Every week or so, filmmaker and writer Robert Greene will attempt to push for a new canon of cinematic nonfiction.
When pioneering nonfiction filmmaker/thinker John Grierson reviewed his friend Robert Flaherty’s Moana in 1926, he not only coined the term “documentary” but he also defined succinctly the fundamental nature of the new medium. After praising the film for educating its viewers with “a visual account of events in the daily life of a Polynesian youth and his family,” he went on to declare, “But that, I believe, is secondary to its value as a soft breath from a sunlit island washed by a marvelous sea as warm as the balmy air … therefore, I think Moana achieves greatness primarily through its poetic feeling.”
Documentary at its inception was thus revealed to be a series of dialectical ideas: educational value/poetry, information/cinema, life/art.
Meanwhile Flaherty, the “father of documentary,” was also the first guy to figure out how to make a living with stories based in reality: stage them. The lessons he learned from the infamous success of Nanook of the North carried through to the end of his career. By the time he made Man of Aran in 1934, Flaherty was the first docbuster auteur, churning out commercially successful actualities for the masses. At its root, Flaherty’s cinema was about exploiting the intrinsic qualities Grierson saw in the nascent form through a singular flair for the spectacle, creating “ethnofictions” that gleefully destroyed boundaries between fiction and nonfiction. Today, of course, we have more and more filmmakers claiming the hybrid mode as their own. It is important, then, to understand Flaherty. So I nominate his indispensable Man of Aran into our new canon of cinematic nonfiction.
Man of Aran is action ethnography, where “wild Irishmen” from the rocky island of Aran were cast by Flaherty for the cinematic qualities of their faces and asked to perform primitive techniques of fishing and farming that their kind had, in fact, given up many years prior. It is an epic piece of fabricated actuality, with the real stars (the raging sea and the infinite sky) often dwarfing the locals/subjects/actors in the frame. The stark, breathtaking images bring to life a series of man versus nature narrative hooks: boy escapes shark, family farms with seaweed, boatmen kill shark, men survive the murderous sea to return to woman and child, all based on reality but totally staged. Flaherty here is inventing what would come to be called “ecstatic truth” by Werner Herzog: the elemental supersedes the factual, cinema has its own poetic logic.
Almost 80 years later, one can find endless inspiration in the grand transformation of reality to fiction that was Flaherty’s program. The man wanted to make great movies, and his mode of basing his mythologies in real places with staggeringly beautiful images and astute (though manipulated) observations of reality make him the patron saint of every new era of rule-breaking nonfiction. And look, the guy packed theaters and made lots of money with documentaries, becoming a household name in the process. How inspiring is that?
But there remains something disconcerting about Flaherty’s showman-revealing-the-essential-man shtick. He was a great artist that sometimes created troubling images to make audience-baiting spectacles. Our job now is to watch his films again and learn that, when trying to find that 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.
(Special thanks to filmmaker Amanda Rose Wilder for contributing ideas to this article.)
Past Nominees For the New Canon of Nonfiction Cinema: