Projects: Reality’s Edge

A documentary film proposal on the life and work of Robert and Frances Flaherty by David Scheerer and Betsy McLane

Reality’s Edge reveals how Frances Hubbard Flaherty, headstrong daughter of a wealthy Boston family, whose devotion to rough-hewn woodsman Robert Flaherty made each of their four legendary films possible: Nanook of the North, Moana: A Story of the South Seas, Man of Aran, and Louisiana Story. Their 40-year romance began when they met as teenagers in the wilds of Minnesota and continued even after Robert’s death.

It was Frances who secured financing, traveled to exotic locations with Robert, shot beautiful photographic “storyboards,” negotiated release deals, promoted the films, and was co-nominated for an Academy Award for writing Best Story, all while raising a family of three children and making sure that “Bob” kept working. It was her vision and iron will that created the popular myth of Robert Flaherty. People around the world still recognize the 1920s image of a great Eskimo hunter, “Nanook” and some even know tales about Robert Flaherty and the film that made them both famous. But even though Flaherty and his films are the subjects of countless books, films, and controversies, no one has yet told the dramatic true story of Frances and Robert Flaherty, their lives and their work. With unprecedented access to archives that document the complex contributions of this dynamic couple, Reality’s Edge amplifies extensive written, photographic, film, radio and television elements, some of which have never been made public. When only words can tell this global story, major actors will interpret the characters’ writings. Already in hand are 20 hours of original first-person interviews with documentary experts and with people who knew the
Flahertys personally. Combining these materials, Reality’s Edge will surprise historians, create new cultural controversies, and speak directly to people in the 21 st Century who face their own questions about the balance of power among women, men and passionately shared artistry.

The Cast of Characters

Another person prominent in the Flaherty story as both friend and adversary was John Grierson, “the father of the British and Canadian documentary.” In addition to Grierson and the Flaherty family the following peoples’ lives intersected with the Flahertys’ and will appear in Reality’s Edge.

Charlie Chaplin
Sergei Eisenstein
Alfred Hitchcock
Carl Laemmle
Ricky Leacock
Jean Renoir
Leni Riefenstahl
Orson Welles
Fred Zinneman
and the many indigenous and local peoples who allowed the Flahertys into their lives

Robert and Frances Flaherty

Frances and Robert Flaherty near Vancouver, Canada in 1908
Frances and Robert Flaherty near Vancouver, Canada in 1908. (The Robert and Frances Flaherty Study Center, Claremont School of Theology.)

Robert Flaherty was born in 1884 at the start of the Machine Age (roughly 1880-1945), the same year Thomas’ Edison’s Kinetoscope (early moving picture peep show device) began commercial operation. The era saw enormous technical innovation in every aspect of Western culture.  For many, it was a time of great excitement and hope for a better world.  Railroads connected distant places, the discoveries of X Rays and helium, inventions like the airplane and the player piano were hailed as marvels, and Henry Ford made his first gasoline powered car in 1896. Others saw in these technical developments the beginnings of a dystopian future. H.G. Wells published The War of the Worlds in 1898, birthing the Science Fiction genre. Later Aldous Huxley wrote in “The Outlook for American Culture: Some Reflections in a Machine Age” (Harpers Magazine, August 1927) that “The machines give leisure, but at the same time they give what is almost a guarantee that, except by a fortunately situated and well-endowed minority, that leisure shall be misused. All the resources of science are applied in order that imbecility may flourish and vulgarity cover the whole earth. That they are rapidly doing so must be obvious to anyone who glances at a popular picture paper, looks at a popular film, listens to popular music on the radio or phonograph.” It was also a time when white men dominated world affairs. Most regarded people of color and all women as inferior.  At the same time women in Canada, England, and the US women began to fight for the right to vote.

Little of this new world penetrated Robert Flaherty’s youth. He spent most of his early years in the wilderness of Northern Michigan where his father, Robert Henry Flaherty mined, most often unsuccessfully, for iron ore and gold. The sad state of the Indians who lived around the mining camps made a lasting impression on Flaherty. He witnessed the disease, poverty and degradation that resulted from contact with white society. Attempts to place Robert in school in Toronto proved disastrous; he reportedly sat on the classroom floor, speaking only American Indian languages. Flaherty did acquire major skills: he loved to read, he could track and live in the wilderness, he learned photography, and became a good violin player.

