Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
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.