The Sticking Place

Robert Flaherty
by Amos Vogel

Is the documentary really more “factual” than fiction film? In their important new work, How the Myth Was Made, George Stoney and James Brown rekindle this basic controversy (until now fought verbally) on film, thus at a qualitatively new plane. In interviews with surviving cast members and co-workers, they dissect the making of Robert Flaherty’s classic, Man of Aran.

Flaherty, “father of documentary” (Nanook of the North, Moana, The Land, Louisiana Story) was – with John Grierson – its towering figure; a man for whom filmmaking was first and foremost a moral mission. In all his films – designed to portray as well as uplift – the goal was to question notions of progress based on industrialization by recording the virtues of more primitive life-styles. Explorer by profession, Flaherty used primitive locales as ideological staging grounds for narratives through whose contemplation we might regain our humanity.

None of his films involved him in as much controversy as Man of Aran (1934), set on a bleak island off Ireland. Using inhabitants and actual locales, Flaherty develops the story line during the shooting, so that, à la Dziga Vertov, the plot is “detected in reality” rather than superimposed upon it.

On a jagged piece of land only eight by two miles in size, a man, a woman, and their son wrest a meager living from sea and land, always threatened by the ferocious ocean and a soil so poor that the mother must haul seaweed up the high cliff for fertilizer, while sharks are hunted amidst great danger by the men. Poverty and tenacity; nature’s indifference and man’s endless struggle against it; these are themes that transform simple story into myth and render it universal. No one who has seen this magnificently photographed film will forget the small figures stubbornly clinging to life against vast expanses of horizon and wild ocean, struggling desperately against the unpredictable elements.

What a shock, then, to discover, from Stoney-Brown’s film (and from memoirs of co-workers) that shark hunting had been gone for fifty years when Flaherty arrived; that the harpoon wounding the shark actually hit some peat placed there for shooting; that the documentary “family” consisted of three entirely unrelated people; that telephoto lenses, sharply narrowing distance between fore- and background, made huge waves tower directly over fishing boats; that such boats not only were no longer in use, but had in fact been much larger in the past; and that a famous pan shot, used by Flaherty to reveal the primitive terrain, stopped just before the camera would have shown (as it does in Stoney’s reproduction and completion of the shot), the fields of a rich landowner – a man (and class) not even hinted at by Flaherty, a type of farming and terrain absent from his film. This incomplete pan recalls Nicholas Ray’s statement (echoed by Jean-Luc Godard and Bernardo Bertolucci) that camera movements are “moral” decisions.

Whether seaweed was hauled up from the shore remains a subject of debate among present-day Islanders. Apart from what Flaherty added that was not on the island, there is also much absent that was. Instead of a handful fighting the elements, there were almost a thousand inhabitants. Besides the jagged rock, the island also had fields, a forest, and three rich landowners lording it over the ninety-nine percent who were poor.

Equally revealing is the absence of a yearly event of much visual drama that did exist in 1934: the cattle round-up for market (shown by Stoney). Chained animals are forcibly pulled into the water, hoisted struggling onto the steamer; but this cruel, necessary aspect of the struggle for survival was omitted by Flaherty.

Here we are at the heart of the controversy. It was omitted, because it would have revealed the existence of a steamer connecting island with civilization; it would not have contributed to Flaherty’s romantic vision. Cow dung is less lyrical than seaweed. The “physicality” of cattle struggling, fettered, in water, is by definition anti-romantic.

In short: Flaherty, ideologue of the good life as he saw it, came to the island and found what he was looking for. Man’s enemy was Nature, not other men (say, absentee landowners). He did not show that only the poor owned the poor land and that good land existed but was owned by the rich. For him, even the struggle against nature had to occur in consonance with it; hence his distaste of technology. The resulting “harmony” in Flaherty’s work was created from the fusion of a romantic and a social ideal. At the center was the cohesive, heroic nuclear family; he “found” it for all his films. As in Vertov, the story presumably “detected” in reality actually came from its creator’s subconscious, in Flaherty’s case fed by a rugged, self-reliant childhood. The young protagonist – so often Flaherty’s primary figure – is Flaherty himself; more precisely. Flaherty’s vision of himself.

These facts do not denigrate him, but force a redefinition of his role. No longer the father of documentary, he must be recognized as one of cinema’s great poets.

Had he not used the word “Aran” in the title or written those massive, present-tense, “factual” inter-titles about the island, he would have avoided the attacks and been praised for what he was: a humanist storyteller in the romantic tradition, a spinner of epic tales, a fashioner of myths.

For this is what Man of Aran is: a poem based on a vision. Had it been a more factual, political film assessing actual conditions and class relations on the island, its initial impact may have been stronger; in the long run, however, this poetic prototype of a myth is more lasting, though perhaps less liberating. Myths have a way of sanctifying a status quo as if it were eternal, maintaining a continuity in human affairs that may no longer be viable. In our century, the cult of the folk may have conservative implications; Mussolini did award a prize to this film.

The ultimate irony is that Flaherty, championing the primitive, speeded commercialization. The international fame of the film, the romantic exoticism of Aran, Flaherty’s and his “stars’” promotional tour to the USA and Continent, brought tourists, shops, inns. Thirty-five years later, says Stoney (and shows it), we can see “the consequence of life being turned into myth.” Flaherty’s maid used her salary to buy the house Flaherty lived in and runs it as a prosperous tourist inn. Flaherty’s re-introduction of shark hunting did not “take,” but the tourist trade did; and the “natives” have largely been turned into “quaint” local types, while the rich are in danger of buying out the island for vacation homes.

Film Comment, March/April 1979