Frances Hubbard met Robert Flaherty in Northern Michigan in 1903, and apparently immediately and irrevocably fell in love.  As a partner in life and in filmmaking Frances was essential to creating every Flaherty film and to enhancing his worldwide fame.  Today, she would be called a film producer, responsible for finding funding, being on location, contributing to editing, supervising promotion, and interfacing between the artist Robert, and the commercial world. Her cosmopolitan background from a wealthy Boston family contrasted with and complemented Bob’s roughhewn manner. Her family confounded the couples’ budding romance, and she went on to graduate from Bryn Mawr College in 1905, study music in New York and Paris, and in 1911 travel to the West Indies and South America, sometimes giving concerts. Frances was also secretary of a Suffragette society. As quoted by Robert J. Christopher (Robert and Frances Flaherty: A Documentary Life, 1883-1922, 2005) she wrote, “I married my husband for several very plain and simple reasons: 1. Because an innate sense for the preservation of his own genius has saved him from all educational institutions or instruction of any kind. 2. Because that genius is for (a) exploration, (Profession: Exploration and Mining), and (b) music and the arts, (Avocations: playing the violin and portrait photography)”. Each of these traits led her not only to unwaveringly support Robert during his life, but to managing and promoting his legacy after his death.

Between 1910 and 1915, at the time Edward Curtis was making In the Land of the Head-Hunters, Robert Flaherty was exploring and mapping the Hudson Bay region of Canada.  He was sent there to search for ore by Sir William Mackenzie, Canada’s railroad entrepreneur. Though Flaherty found some ore, the deposits were not rich enough to tempt anyone to try to mine it.  During his travels Flaherty (re)discovered the main island of the Belcher Group in 1914 in Hudson Bay, and it was subsequently named for him.  Flaherty often defined himself as an explorer, and was very proud of his induction into the Royal Geographic Society of England. He quite possibly hoped that his name would be grouped with heroes of the day, Shackleton or Amundsen. That was not to be, but the most important result of his expeditions, creating a new kind of motion picture, ultimately affected society more profoundly than adventuring to the Poles. With Nanook of the North, Robert and Frances Flaherty brought the life and beauty of the Ungava Peninsula (the Northernmost point in Quebec) and its inhabitants, the Inuit, to the attention of the world. Transcending the work of earlier expeditionary and anthropological filmmakers, they put a personal stamp on documentary film. The worldwide success of Nanook, both popular and financial, along with the influence of Frances drew Flaherty away from his passions for the wilderness exploring, and still photography into filmmaking.  The Flahertys continued traveling throughout their lives to document people and cultures as they saw them, aiming to present them to the world and to posterity.

While Frances was kept away from Robert by her family, he was becoming an accomplished still photographer and deepening his experience as an explorer in the North Woods.  His photographs of life and work in the North and his portraits, including those of American Indians and Inuit were shown in galleries and brought recognition. It was on his third expedition, August 15, 1913 – October 3, 1914, that Flaherty, encouraged by soon-to-be wife Frances and again funded by Mackenzie, supplemented his still photo kit with motion picture equipment to record what he saw. Supplies included “a comprehensive motion picture and camera outfit including 1,000 pounds of chemicals, 25,000 feet of film and 2,000 dry plates” (a letter from Flaherty to Mackenzie). To prepare for shooting with his Bell and Howell camera, he took a short course in camera operation offered by Eastman Kodak in Rochester, New York.  During the expedition he shot hours of the Inuit, their activities and surroundings.

Married in 1914, Robert and Frances were living in Toronto when he returned from this third expedition. While editing the mass of material, he dropped a cigarette onto a pile of film on the floor.  Since it was the highly flammable cellulose nitrate stock of the time, it went up in a flash of flame, nearly taking Flaherty with it.  Though the original negative footage was almost destroyed, an edited positive workprint survived.  Another person might have given up altogether following such an entry into filmmaking; Robert and Frances not only persisted, but they also learned from the experience.  In fact, some speculate that the fire might not have been as much an “accident” as a “happy coincidence” that enabled a deeply flawed work, which was poorly received, to disappear.

In this first, now lost film it seems Flaherty, ably assisted by the Inuit crew, faithfully recorded aspects of the far North, but failed in making an interesting film. The workprint did not convey Flaherty’s feelings for the people and their way of life, nor did it present its subjects in a manner that would permit audiences to identify with them. When Mackenzie refused to finance any more expeditions (after attending a dismal screening of the first work print), Robert and Frances spent several years touring on the lecture circuit, screening this print and lecturing throughout the U.S. and Canada, attempting to secure funding for another filming expedition.  In her efforts to promote Robert, Frances met with Franz Boas, then a professor at Columbia University, talked with photographer Albert Stieglitz, and tried to meet Lee Keedick, an agent for the lecture circuit for luminaries such as explorer Roald Amundsen.

After many setbacks, they obtained backing from the French fur company Réveillon Frères for a return to the North to make another film.  As such, Nanook is sponsored film.  The name Réveillon Furs was painted on an Innuit sledge, an early example of corporate promotion in a documentary. Commercial sponsorship remained important in the Flahertys’ career and plays an ongoing role throughout the history of documentary. For this film he had two hand-cranked Akeley cameras, a tripod with a newly developed gyro head, developing, printing and projection equipment.  The Akeley was a sophisticated camera that was portable, rotatable, and relatively easy to maneuver. Nicknamed “The Pancake”, Chicago’s Field Museum describes it as “The GoPro of the early 1900s”. For later films he used a Newman Sinclair, which became a standard camera for documentarians.  What resulted from Flaherty’s shooting in 1920 and 1921 was the Nanook of the North known today.  In this unprecedented feature-length film, ordinary people reenacted things they did, or had done in the recent past in everyday life — working, hunting, eating, sleeping, traveling, playing with their children — doing for the camera what they seemingly would have done if the camera hadn’t been there. Flaherty did ask people to assume roles, casting Nanook, whose real name was Allakariallak, and the others.

Inuit women carrying filmmaking equipment while making Nanook of the North (US, 1922, Robert Flaherty)
Inuit women carrying filmmaking equipment while making Nanook of the North (US, 1922, Robert Flaherty)
The Robert and Frances Flaherty Study Center, Claremont School of Theology.

On Nanook of the North Flaherty began his practice of developing and printing film in the field, necessary if he was to see what he was shooting while still on location.  For this arduous task in Nanook, the Inuit cut holes in the ice to obtain water for processing, carried it in barrels to a hut, and strained out the deer hair that fell into it from their clothing.  The “printer” was a rectangle of clear glass left on a window painted black.  It corresponded to the 35mm film frame in size and dimension.  Through it, the low Arctic sun shone.  That such a system of developing worked at all is amazing; that the quality of images in Nanook show little sign of the crudity of the “laboratory” is even more astounding.  The camera froze, the film cracked, the locations truly were dangerous, and Flaherty had no communication with the outside world during the long winters he spent there.  Although Nanook of the North is fully Flaherty’s film, it is little noted that he had an Anglo assistant named Sam Sainsbury who worked with him, sometimes functioning as cinematographer, and helping with developing as well as keeping the equipment running in the freezing weather. The Inuit participated in many ways, including watching the projected footage and responding to their own images.

When the Flahertys took the completed Nanook around to distributors, one by one they turned it down.  It was Pathé Exchange, another French firm, which undertook world-wide distribution.  To the surprise of Pathé and perhaps to the Flahertys, the movie received an enthusiastic reception from critics and audiences. It became a substantial hit with a (unclear and oft disputed) gross of $350,000, according to Terry Ramsey in his Variety obituary of Flaherty (quoted in Robert Flaherty: A Biography by Paul Rotha and Jay Ruby). The distribution deal, as often proved to be the case of documentaries, returned little to the Flahertys. Nanook himself, who received no compensation, became a recognizable face worldwide.  He died of either disease or starvation less than two years after the film was released. Flaherty fathered a son while filming; that along with the fact that he never returned to the Far North, nor sent financial support, created much derogatory comment over the years. There are strongly held opinions about this aspect of Flaherty’s life, but all judgments should consider, not only the racial biases of the time, but also the financial and domestic demands Frances put upon Robert throughout their lives.

