A Boatload of Wild Irishmen
by Mac Dara Ó Curraidbin, Director; Brian Winston, Scriptwriter
Icarus Films, Brooklyn, NY, 2010
DVD, 84 mins., col. Sales, $398 US.
Distributor’s website: http://icarusfilms.com/
Reviewed by Martha Blassnigg
University of Plymouth
A Boatload of Wild Irishmen is a long overdue portrait of the legendary filmmaker Robert Flaherty. Written by Brian Winston, Professor of Communication at the University of Lincoln and award-winning script-writer, and directed by Mac Dara Ó Curraidbin, it presents Flaherty’s work and ambition through the perspective of a wider context and networks of influence. Flaherty’s oeuvre and legacy has particularly fallen prey to the persistent fragmentation of disciplinary engagements in academia as well as in the industry, which has frequently skewed the attention given to his work informed by segregated fields such as visual anthropology, documentary film history and theory, or commercial film.
Flaherty’s work and the subsequent criticism of his romanticist, heroic docu-fiction style (so-called “ethnofiction”) has become a burden for his legacy. A Boatload of Wild Irishmen, however, manages to stay above the controversies. It neither resituates nor re-evaluates Flaherty’s work nor does it feel the necessity to take a position. Instead, it stays close to Flaherty and those who have worked with him and includes his wife’s professional and private role in his career and life. Opening with shots from Man of Aran (1934), the film introduces Flaherty’s Irish origin although he was born to a mining engineer in Iron Mountain, Michigan. It shows how he gained a respectable reputation as prospector, explorer, and photographer, which placed him in company with Shackleton and Scott at the Royal Geographic Society in London. The story then moves chronologically through the key oeuvres and sets them against the context of Flaherty’s personal life, and, most relevantly, the context of Hollywood and the thriving film genre of the travel-adventure film that drew audiences to experience something more authentic than pure fiction in the narrativised reworkings of life’s hardship and dramas set in exotic locations. Against this background, the reception of his famous Nanook of the North (1922) — in itself a recognised heroic adventure with on-site film development in which the ‘actors’ also assisted —is contrasted and contextualised with the Roscoe Fatty Arbuckle scandal, one of many moral scandals that dogged Hollywood in the early 1920s. Nanook of the North, released in 1922 with the additional subtitle A Story of Life and Love in the Actual Arctic had a most powerful impact. It was a staged recreation of stories that were told to Flaherty during prospecting on the Belcher islands in 1913, which a Pathépicture film poster announced as a “truest and most human story of the Great White Snows”.
Flaherty’s work has raised many ethical concerns over the years, not only with regard to the staging of a romanticized view onto a reconstructed, fictionalized past but especially also in respect of the physical dangers and, although short-lived yet transformative, life-change the film work and its legacy subjected their ‘actors’ to. Interviews with filmmakers and experts from various local contexts as well as Universities outline aspects of the critical reception of Flaherty’s working method in indigenous contexts. A Boatload of Wild Irishmen avoids overloading the narrative with information and carefully orchestrates a broad spectrum of perspectives and archival footage (among it interviews with Flaherty himself) and lets the short extracts from Flaherty’s original film footage “speak for itself.” Some of these clips are captured during a screening to specialist audiences as well as local communities, such as on the island of Savai’i on Samoa where Moana (1926) was filmed. In addition, the interviews with descendants of those who worked with Flaherty, including Martha Flaherty, the Nanook of the North ‘actress’ Nyla’s and Flaherty’s grand-daughter, offer particularly touching insights into the complexities of the way Flaherty is memorised and also of a film’s diverse reception, re-interpretations, and afterlife. These highlights bring to the fore how, despite controversial opinions and positions when it comes to personal engagements with a film’s history and reception, it is always bound up with precious practices of memorising and forgetting, identity formation, and personal recollection and historiographies.
