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Customs of Polynesian natives on a Samoan island,
centered on the daily life and on the coming of age ceremony of the young
man Moana. It reconstructs Polynesian culture before the coming of Western
culture, though iron blades are used. Daily tasks like cooking, fishing,
hunting and gathering are most of the picture.
Mainly interesting for the material settings. Flaherty treats the Samoan life as almost that of a paradise - the only discomforts being wild boar and the pain of tattooing.
Moana was filmed in Samoa in the villages of Safune district on the
island of Savai'i. The name of the lead male character, moana means
'deep water' in the Samoan language. In making the film, Flaherty lived
with his wife and collaborator Frances and their three daughters in
Samoa for more than a year. Flaherty arrived in Samoa in April 1923 and
stayed until December 1924, with the film being completed in December
The youngest of the children Robert and Frances Flaherty brought with them to Samoa was their then-3-year-old daughter Monica. In 1975, Monica Flaherty returned to Savai'i to create a soundtrack for her parents' hitherto-silent film, including recording ambient sounds of village life, dubbed Samoan dialogue and traditional singing. The resulting "Moana with Sound" was completed in 1980, with help from filmmakers Jean Renoir and Richard Leacock, and first shown publicly in Paris in 1981.
The version I saw on Netflix was the sound version, and I can hardly imagine watching it any other way. Although there may be dubbing and it is not the original cast, this does not seem to hurt the picture (especially because I cannot understand what they are saying).
Maybe this is "docufiction", but it still has some level of authenticity that could not longer be done today. Samoa of the 1920s is not Samoa of the 2010s. Even if some scenes are staged or a little bit fake, it captures the people in about as close to reality as is possible. And for that reason, it is worth seeing if you have an anthropological interest. (I feel like it is more realistic than "Nanook", at least.)
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
With the recent surge for anything 'South Pacific' thanks to the 2016's Disney animation film 'Moana', I thought it was a great time to look back to one of the films that probably help influence it: the original 'Moana' from 1926. Originally, directed by Robert J. Flaherty of 1922's 'Nanook of the North' fame & produce by Paramount Pictures studio head, Jesse L. Lasky, the purpose of the film was to capture the same magic, he had making 'Nanook' in the Artic with the Inuit People, but except this time in the Oceania with the Polynesians People. They hope that audiences would be just as intrigued with the rich culture of the South Sea, as much as they were with the people of the Far North. However, it wasn't the case. Greeted with indifference during its initial theatrical run, the silent feature was rescued from obscurity by the director's daughter, who decided to record her own soundtrack for the silent movie in 1976 & also returning to the tropic islands to add additional voices & atmospherics. For the most part 'Moana with Sound' kinda work. The result is impressive, working through age and softness, bringing out detail on island life and the participants, displaying surprising clarity for a nearly 100-year-old film. Contrast is generally secure, while delineation doesn't solidify. Damage is still present on the source, but it's gracefully dialed down, leaving some mild scratching and speckling. While, 'Moana with Sound' doesn't represent the initial artistic intent. It did rescue the film from the depths of disintegration & expands on what was already a very fascinating feature. A documentary film rich in cultural history and importance that it was restored yet again, a few years later and put into the National Archives in Washington DC. For the most part, all three versions of the original film are pretty fine, entertaining films. I found Robert J. Flaherty did a good job for what he could had done at the time. He did put a lot of work, with the project, even choosing to live with his wife and their three daughters in British Samoa with the Savai'I tribe for more than a year, with Flaherty arrived in Samoa in April 1923 and stayed until December 1924, with the film being completed in December 1925. He did this all, by developed his film as he went along, in a cave on Savai'i. In the process, he inadvertently poisoned himself and required treatment after he drank water from the cave that contained silver nitrate, which washed off the film stock. The silver nitrate also caused spots to form on the negative, but thank god, it didn't destroy all the beautiful footage, he shot. Although the film was visually stunning, however, like his previous movie, he went well beyond the recording the life of the people of Samoa as it happened. He staged them, leading to some controversy if this movie is even a documentary, even if writer John Grierson first coined the term with this film. In 'Moana', there were many cases of Flaherty interfering & concoct with the people that being portray in order to make a more traditional tribal style movie. A good example of that is the way, the Savai'l tribe dress. At the time of filming, most Samoans, by this time were typically wearing modern Western-style clothing under the influence of Christian missionaries and spoke English. However, in order to produce a fictional account of ancient Polynesian life; he persuaded the tribe to don outdated traditional tapa cloth costumes for the film, as well, as have the women all go topless, while also, using potentially photogenic performers to use more body language. Not only that, but Flaherty also ask them to perform a coming-into-manhood ritual in which the young male lead underwent a painful traditional Samoan tattoo, a practice that had already become obsolete by the time, that they were filming. Those devices have led to Flaherty's films sometimes being categorized as "docufiction". For the most part, these manufacturing of mythology really didn't bug me, as it did help inform and educated the public of what the culture used to be. However, I didn't like how Flaherty needed to create fictitious family relationship in this ethnofiction movie in order to create drama. I get that, he was concerned that there was no inherent 'man vs nature' conflict that he used in 'Nanook' & 1934's documentary 'Man of Aran' in the islanders' way of life, to draw people in, but seeing the day to day basic of the culture should be captivatingly enough. The idea of staging a love story in paradise, between Moana (Ta'avale) & Moana's unnamed fictional fiancé (Fa'amgase), felt a little forced. It kills what the basics of the pure form of documentary, this little has left. Overall: While the film should be shown in Anthropology classes around the world due to its easy accessible and how it conveys lifestyle and ideas of a different culture. I just believe that dramatic should be limited in educational documentary like this. In the end, while "Moana" succeeds in some parts, it could do better in others. Still, it's a documentary worth checking out, regardless.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Interesting mix of old (black and white) photography, with new, modern sound. In 1926, Robert Flaherty filmed and directed this documentary of Samoa. Lots of climbing up the trees for the coconuts. Beautiful (black and white) crashing waves, pushing water up through the volcanic cones. That volcanic cone looks very similar to the one on the south side of Kauai. But maybe i'm just being too cynical. Tattoo and dance rituals, mostly as we follow one young couple around. The photography at the beginning and the end is washed out, faded quite white, while the photography in the middle is almost too clear, too perfect. Had me wondering if there was some recent photography mixed in here. Who knows? The ceremonial mats that they unroll seem to be brand new, as are the wraps worn by the couple. Interesting film. The cards at the beginning and end tell us that Flaherty's daughter went back to obtain a soundtrack to accompany the original film. Flaherty must have known what he was doing... he was nominated for an Oscar in 1949 for Louisana Story. An interesting watch, whatever is really going on.
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