Over the years I’ve watched and enjoyed many great films and documentaries. The one I recently got to watch is Robert Flaherty’s 1934 documentary “Man of Aran,”is so fresh event after 80 years of its making. Flaherty, a mellow wanderer with a camera, has made a memorable film out of the tragic and beautiful fundamentals of human behavior.
The vehemence of a poet and the skill of a magnificent cameraman he once more examines the theme which lies close to his heart, the grim and ceaseless struggles of primitive beings to preserve their lives against the crushing assaults of their environment. As in his “Nanook of the North,” he strips his new work of dramatic artifice and plunges it to the heart of earthy and basic experience. It is bare, cruel and authentically real; it is ardent with life, and it represents the pure cinema at its best. Expelling everything which is artistically alien to the camera, Mr. Flaherty employs only one ally, and that is music.
Documentary at its inception was thus revealed to be a series of dialectical ideas: educational value, poetry, information, cinema, life or an art. Flaherty, is known as the “father of documentary,” was also the first guy to figure out how to make a living with stories based in reality and stage them as it is. I have a great appreciation for his genre of filmmaking. As a result of this, documentary film has so much of inspiring observations about the subject with such an enduring detail and depictions as true as it fulfill all but the last of these when it comes to documentary filmmaking.
In 1931, documentary filmmaker Flaherty set out to make a film about the Dirrane family and their life on the Aran Islands, off the western coast of Ireland. He would spend the next three years filming their daily routines such as fishing off the high cliffs, farming potatoes and hunting sharks for liver oil. The beautifully shot documentary with poetic overtones film showed how fascinated he was by man’s struggle with the environment. We see stark and rugged landscapes, and a family living a primitive existence. They carry seaweed in baskets on their backs up steep cliffs to compost for soil to plant their potatoes; they patch their canvas-hulled currachs with rags and tar; they spear sharks for meat and oil. It’s a hard life and every day they battle against the elements with Flaherty there to capture it all.
It’s a splendid theme for a man of Mr. Flaherty’s imagination and he utilizes it to make a motion picture of flawless beauty. The raging seas for a symphonic adjunct. Flaherty’s cast of actors are rugged, honest faces, divorced from all the fruits of living but those of family, friendship and the sense of meager conquest that they get as they come to grips with life. There are some excellent scenes of the men in a tiny curragh harpooning a whale to obtain oil for the lamps in their thatched cottages. On their journey back from one of these trips they are caught in a wild Atlantic storm. From the cliffs the Man’s wife and child watch the small boat and pray for its safety. Miraculously the battered curragh makes the shore and the men crawl up on the rocky ledge, leaving the boat to be broken to bits by the waves.
Does this get in the way of enjoying Man Of Aran? Not necessarily. The cinematography and editing is superb. The low-angle shots of the boy and his mother walking along the cliffs with the sky soaring above them are breathtaking, as are the ocean shots. There’s so much attention to detail despite the film being riddled with inaccuracies and misrepresentations. Though Flaherty only incorporates a musical score ever so sparsely, the music comes only at pivotal points in the film to accompany these remarkable moments.
As a work of art, it’s truly stunning- That is the entire story Mr. Flaherty has to tell. Yet he gives it a remarkable vigor and impact by his constant use of contrast. First the plodding, bowed and pathetic humans, snatching their pittance from the rocks and the water; then their magnificent opponent, the sea smashing eternally against the rocks in a resistless and cruel barrage of sound and fury.
With the time as well be a thousand in popular-culture time and so much in the history of mankind, despite being well known for his epic film Nanook of the North (1922), which looked at the harsh lifestyle of Eskimos, Flaherty struggled to gain funding for his study of the Aran Islanders. Finally, Michael Balcon at Gainsborough agreed to provide a small budget. This lack of funds meant the film was shot as a silent and the sound track was laid on afterwards. This led to the film being criticized further as the experimental nature of the recording detracted even more from the film’s realism.
There always remains something disconcerting about Flaherty’s showmanship. I always found exhilarating sweet spot between fiction and reality, a filmmaker must tread wisely. Every documentary image is a comment on itself. Poetry is still possible and we can continue to explore and push boundaries if we truly understand the complex dualities in documentary’s hybrid past. Whatever the past, this film is a catalyst for many documentary film makers and of course a slice of film making all said here…….
Flaherty’s legacy is subject of the 2010 British Universities Film & Video Council award-winning and FOCAL International award-nominated documentary
- Written & Directed by Robert J. Flaherty
- Produced by Michael Balcon
- Starring: Colman ‘Tiger’ King; Maggie Dirrane and Michael Dillane
- Music by John D. H. Greenwood
- Cinematography by Robert J. Flaherty
- Editing by John Goldman
- Studio: Gainsborough Pictures
- Distributed by Gaumont British Distributors
- Release dates: 18 October 1934
- Running time of 76 minutes
- Country : United Kingdom
- Language: English & Irish