Robert J Flaherty b Iron Mountain Michigan February d July

Make Your Movie Now

Filmmaking Stuff - How To Make, Market and Sell Your Movie

Get Instant Access

The only documentary filmmaker to be included in Andrew Sarris's notorious auteurist "pantheon," Robert Flaherty brought to the documentary form his personal vision of humankind's ceaseless struggle against nature, finding this theme in a variety of cultures. A mineralogist and explorer by profession, with only rudimentary training in filmmaking, Flaherty was interested in using film as a means to capture the passing existence of traditional societies, which he saw as both noble and untainted by modern values.

Flaherty's first film, the landmark Nanook of the North (1922), for which he obtained funding from Revillon Freres fur company, was a travelogue about Inuit life in the Canadian Arctic that made use of cinematic techniques until then associated more with fiction films than documentary. By frequently weaving together close-ups of Nanook and his family with artfully composed long shots of them in the vast frozen landscape, Flaherty encourages the viewer both to identify with the hunter and his family and to understand the awesome natural power of their environment. In the brutal snowstorm that constitutes Nanook's dramatic climax, Flaherty used crosscutting between the Inuit family huddling inside their igloo and their dogs outside in the fierce wind to suggest the difference between humans and other animals and to emphasize his theme of romantic survival against the crucible of nature.

Moving beyond the picturesque detachment of the conventional travelogue, Nanook was a surprising commercial hit. Flaherty went on to make Moana (1926) in the South Pacific, where he also worked uncredited on fiction films with W. S. Van Dyke and with F. W. Murnau. In 1931 Flaherty moved to England, where he influenced the British documentary school led by John Grierson. Man of Aran (1934), set on the rugged island off the western coast of Ireland, contains thrilling scenes of the islanders hunting basking sharks—a skill that had been largely forgotten and had to be retaught to the islanders so that the sequences could be filmed. His final film, Louisiana Story (1948), photographed by Richard Leacock, shows almost no sign of modern technology except for a glimpse of a derrick belonging to Standard Oil (the company that sponsored the film) in the background, apparently functioning in harmony with the environment.

At one time Flaherty's films received much critical praise, although anthropologists complained that they were inaccurate because of the director's manipulation of his subjects. Where once Flaherty was celebrated for his sensuous imagery and compelling footage, today his documentaries are more often considered a prime example of the exoticized, colonial gaze.


Nanook of the North (1922), Moana (1926), Tabu (1931), Man of Aran (1934), The Land (1942), Louisiana Story (1948)


Barsam, Richard. The Vision of Robert Flaherty: The Artist as Myth and Filmmaker. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1988. Calder-Marshall, Arthur. The Innocent Eye: The Life of Robert

J. Flaherty. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1966. Danzker, Jo-Anne Birnie, ed. Robert Flaherty: Photographer/ Filmmaker, the Inuit, 1910—1922. Vancouver, BC: Vancouver Art Gallery, 1980. Rotha, Paul. Robert J. Flaherty: A Biography, edited by Jay Ruby. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.

Rothman, William. ''The Filmmaker as Hunter: Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North." In Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video, edited by Barry Keith Grant and Jeannette Sloniowski, 23-39. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1998.

Barry Keith Grant of social propaganda, in the sense of the medium's potential to reach and educate the masses. Thus he attacked Flaherty's lyricism and preference for documenting isolated, pre-industrial cultures rather than to grapple with specific and immediate social issues of modern industrial society—in other words, the problems and issues facing audiences who would be seeing the films. Grierson emphasized the social utility of documentary, proclaiming the desire ''to make drama from the ordinary'' in films that emphasized social rather than

Robert Flaherty at the time of Louisiana Story (1948).

everett collection. reproduced by permission.

Robert Flaherty at the time of Louisiana Story (1948).

everett collection. reproduced by permission.

aesthetic issues. Influenced by the ideas of his contemporary, the social philosopher Walter Lippmann (18891974), Grierson felt that the individual citizen was becoming less informed and consequently less able to participate responsibly in the democratic process; the cinema, however, had the potential to solve the problem through mass education.

Grierson's only film as director, Drifters (1929), about the British herring fishing industry, reveals the influence of the Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, not only in its editing but also in its comprehensive coverage of its subject, from the stalwart fishermen who bring the fish to port to the packaged goods ready for distribution across the nation. Although Grierson is credited with directing only this one film, more important was his contribution as producer and advocate for state-sponsored documentary. He became the shaping influence of the British documentary movement in the late 1920s through the 1930s, building a film unit under the aegis of the government's Empire Marketing Board, with its mandate of marketing the British Empire, from 1928 to 1933; he brought together such talented filmmakers as Basil Wright (1907-1987), Arthur Elton (1906-1973),

Harry Watt (1906-1987), Paul Rotha (1907-1984), and Edgar Anstey (1907-1987). The EMB Film Unit produced almost one hundred films in the five years of its existence, including Drifters and Flaherty's Industrial Britain (1932). When the EMB was shut down in 1933, its public relations chief, Sir Stephen Tallents, moved to the General Post Office, taking with him the Board's film unit. Among the most well known of the documentaries to come out of Grierson's unit were Night Mail (Harry Wright and Basil Wright, 1934), Song ofCeylon (Wright, 1934), and Coal Face (Alberto Cavalcanti, 1935), about coal mining in northern England.

Despite Grierson's insistence on the social utility of documentary, the documentary films made under his leadership, both in Great Britain and later in Canada, display a considerable degree of formal experimentation. Leading figures in the arts such as the composer Benjamin Britten and the poet W. H. Auden contributed to EMB documentaries. By the early 1930s the approach to montage included not just images but also sound, especially after Brazilian Alberto Cavalcanti joined the Unit in 1934, as evidenced in his film Coal Face. Night Mail attempts to synchronize the poetic rhythms of Auden's voice-over verse with the film's pace of the editing to suggest the rhythm of the mail train that climbs steadily upward from London to Scotland. Despite such formal adventurousness, however, the Griersonian style was typically exhortatory, often including an omniscient patriarchal narrator and sharing implicit ideological assumptions about the benefits of capitalism, industrial progress, and colonial paternalism.

Was this article helpful?

0 0
Film Making

Film Making

If you have ever wanted the secrets to making your own film, here it is: Indy Film Insider Tips And Basics To Film Making. Have you ever wanted to make your own film? Is there a story you want to tell? You might even think that this is impossible. Studios make films, not the little guy. This is probably what you tell yourself. Do you watch films with more than a casual eye? You probably want to know how they were able to get perfect lighting in your favorite scene, or how to write a professional screenplay.

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment