The Beautiful Lies of Robert J. Flaherty’s "Moana with Sound"

When the pioneering documentarian Robert J. Flaherty went to Polynesia to make "Moana", he found the island of Savai'i had been Westernized.
Nathanael Hood
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Robert Flaherty's Moana with Sound (1926 / 1980) is playing August 30 - September 29, 2017 on MUBI in most countries around the world.
Slowly, slowly, the tufunga taps his comb of bone needles into the young man’s lower back. His movements are practiced and precise, each tap marking the young man for the rest of his days. The young man winces in agony, sweat pouring down his face as his relatives wipe away the blood and excess ink with tapa cloth. A witch-woman stokes a fire and burns candlenut stalks to make more soot for the tufunga’s ink. The infernal tapping continues, now on his upper back, now on his flanks, now on his knees—the most painful part of the ceremony. Outside the hut, a crowd of men dance and sing. “Courage to Moana,” they cry, “Courage to Moana!” Among them are the young man’s little brother Pe’a. Days before they had played together on the coast of their island, collecting coconuts and hunting crabs. But now the older brother writhes in his parents’ arms and the younger dances and dances in his honor. For days the tapping continues, then weeks. But when the tufunga finally finishes his work, when the intricate patchwork of tattoos circle his legs, flanks, and torso, Moana will finally be a man. But for now, he collapses, exhausted, into the lap of his mother, his body heaving from the shock and torment. The father offers the tufunga—the ceremonial tattoo artist—his thanks and a cup of kava. He accepts, drinks, accepts a second cup, and pours out a draught for their gods.  
Soon there will be more singing, more dancing. But this time Moana will be among their number. He will dance in the sand by the surf with his lover Fa’angase, the two bending and swaying in a rite of betrothal. And back in the hut, little will Pe’a sleep the sleep of the young under the watchful eye of their father. And so life goes on in Savai’i, a Polynesian island untouched by civilization and the ravages of time. 
All this is, of course, a lie. 
All of it. By 1926, the people of Savai’i had been Westernized by Christian missionaries. They no longer wore the tapa cloth clothing of their ancestors; the young women didn’t walk about topless; the young men didn’t wear waist cloths. The practice of ceremonial tattooing had also died out—notice how none of the other men have the full body tattoos seemingly essential to their rite of manhood. And most shockingly, Moana’s family weren’t an actual family. Instead, they were a group of unrelated yet properly photogenic locals assembled by pioneering director and proto-documentarian Robert J. Flaherty for his film Moana. Attempting to follow up the massive success of his first film, the similarly fictionalized quasi-documentary about the Inuit entitled Nanook of the North (1922), Flaherty arrived on Savai’i with 16 tons of filmmaking equipment and dreams of an unspoiled primitive paradise. When he found the island and people thoroughly modernized, the horrified Flaherty spent the next two years with his wife and daughters living among the native Samoans and reconstructing their indigenous culture. Though suffering many humiliating set-backs—in one incident, Flaherty accidentally poisoned himself by drinking water contaminated by the silver nitrate in his film stock—the resultant film was an astonishing work of compassion, curiosity, and shimmering beauty.
But still, it’s all a lie. A beautiful lie; a lie that provides a crucial glimpse into the past of a colonized culture. But a lie nonetheless.
Yet the same could be said for his other feature films, whether he was orchestrating a harpoon hunt for walrus years after the Inuit had adopted rifles in Nanook, teaching the natives of the Aran Islands off the coast of Ireland how to fish for sharks so they could re-enact a fictionalized hunt never practiced by their ancestors in Man of Aran (1934), or depicting oil drilling as a totally environmentally-friendly industry in Louisiana Story (1948). But there’s a curious difference between the fictionalization of these films and Moana. Throughout his career, Flaherty was obsessed with the theme of mankind locked in a constant struggle for survival against the forces of nature. His subjects lived desperate, hardscrabble lives eking out paltry resources from the wilderness. (Flaherty claimed that the main subject of Nanook, an Inuit hunter by the real name of Allakariallak, died of starvation two years after the film was completed.) But when Flaherty arrived in Savai’i, he found no such conflict. The local Samoans had adapted to their environment so perfectly that they lived comfortable lives free of the omnipresent danger and risks of the Inuit or Aran Islanders.
So how do you create conflict in a society without conflict? Flaherty’s solution was an ingenious one: you don’t. There are no massive storms that threaten to wipe Moana’s village out, no dramatic moments where their lives and livelihoods are threatened by an uncaring wilderness. There are hunting scenes, but one involves the capture of an already ensnared wild pig, another the smoking of a crab out of a hole, and the last and longest the seizing of a giant wild sea turtle. And even after Moana and his family lug the docile beast onto the shoreline, we learn that the Samoans hunt sea turtles not for their meat but for their ornamental shells. 
Moana with Sound
No, if there’s a story in Moana, it isn’t one of conflict. Rather, it’s of Moana’s transition from boyhood to adulthood. We watch him hunt, fish, carve pikes to husk coconuts, dance the siva: all the important skills a man of the village would be expected to perform. But Flaherty doesn’t present these as the stations of some larger ritual, instead he observes them as naturalistic vignettes. No scene better summarizes his unhurried approach more than one where Moana and Pe’a collect coconuts. In what might be the single most beautiful shot in Flaherty’s career, he captures Pe’a slowly climbing up a towering coconut tree in a single unbroken long shot. The tree lilts from the bottom right corner of the frame to the top center, and for a moment it seems like Pe’a will climb up through the top of the frame. But when only his ankles remain, the camera slowly tilts upwards, revealing to our astonishment that this brave young boy is only halfway up the towering tree! Once more he almost climbs out the top of the frame. And once more the camera tilts upwards. Barely 90 seconds long, it’s a masterstroke of cinematic economy.
But perhaps the main thing one notices watching Moana is the room Flaherty gives his characters to simply be human. Far from regarding them as impersonal insects under a microscope, he fills the film with scenes of them laughing and playing, more often than not of Moana and Fa’angase flirting and courting. One of the first scenes sees Moana chop a giant vine and drain the fresh water within into Fa’angase’s giggling mouth. These are not Hollywood savages or anthropological specimens: they’re actual human beings with hopes and dreams and loves and desires. And despite being filmed over 90 years ago, this affirmation of their basic humanity feels like a revelation among a film culture still trapped by so many ancient prejudices. 
For decades the only way you could see Moana was in its original silent state, but in 1975 Flaherty’s youngest daughter Monica set out to work a miracle. Returning to the island of Savai’i, she painstakingly created an audio soundtrack for her father’s film, complete with ambient nature sounds, dubbed dialogue (including lines provided by three surviving cast members), and, most importantly, native folk songs. The new soundtrack premiered at the Cinémathèque française in Paris in 1981, but since the original negatives no longer existed, they were paired with a ratty 16mm copy. But now, over thirty years after the premiere of “Moana with Sound,” a 2K restoration has given us a print worthy of Monica’s soundtrack. The new restoration is a marvel: the picture quality is as pristine as any 35mm could hope to be and the soundtrack is so detailed and extensive that learning it was a recreation made 50 years after the fact seems as implausible and outrageous as learning that Casablanca (1942) was shot silently and only dubbed in the late 1950s. Barring the vision of Polynesia nestled in Flaherty’s mind when he first arrived in Savai’i, this new restoration is the closest we may ever get to Moana as it was originally intended. It may be a collection of meticulous lies, but they’re lies that bring us closer to a fuller understanding of the beauty of the human condition in one of the most far-flung corners of the planet.


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