Is­land myths

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Filmreviews -

PI­O­NEER­ING film-maker Robert J Fla­herty was the son of an Ir­ish prospec­tor, a bi­o­graph­i­cal de­tail that told through­out the di­rec­tor’s ca­reer. A life­long ad­ven­turer, Fla­herty Jr’s first foray into doc­u­men­tary ended with him de­stroy­ing 70,000 feet of film shot on Canada’s re­mote Belcher Is­lands.

Re­al­ity, he rea­soned, sim­ply wasn’t real enough for doc­u­men­tary. In com­mon with many of his col­leagues in con­tem­po­rary an­thro­pol­ogy, Fla­herty de­cided that print­ing the le­gend was the way to go.

His ca­reer-mak­ing Nanook of the North, the first recorded fea­ture-length doc­u­men­tary, charted the hard­ships of Arc­tic life among the Inuit peo­ple of Que­bec. Decades af­ter its 1922 de­but, Nanook re­mains a bril­liant, stir­ring film, al­beit one com­posed of con­ve­nient fic­tions, ro­man­tic em­bel­lish­ments and out­right lies.

Nanook’s “wives”, we know now, were Fla­herty’s own mis­tresses. The tit­u­lar pro­tag­o­nist, real name Al­lakar­i­al­lak, was “ad­vised” by his di­rec­tor to hunt wal­ruses and seals with har­poons dur­ing the shoot; Al­lakar­i­al­lak, like most of the lo­cals, had used guns for that pur­pose be­fore the cam­eras rolled. Fla­herty even cut the side out of the “fam­ily” igloo to get bet­ter in­te­rior shots.

Man of Aran, Fla­herty’s 1934 ac­count of the hard­ships associated with life on the Aran Is­lands, is equally im­pres­sive and sim­i­larly un­trust­wor­thy. As ever, the di­rec­tor played fast and loose with the facts: a sharkhunt­ing se­quence is en­tirely man­u­fac­tured, and none of the fam­ily mem­bers shown are ac­tu­ally re­lated.

Still, even the film’s re-cre­ation of ob­so­lete fish­ing and farm­ing prac­tices has worth as a his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ment. It is, more­over, im­pos­si­ble not to get swept up in Fla­herty’s ro­man­tic view of is­landers locked in an eter­nal strug­gle with na­ture. Pota­toes must be farmed with lit­tle or no soil, cliffs must be climbed to fa­cil­i­tate fish­ing, and those bask­ing sharks won’t gut them­selves.

It might be mythol­ogy, but it’s far more en­ter­tain­ing than the bor­ing old truth. For those in a jiggy mood, se­lected cin­e­mas will, from to­day, be screen­ing

a pre­sen­ta­tion of Michael Flat­ley’s world-beat­ing show. The film has a gen­eral cert and lasts a fairly mer­ci­ful 95 min­utes.

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