From the archives: Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran screens in Niles (2012)

July 18, 2012

Though not well known today, Robert J. Flaherty was one of significant filmmakers of the early 20th century. Born in Michigan in 1884, he directed and produced one of the first successful feature length documentaries, Nanook of the North (1922). The film was a hit, and was praised by the likes of directors Rex Ingram and Sergei Eisenstein.

Nanook made Flaherty’s reputation, and in effect, launched a genre – the docu-drama. Ninety years later, Nanook is still screened and available on DVD.

Flaherty’s later films, each in the similar vein of narrative non-fiction, include Moana (1926) – for which the term “documentary” was coined, White Shadows in the South Seas (1928), Tabu (1931, with F. W. Murnau), The Land (1942), and Louisiana Story (1948, assisted by Richard Leacock). Each is a significant work, though none matched the commercial success of the groundbreakingNanook.

On Sunday, April 29 at 4:00 p.m., the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont will screen another of Flaherty’s later works, Man of Aran (1934, Gainsborough Pictures). This third of Flaherty’s “film of the spirit of man” was shot between 1931 and 1933 on a rocky island off Galway County, Ireland. A poetic triumph, it helped establish a romantic mystique around the island that has endured for nearly eighty years.

Robert Flaherty's Man of Aran

Robert Flaherty’s ‘Man of Aran’ (1934) screens in Niles

Man of Aran was Flaherty’s first sound feature, and like his earlier and later works, it explored the relationship of man to his environment. The 76-minute film portrays the harsh conditions and traditional lifestyle of the occupants of the isolated island. As with NanookMan of Aran showed human efforts to survive under extreme conditions: in this case, an island whose soils were so thin that the inhabitants carried seaweed up from the sea to make fields for cultivation.

In all his films, Flaherty stretched and sometimes reshaped the literal truth in order to depict a more poetic truth. In Man of Aran, the filmmaker cast photogenic locals in various fictionalized roles, and made use of dramatic recreation of situations and even anachronistic behavior. One sequence in Man of Aran shows islanders hunting sharks from small boats with harpoons, a practice no longer in use for some 50 years. Flaherty also staged the film’s climactic sequence, in which three men in a small boat strive to row back to shore through dangerous seas.

As a filmmaker, Flaherty is more interested in recording the natural and poetic beauty of a place than in presenting any formal information on the lives of its inhabitants. And for this his films were, and sometimes still are, criticized. Despite artistic shortcomings, Flaherty should be seen as an “outsider artist” who filmed humanity on the fringes of civilization. To modern eyes, his films can come off as crude, but they are also just as often powerful.

Director Rex Ingram once said this about Flaherty’s first great work. “Nanook is one of the most vital, dramatic and human films that has ever flashed across the screen. Because its drama is made tremendous by its naturalness and sincerity. Because its story is the first and most dramatic of all stories – man’s fight for his daily bread. And vitally important, its director was unhampered by studio methods, traditions and equipment.”

The same might be said for Man of Aran. It is a work of film poetry – visually stunning, strange, dramatic, and at times breathtaking. There is raw craft there. And, it is likely different from anything you will have seen or experienced.

Also set to be screened at Niles is How the Myth Was Made: A Study of Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran (1978). In this documentary, George C. Stoney returned to Aran forty years after Flaherty filmed there to examine how Man of Aran affected the island and its people.

Both films will be introduced by W. Jack Coogan, since 1972 the Director of the Robert and Frances Flaherty Study Center at the Claremont School of Theology in Claremont, California.

For more info: The Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum is located at 37417 Niles Blvd. in Fremont, California. For further information, call (510) 494-1411 or visit the Museum’s website


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: