Monday, January 16, 2012

Man of Aran (1934)

It had been over a decade separated from Nanook of the North for filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty. His groundbreaking documentary film that made him famous and a humble amount of money was something of the past. After failed ventures in filmmaking with backings from Hollywood top studios Flaherty was a shadow of a personality from yesteryear; a footnote of cinema history. After being considered washed up Flaherty would seek out his next picture by spending a great deal of time overseas, particularly on the isolated island of Aran, off the western shores of Ireland. Here he would conjure up his next idea, producing Man of Aran. Harkening back to the style of film that made him the well known filmmaker he was in the early 1920s, Flaherty would once again attempt to bring to the world a culture unseen by most, sharing the story of survival of a people in conditions not known elsewhere in civilization.

Man of Aran is a documentary fiction depicting life for a small family on the island of Aran. The film features three main characters whom we follow, the main character, known simply as “the man of Aran,” his wife, and his son. Through the film we simply observe how they survive on the island which is nothing more than a treeless and nearly plant-less plateau of rocks, ravaged by sea, sitting in the ocean west of Ireland. We survey their normal daily events which include fishing from the high cliffs, the farming of potatoes by cultivating what little soil they can find mixed with seaweed, and the hunt for basking sharks for their liver oil which they use in their lamps. It is a culture less touched by the modern world of the 1930s. The picture is told through visuals and title cards to explain the events depicted on screen, as all the sound was dubbed over in post production with low dialogue of the thick accented Irish people to help give the idea of what could have been said, but clearly was not what came from their mouths. For the films climax the shark hunters get caught in a storm and we watch as the man of Aran struggles to get back to land as his family watches and worries.

The film is made very much in the flavor of Nanook of the North. That is not to say it is good or bad, but to supply the idea that it is filmed and presented in a very similar fashion. Man of Aran offers us a look into a culture we would not see in the world that has so changed since the year it was released. We, as an audience, discover how life is on this island where everyday amenities are clearly not as convenient. Fishing is done on dangerous rocks dozens and dozens of feet over the water. Soil is scarce, making nit amazing they can grow anything to sustain life. Then there is the violent sea that hinders sailors trying to catch their source of energy, from sharks for which they will render down for oil. This is a western civilized culture that is less altered by the modern amenities which over took the world during the early twentieth century. It is a precious time capsule of how things were for one place and time.

Like Nanook it is filmed in a documentary style, but is in fact somewhat staged events. The family we watch is in real life not at all related, but was chosen natives by Flaherty to play the roles for their photogenic features. Besides being put together Flaherty does have them carry out the actions of normal life and presents it in manner as if they were related. So in a way Flaherty is misleading us, but that is not the point. He was trying to capture something he found awe in on this isolated island and wanted to share it to the world as his creative mind saw it. Due to the events being staged by some means is why the picture would become known as a documentary fiction instead of a straight documentary.

Above the stories he shares in the film, Flaherty is to be praised for his marvelous eye in this film. His wonderful camera work is actually breathtaking. The cinematography is excellent and is matched with the precision of is editing to express the drama and emotion of the tales he is sharing. The images are bold and dramatic. The way he films the sea give the water its own character, manifesting its power and wrath as it threatens to take the men just trying to get by in life. Captured as well are the visuals of the sharks while being hunted by the men of the island. It is very real and very much a struggle for the men on the small boat, relentlessly trying to reel in the aquatic beast. This is what I mean when the events are staged but still real. Flaherty had a magnificent eye for capturing these natural images of this exotically different piece of land not far from the familiar location of Ireland.

It is a fact that shark hunting was a dead art at the time of the film’s shooting. Flaherty had to hire skilled shark hunters to teach his “actors” (I use the term loosely as they were real people of the island) how to hunt the sharks. From this we, from a contemporary point of view, can see how Flaherty was reaching for a something that was not quite there anymore, but was a part of their culture enough for some to know how to do it.

With all its grace, beauty, and drama, the film was a success for Flaherty, not as big as Nanook, but still well revered. It would win Flaherty an award for best foreign film at the Venice Film Festival and gain back some of the name that had faded away since Nanook. On the island of Aran the film was met with mixed reviews. Some inhabitants loved it as it showed off their home and culture to the world, wearing it as a proud badge. However others came to resent the picture as making the inhabitants look as if they were primitive and silly. For several years the film was shown on the island for all to see and be proud of, but those that opposed it find Flaherty had too much creative freedom with the people and their culture. No one made real money from the picture. The only star really was Flaherty as he was the mind behind it all, and the people were just villagers playing for the camera.

It is for films such as this one that make motion pictures so valuable to the history of the world. The casual viewer might find no interest in such a picture, but you must understand where the picture comes from. Here we are able to look back and watch recorded history, in a way. Sure the actions were somewhat staged, but the point is that it was a culture that existed on that island, maybe not exactly during the 1930s, but just before that time. Flaherty captured what it was like to live there and how things were at one point. Man of Aran is a time capsule which is treasured for its cinematic beauty, as well as its sense of recording the world. For that I find the picture interesting to watch and worth noting.

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