A Lost Documentary Restored

Friday, October 03, 2014
In 1922 , Robert Flaherty, considered the first documentary filmmaker, had a huge success with his first feature-length film , Nanook of the North , which followed the lives of an Inuit family on Hudson Bay at the northern reaches of Quebec. Post- Nanook , Flaherty was signed to a contract by Paramount, which was eager to see a repeat of Nanook ’s box office, and handed, essentially, a blank check.

So Flaherty set his sights on an equally isolated, far-flung location: Samoa, in the South Pacific, then a mandate of New Zealand, and part of the British Empire. He’d been influenced partially by Robert Louis Stevenson, who’d lived there in the early 1890s and wrote In the South Sea s. Then in his early 40s, Flaherty spent from 1923 to 1924 on the island of Savai’i, shooting film for what would become Moana , which translates as “the sea.” Moana is also the name of the young man who comes of age over the course of the film.

Because Moana was so unorthodox in its dreamy tone, its relative lack of plot, and frankness in both showing nudity and suggesting sexuality, however, it didn’t achieve wide circulation when it was released in 1926, and it eventually dropped from public view. Unlike Nanook and Flaherty’s later classics, Man of Aran and The Louisiana Story , which was nominated for an Oscar in 1948, Moana has been little seen.

“ God knows what Paramount expected. It was just poorly released. They tried to shift it into a love story of the South Seas, which it is, but not a conventional one,” said Bruce Posner, a film preservationist and curator who has recently overseen a digital restoration of Moana , which played this week at the New York Film Festival.

On Monday , Posner, a Cornish resident, will introduce the restored Moana at the Loew Auditorium in the Black Family Visual Arts Center at Dartmouth College as part of the Ciné Salon film series, which he programs , and which is normally held at the Howe Library. All Ciné Salon screenings are free-of-charge to the public. This screening of Moana is co-sponsored by the Howe Library and the college’s Department of Film & Media Studies.

Flaherty was part poet, part ethnographer and part cinematographic genius with an instinctive sense for what would be visually and emotionally dramatic, and which rites and customs were important to preserve on film. Even in the 1920s the cultures he documented were already seeing significant change as influences seeped in from the industrial world.

“He was studying the cultures and having

people re-enact practices that they had given up over time,” said Kent Jones, director of the New York Film Festival, in a phone interview.

Flaherty didn’t document action in the sense of picking up a camera and shooting, unmediated, whatever he saw through the lens. Rather, he chose locals whom he thought would be good on camera, and persuaded them to play scenes that he knew he wanted to get on film, such as the snaring of a wild boar, men paddling an outrigger into a rough sea, a young boy shimmying up the seemingly endless trunk of a coconut tree, scenes of courtship between Moana and his screen sweetheart or the ritualistic tattooing of Moana, marking his passage into manhood. The Flahertys thought of the subjects in their films as actors, who happened to be reenacting events and rites of significance.

Some have called what Flaherty did “docufiction,” a clumsy hybrid term that manages to elide both Flaherty’s dedication to filming remote cultures and the artistry with which he did so. Over the years, his reputation and methodology have been questioned as people debate whether he was an ethnographer who closely collaborated with the cultures he filmed, or a colonialist who was overly manipulative in directing the action. Although Posner said he understands why scholars argue these points, he’s not as interested.

What makes Moana last, he said, is that “it’s extremely engaging and moving. That’s Flaherty’s great contribution. ... To me, it’s pure cinema.”

And although Flaherty did put some of his subjects at risk in filming, he took as many risks himself, hauling extremely heavy, cumbersome cameras into hard-to-reach locations in difficult conditions. He developed his film in a cave on Savai’i, no easy task. And he poisoned himself inadvertently by drinking water from the cave that contained silver nitrate which had washed off the film stock, said Posner. The silver nitrate also caused troubling spots to form on the negative.

