The debate has always been whether or not Robert J. Flaherty’s far-flung films are fiction: In his 1926 Samoan island-life epic Moana, just as in Nanook of the North, Flaherty pressed the native peoples he purported to document into archaic dress and practices, as fishing some long-gone way, the men flitting in and out of sun-blessed waters, is far more fascinating than the reality.
So Moana, a film of incomparable calm and beauty, is not a documentary in the strict sense, but it remains a document of great historical truth: Here is how Flaherty and the Western world preferred to imagine that tribal cultures lived, out of time and childlike, finding joy and meaning in toil and ceremony, gathering clams bare-breasted or shinnying up the great curved trunk of a palm tree so tall that Flaherty’s camera can’t capture it all in one shot.
How much is an accurate depiction of these lives? How much is profitable leering and infantilizing? As the waves crash, and the men trap tortoise and boar, and the women grind sandalwood seeds into dye for dressmaking, and we witness the stick-rubbing method of fire-making, and we marvel at the number of uses these people have devised for the placemat-wide leaves that teem everywhere in what seems to be boundless jungle, such distinctions might diminish in importance: Flaherty’s company are performing their lives and their ancestors’ lives and Flaherty’s idea of both, for him, for his camera, for the world of ’26, for us today, for all time.
The digital restoration steadies a once-wild film, and on the lush and lively soundtrack — recorded in Samoa by Flaherty’s daughter Monica in the 1970s — we hear the descendants of those performers performing their idea of what their predecessors sounded like. Your kids, though, are doomed forever to mix this up with next year’s Disney-princess adventure of the same title.
Directed by Robert J. Flaherty
Opens November 13, Film Forum