In this regard A Boatload of Wild Irishmen makes a particularly important contribution in that it captures some of the histories that have been created, sustained, and recreated by those most closely effected by Flaherty’s films: newly filmed as well as archival interviews with some of the main characters of Nanook of the North (1922), Moana (1926), and Louisiana Story (1948) reveal a broad spectrum of reflection on the personal impact of the filmmaking process ranging from tragedy, celebration to indifference. Among the most revealing are those testimonies in connection with the role these films play for the contemporary life in the villages. Some spectators in a village of Savai’i still have strong memories of those depicted in Moana and consider the film a crucial document of their history; one elder strikingly suggests that the film is owned by the village — a sentiment that in the field of visual anthropology is usually considered a positive impact of a film-production typical for community-based projects. These testimonies raise intriguing questions such as: What will happen to the reception of the films in the original location in the next generation(s) when the generational connection will be further removed? Will they become a touristic attraction and feature of curiosity as it already happened with Man of Aran (1934), projected six times a day for visitors, many of whom travel to the island because of Flaherty’s film?
Some attention is also given to the filmmaker’s well-known struggle for financing and also to some technological detail. Despite Flaherty’s financially secure marriage through his wife’s wealth, he struggled to gain support for his particular vision and approach; and if he received it (as with the Moana project through a Paramount commission who wanted a similar success to Nanook) he struggled to conform to the constraints of production. In this, A Boatload of Wild Irishmen gives context to the struggles every filmmaker will recognise independent of the particular genre. It also shows how some of the controversies around the legacy of Flaherty are already embedded in the tensions and complications during the filmmaking process: e.g. tensions between Flaherty’s driven imagination and story-telling capacity and the very matter of the realities he chose and selected to work with, and the pressures when working under commissions by a Hollywood studio or the industry. He was not averse to the world of commercial sponsorship, and industry patronage runs throughout Flaherty’s oeuvre; Nanook of the North was supported by Revillon Frères, a French fur trade company; in 1933 he was assigned by John Grierson and the Empire Marketing Board Film Unit in London on the documentary Industrial Britain (1933); and Louisiana Story (1948) which was commissioned by the Standard Oil Company (the script written by his wife Francis H. Flaherty and awarded with an Academy Award for Best Original Story). One of the most revealing testimonies with particularly interesting technical details is that by documentary film maker Richard Leacock in an interview hosted and chaired by Brian Winston. Leacock was hired as young cameraman for Louisiana Story (1948) and remembers details of the technicalities, choices, and working method of Flaherty who would always allow the production to be distracted by aesthetic or narrative surprises arising during the filming process. It becomes clear in Leacock’s account that Flaherty was perhaps in his working method more of an anthropologist than he is often given credit for, in that the duration of the filming process took its own momentum — the consequent downside of which was that on several occasions it led to unfinished film productions and exorbitant shooting ratios.
A Boatload of Wild Irishmen gives a modest, well researched, and human account of the power and persistent influence of Flaherty’s work; it reaches outside the untouchable niches of experts, discourses, and other institutionalized authorities and offers an image of Flaherty drawn largely from personal reflections, experiences, knowledge, and recollections of selected individuals who have/had a close relationship to his work or persona. As with all documentaries, the interviews are sometimes cut short — clearly there was more material and thoughtful reflection than fitted into the final cut, and inevitable curiosity is raised to learn more about the lesser known film-productions — but even in the seeming brevity (an apparent “short” 84 minutes for a documentary film; a good sign for its pace and drive), Winston and Ó Curraidbin succeed in offering a moderate and nuanced portrait of an influential figure in the history of film and cinema and, as the voice-over states in the end, “his place in cinema’s pantheon.” The documentary concludes with the epic touch of the film’s voice-over that resonates self-consciously with Flaherty’s own poetic timbre: “One thing is certain, all the strengths and weaknesses of the documentary; its ability to show us life, to preserve memory, to thrill, absorb and entertain, as well as the dangers of it misrepresenting people, the hazards for those it focuses on are being filmed, the manipulations needed to tell a story: all these are to be found in the cinema of Robert Flaherty. All documentary strengths were first celebrated by him, all documentary’s dangers were first demonstrated by him. His is, for good or ill, a living legacy” [sic.]. The last word, however, should be given to those usually unheard voices of the audiences and co-constructing participants essential to the co-creation of the film as it is lived as experience and relived in recollected memory: the true “living legacy” of any film’s work and lasting testimony.