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Still, even the film’s re-creation of obsolete fishing and farming practices has worth as a historical document.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.