica/Ricky direct cinema documentary soundtrack, that rereads the film as a document, a documentary-like rendering, of Samoa in the 1920s ? Or is the Monica/Ricky soundtrack simply mapping an aural fantasy of childhood in Samoa?
What happens when a docufiction cast and shot like a narrative gets remade with a direct cinema soundtrack of Samoan music, voices, and chanting recorded half a century later? Does it become more “documentary” because the sound was gathered in an ethnographic style?
Is the collaborative soundtrack produced by the daughter with the Samoans a remedy for the white male imperialist fantasies of the filmmaker father? Is changing the soundtrack of a silent film any different from changing the live music which often accompanies screenings of silent films, a common practice in the silent era and even today at film festivals and museums? Is the new soundtrack simply a continuation of the racialized and gendered fantasies inscribed in Moana, like the tattoos on Ta’avale’s knees?
These questions drive to the center of the maelstrom that continues to swirl around Robert Flaherty, Frances Flaherty, their films, and their ideas about documentary filmmaking. Perhaps the continuing contribution to documentary of the Flahertys and Moana in all its versions resides not in any easy answers to any of these questions, but in the philosophical conundrums and geopolitical fantasies that continue to churn. The endless beating of these controversies against the beaches of documentary ethics and politics replicates, in some strange and ineffable way, the heavy waves and arching blowholes of the Pacific Ocean in Samoa.