After his success with Nanook of the North (1922), director Robert J. Flaherty was asked by studio chief Jesse L. Lasky (who would soon head Paramount) to make the same kind of film he had in the Artic, except this time in the South Seas. Thus was this "sequel" conceived. The film was a commercial success in Europe, but not in the US. See more »
Say the name and most people will think of the 2016 animated Disney feature. I just looked at Robert J. Flaherty's documentary about life in Polynesia; after all that time in the Arctic filming NANOOK OF THE NORTH, a couple of years with his wife and children in warm Samoa must have been a very pleasant working vacation. In the early 1980s, a version was released with a new soundtrack, but I looked at a version with none.
These days our concepts of documentaries are informed by an additional ninety years of development. Documentaries are compiled by interviews and delving into archives and by following the subjects around, waiting for something interesting to happen in a cinema verite way; anthropology is a well-developed discipline. In the 1920s, there were no such standards, everyone was inventing new techniques as they went along, Paramount hoped to recoup the money advanced Flaherty for the project, and Flaherty understood the rhythms and techniques of film -- its poetry, if you will. As a result, to the practiced eye, many of the events of this film were carefully staged and edited. Wait until about a third of the way through the film You'll see a youngster, Moana's younger brother, climb a tall palm, gather coconuts, and bring them down. Not only is the sequence edited, with another member of the family watching, but the camera's vantage shifts dramatically, from watching the youngster climb -- from afar -- to watching him twist the coconuts off the tree -- from a few feet away. Clearly this entire sequence was shot over several days.
On the other hand, there are several bits that clearly preserve actual techniques of the period: Moana and her mother making cloth; hauling a turtle aboard an outrigger; cleaning taro, freshly pulled from the earth.
If there is a message in this movie, it is that these people live closer to the earth and sea than the movie's audience. Even a rural audience in this period would be thoroughly civilized, from farm animals, to guns for hunting, to harvesters, to the movie projectors and screens that showed them this film. There is a message that the riches that these trapping of civilization bring are fine and dandy, but so is a coconut you have climbed the tree to get for your family and yourself.
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