“Taking those cameras and all that film with you to Polynesia or the Arctic Circle, that’s a committment to the practice of art that goes beyond the industrial,” said Jones.

The story of the restoration is complicated. While on Savai’i, Flaherty had collaborated closely, as he always did, with his wife, Frances, and his brother David on the making of the film. The Flahertys had also brought along their three daughters, the youngest of whom was Monica, then 3 years old.

In the mid-1970s Monica Flaherty was then living in Dummerston, Vt., site of the Flaherty homestead. The Flahertys moved to Dummerston in the 1940s because they knew people living in town, said Posner, and Robert Flaherty died there in 1951. In the late 1970s, Monica Flaherty decided to return to Savai’i to make a soundtrack for Moana . She was accompanied by famed cinema verite filmmaker and cinematographer Ricky Leacock who recorded a soundtrack that could be matched to the waves, the wind, the songs and ambient sound seen in the original.

Monica Flaherty tracked down as many of the original subjects as she could, only three of whom were still living, said Posner. But those three happened to be the principal actors: Moana and the boy who played his younger brother Pe’a, who were still on Savai’i, and Fa’angese, who played his sweetheart, was living in Hawaii. They were, of course, much older, and their voices reflected their age. So Flaherty found younger people who could speak the Samoan language, and as they screened the original film, they were able to lip-read and reconstruct, fairly closely, the original dialogue.

“ She synched them perfectly,” Jones said. “Every time you see a leaf, every time you just pick up a random sound: it’s astonishing, and unprecedented in a way.”

But Monica Flaherty’s achievement was more than just faithfully reproducing the sounds you would have heard if you’d been in Samoa with the Flahertys in the 1920s. She was “able to make a connect with this culture that had disappeared,” Posner said. When she was finished in 1980, she re-released the film as Moana with Sound .

The trouble was that, over time, her 16 m illimeter print degraded, both visually and aurally. She’d originally worked off a 16 millimeter copy of a copy of her father’s original 35 millimeter nitrate film, which resulted in a loss of clarity. And, in turn, her print deteriorated as well.

“It was amazing aesthetically but limited technically,” said Posner, who first met Monica Flaherty in 1980.

So Posner, working with a great-grand-nephew of Flaherty’s, Finnish filmmaker Sami van Ingen, began the process of tracking down old 35 millimeter prints of Moana worldwide, which took him to the Library of Congress, the British Film Institute, the Cinématheque in Paris, and other archives in Sweden, Germany, New Zealand, Russia and Serbia.

Once the best prints were located it became a question of picking out the highest quality footage and restoring them digitally, which was done in Germany by Thomas Bakels, who has also digitally restored Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane . “(Bakels) got rid of dirt and grime and restored clarity,” Posner said.

Then Posner brought the digitally restored version to Lee Dichter in New York, renowned as one of the best sound mixers in the business, having worked with Woody Allen, Robert Altman, the Coen Brothers and Mike Nichols, to name just a few. Dichter had done the sound mix for Monica Flaherty in 1980, and he consented to do the sound on the restored version as well.

The result is a film that wears its magic lightly and easily. For 1920s American audiences the Samoan culture was geographically and culturally remote, but Moana depicted those aspects of Samoan life that spoke to a common humanity. The grandness of Flaherty’s vision is only enhanced by his daughter’s meticulous re-imagining of the island life of her childhood, which is as much a tone poem as it is a soundtrack.

“I’m still of the belief that there are artists, and then there are great artists; there is something that’s still a step above,” said Posner of Flaherty’s work. The mystery in looking at a film like Moana is deciphering “how much (of it) is him documenting the world and how much is him documenting his own mind. H is balancing act, how he pulls it off, is totally unique.”

Moana will be screened on Monday at 7 p.m. in the Loew Auditorium in the Black Family Visual Arts Center at Dartmouth College. For information call the Howe Library at 603-643-4120 or go to howelibrary.org/interior.php/pid/2/sid/1/eid/3732.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.

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