Vincent Browne profiles the documentary film Man Of Aran, which was first released in 1934 and is now available on video.
For the last 200 years the Aran Islands have exercised a powerfully romantic fascination on the outside world which is without equal anywhere else in the country. They were believed to contain the essence of the ancient Irish life, represented by a pure uncorrupted peasant existence centred around the struggle between man and his hostile but magnificent surroundings. This myth, strengthened by the writings of Yeats and especially Synge was hugely expanded by the release in 1934 of Man of Aran, a documentary on the life of the Island people. This film won international acclaim and explained in no small way why so many different nationalities walk the surface of Aran in their thousands between May and October each year.
The film was made by renowned American director Robert Flaherty who was already established at the time as having virtually founded the documentary film form. In 1923 he screened his Nanook of the North which was a portrait of the lives of the Eskimo peoples of the Belcher Islands off Canada. This film celebrated the primeval duel between man and Nature which was the central motif in all his later work.
The Man of Aran known by the Islanders as simply The Film, was like films such as The African Queen and Orson Welles Othello, capable of generating a huge stock of legends and myths about the making of the movie itself. This happens occasionally, when the production features larger than life figures who provide as much drama off the set as on it. Flaherty's personality was not found wanting in this regard. His island contact man, Pat Mullen, has charted the sometimes ambivalent nature of the director's relationship with the Islanders who were initially suspicious of what were understood as his socialist opinions. These suspicions were enhanced when Flaherty was seen to lead a life of luxury amidst the poverty of the Islands. Harry Watt, a production assistant on the film, felt that the extraordinary thing was that Flaherty lived like a king in these primitive places.......I never lived so well in my life.
Flaherty decided that the best means of representing the difficulties and struggles of life on Aran was by placing the family unit, (man, wife and child) at the centre of the film. The casting for these roles, though initially difficult due to the Islanders native fear of alien corruption, was eventually concluded by a mixture of cajolery, priestly reassurance and the promise of payment.
The cast eventually featured Mickleen Dillane as the boy, Maggie Dirrane as the woman and the eagle profile of Coleman Tiger King as the man of Aran himself. The barely comprehended project caused problems for some, one woman getting so muddled found that her face was full up entirely of drama which was something of a worry until Pat Mullen advised that a drop of whiskey would solve the problem.
Flaherty's mode of working was unusual in that it involved shooting vast quantities of film for each segment. He believed that the camera and the film-maker were fused into a single organic unit in the manner of a novelist and his pen. By completely immersing himself in his environment, Flaherty felt that the most appropriate or truthful images would then naturally emerge. This intuitive style accounted for the huge expenditure of film and explains why it took almost 2 years to shoot. As Joe Mc Mahon, in his excellent article on the film in The Book of Aran tells us:
"All in all he was to shoot over 500,000 feet of film. In one day alone, using two cameras, he shot 5,600 feet".
The film itself is very simple in structure. It portrays the family's attempts to survive the Barren landscape and the mountainous fear that surrounds it. It opens with some peaceful scenes of Mickleen fishing and Maggie tending her baby and looking after the domestic animals. A fishing scene follows which initially takes place in calm seas which soon begin to rage, the family almost losing their stock of fishing nets. We then see man and wife making the earth for a potato crop by laying down seaweed on the bare rock. Meanwhile Mickleen is shown fishing from a precipice at the edge of an immense cliff, an activity which seems suicidally nonchalant. Next follows the centre piece of the film, the prolonged shark hunt, which is followed by the famous final sea scenes which are among the most powerful (and dangerous) ever filmed.
The film, when it was released was the cause of some controversy, dealing as it did with the problems of representation and identity. This was a thorny issue for a self-conscious country emerging from centuries of colonial subjugation. The film was presented as a portrayal of contemporary life on the islands but what was actually delivered was a romanticised notion of what life was like in the 19th century almost 100 years before.
The practice of shark fishing by harpoon that is the central theme of the film was a practice that had died out almost 90 years previously. The giant shark was hunted for his liver which was a valuable source of high quality lighting oil. This oil was replaced by paraffin and later electricity and the practice died out. Nonetheless, Flaherty needed a central hook upon which to expand his heroic metaphors and Pat Mullen was dispatched to the Claddagh in Galway to find the one surviving fisherman who knew how it had been done in the old days.
This section of the film, and the incredible storm scenes at the end, were extremely dangerous, exposing the actors to the very real possibility of having their tiny boat smashed by a blow from the huge tail of the shark or of having the boat dashed on the rocks of the foaming shores. Mullen in his invaluable account of the making of the film (also titled Man of Aran) was more upbeat, finding the dangerous escapades a vindication of the people of the island and their heritage....... "A great thrill of wild pride shot through me as I looked at them, for here had been a trial of the old, old stock and the blood still ran true". Flaherty, when interviewed later in his life, said: "I should have been shot for what I asked these superb people to do, all for the sake of a keg of porter and five pounds a piece".
The film did well commercially despite criticisms that the real issue of island poverty had not been addressed at all. Flaherty claimed that "he photographed what the camera wanted to photograph" and that should be the end of it. This belief was justified by the film winning the Grand Prix at the Venice Film Festival in 1935.
The criticisms of the film's accuracy are well founded but as we move into another century the facts of contemporary life in Aran in the 1930's become less important. Flaherty may have been like the newspaper man in Who Shot Liberty Valence?- guilty of believing in the maxim that states: "When the truth and the legend contradict each other, always print the legend". This criticism aside, the essence of the film is faithful to the people and the place. By celebrating strength and endurance he acknowledges persistent and lingering Aran values without which the Islanders could never have survived. The images that this remarkable film have given us remain, in the words of Tim Robinson; "Like grand, sombre court-cards on the table of the mind and will not be brushed aside by subsequent knowledge of the subtle actualities of Aran life".