Reviews of Moana (1926) and related work

Moana (1926Moving picture, 85 minutes)

Seen in 2017.

Saw a bad copy on Youtube, likely made from a worn 16 mm print.

Antiquated Polynesian cultural practices re-enacted for the camera on Samoa.

Flaherty’s follow-up to Nanook of the North (1922).

References here: “Non-fiction” tag description.

moving picture non-fiction

Monica in the South Seas (2023Moving picture, 72 minutes)

Seen in 2023.

Monica Flaherty’s 1975 trip back to Samoa where, as a three- and four-year-old, she had formed some of her first memories when her father, Robert J. Flaherty, made Moana.

The purpose of the 1975 trip was to record sounds that Monica would add to Moana’s picture. Accompanying her was Richard Leacock, a professor with an 8 mm camera that had synchronous sound capability. Years later, Robert’s further descendants found Leacock’s film and decided to make a documentary about the 1975 trip to put sound to the 1926 documentary. Further complicating this story, Monica’s sound version was released in 1981 but not distributed until it had been set to restored 35 mm footage in 2014, after Monica’s death.

I saw this at GIFF 2023 with director Sami van Ingen present for a Q&A. Van Ingen, a descendant, was also involved with the 2014 restoration. He explained that part of the reason why Monica’s sound version didn’t get distributed is because she had a 16 mm print of the picture, and part of it was that Paramount wouldn’t pay Monica enough for the sound. This production, 98 years after the original, tacitly makes the case that getting and painstakingly applying the sound, even 50 years after the original, was hard enough to deserve some reward.

This documentary is all archival material plus a freshly recorded reading of Monica’s notes. There is no third visit to Savai'i to show how the place has continued to change since Robert tried too late to recapture how it might have looked around 1900.

It’s a funny detail that in 1975, Leacock dropped some equipment in the sea, destroying it; a misadventure like the more extravagant Flaherty’s own problems with flammable film stock and poisonous silver nitrate, stories of which van Ingen expressed some skepticism although one still picture included in this film shows Flaherty’s illness. There were no such misadventures making Monica in the South Seas. It definitely doesn’t fall into Erik Barnouw’s category of the documentary filmmaker as an explorer, but it beautifully underscores Barnouw’s point about the complexity and subjectivity of documentary filmmaking. For all its flaws and fabrications, Moana remains a sufficiently important document to motivate this documentary about the making of a late addition to it. History never ends; it just gets more important.

moving picture document non-fiction