Robert Flaherty is often called ”the father of the documentary.” But as these three key Flaherty films demonstrate, he was more romantic artiste than cinematic anthropologist. He approached natural settings not as habitats to be recorded for posterity, but as raw material for carefully choreographed tone poems.
Flaherty’s first feature, Nanook of the North, follows the travails of a Hudson Bay Eskimo family. Some of its images — like the sight of hunters so hungry they devour a slaughtered seal raw — carry the shock of direct reportage. Unfortunately, many other scenes suffer from now-obvious fakery, such as igloo ”interiors” shot in a large cutaway replica (Flaherty’s cameras wouldn’t fit inside a real igloo).
Flaherty responded to Nanook’s critics by saying that ”one often has to distort a thing to catch its true spirit,” and that ethos permeates Man of Aran. Stunningly photographed on the rocky isles west of Ireland, Aran bogs down in depicting villagers on a shark hunt — an activity no one there had engaged in for 50 years. The film ignores the islands’ existing culture; instead, Flaherty strains to convey the sense of a mythic existence with gimmicky music cues and figures framed against the sky.
In his last and best film, Flaherty gave up trying to ennoble an existing reality and created one outright. Louisiana Story depicts the arrival of a derrick on a backwater bayou, as observed by a young local boy. While the events and characters are fabricated, the details of swamp life are brilliantly authentic. It’s the one time Flaherty captured the look and feel of a real place with utter authority. Nanook: B Man of Aran: B- Louisana Story: A-