Following the success of Nanook of the North, Robert and Frances were approached by Jesse L. Lasky, head of Famous Players-Lasky (which later became Paramount Pictures), the first firm that turned down distribution of Nanook.   Lasky offered Flaherty what amounted to a blank check.  He was to go anywhere in the world and bring back “Another Nanook.”  Flaherty became interested in the peoples of the Southwest Pacific through the eloquent descriptions of the Flahertys’  friend, Frederick O’Brien’s (1869-1932) book, White Shadows in the South Seas. O’Brien urged Flaherty to go to Samoa to record the lovely culture of its gentle people before it was further eroded by the incursions of foreigners. This was also a time when the public in Europe and America was fascinated by the South Pacific.  Robert, Frances, their small daughters, their nursemaid, and his brother David, along with many accouterments, set sail for the South Seas in 1923. They settled in the village of Safune with 16 tons of film equipment. In addition to the Akeley cameras used in Nanook, Flaherty brought a Prizma color camera, the same type that filmed The Delhi Durbar in India in 1911. Interestingly, anthropologist Margaret Mead, whose book Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) is a seminal anthropology text, arrived there in 1925. Mead, working with her husband Gregory Bateson, made only one major film, Trance and Dance in Bali (1952), another landmark in anthropology documentary.

Moana (US, 1926, Robert and Frances Flaherty)
Moana (US, 1926, Robert and Frances Flaherty)
Robert and Frances Flaherty Study Center Claremont, California

The Flahertys were aware of what Hollywood expected — another box office success – but did not know if Samoa could provide the drama of human survival found in Nanook. Samoan existence seemed to provide no drama at all.  Nature was munificent beyond belief, and life was easy going. For weeks Flaherty apparently sat on a veranda drinking apple beer, contemplating what form he might give to a film about Samoans.  During this time Frances, who learned photographic technique from Robert, took many beautiful still photographs, in a way creating a storyboard. The role of stills artist was reprised by Frances on every subsequent Flaherty feature.

The film, Moana (1926) was apparently made with the approval of the village leaders, as had been the case for Nanook of the North. Through his informal investigations into the culture Flaherty learned of a ritual that interested him but was no longer practiced.  Formerly, young Samoan men had been initiated into manhood by undergoing elaborate and intricate tattooing over much of their bodies. The Flahertys became convinced that because there were few physical threats to their existence, the Samoans had invented this test of endurance involving considerable pain. As was the case for some of the scenes in Nanook, this custom was revived, and the film was organized around the initiation of one Samoan youth, Moana.  Preceding and paralleling the scenes of tattooing are scenes of gathering food — in the jungle, from the sea, and along the shore — the making of clothing and ornaments, the preparing and cooking of a feast, and the dancing of the Siva by Moana with his intended bride.  When the tattooing was completed, there was a ceremonial drinking of kava (a fermented beverage that can cause relaxation and euphoria) by the chiefs, and a celebratory dance by the men of the village. ­

In every film, the Flahertys’ subjects and purposes led to innovations in technique and form.  He found a means other than the plotted story or simple topical organization of newsreels, travelogues, and expedition films to present real people and their everyday lives. Flaherty was intuitive and pragmatic, working with Frances, his brother David and others, building films out of long immersion in the culture of its subjects.  He also was a true film artist, and made profound contributions to aesthetic camera techniques and to the possible uses of film.  He experimented with film stocks and various lenses, spending days seeking the image he wanted. An enormous amount of footage was exposed.

On Moana, Flaherty was among the first to use Eastman Kodak’s new panchromatic film.  Though black and white (before practicable color was available), panchromatic film is sensitive to all colors of the spectrum, unlike the orthochromatic stock then in standard use.  Orthochromatic film did not respond to red and was prone to harsh contrasts, Moana, one of the earliest films shot with this stock, reflects a Samoa of deeply rich and varied shades of black and white. It was also on Moana that Flaherty first began to make extensive use of long (telephoto) lenses.  Almost all of Moana was shot with lenses of six inches focal length and upward; two inches then being standard. Their use had the obvious advantage of permitting the filming of distant and inaccessible subjects — the outrigger on the surf, for example.  Also, Flaherty found that his subjects were less self-conscious and behaved more naturally if the camera was some distance away from them.  Certain special photographic qualities resulted from the use of long lenses, “The figures had a roundness, a stereoscopic quality that gave to the picture a startling reality and beauty,” he wrote, “alive and real, the shadows softer and the breadfruit trees seemed like living things rather than a flat background.”

The organizing structures of Flaherty’s films involve loose narratives set within natural chronology.  Nanook extends through almost a year, beginning in late spring and ending in deep winter.  Moana covers the period of its hero’s initiation rites, from preparations through festive conclusion — somewhere between a month and six weeks. The separate sequences within the overall time spans describe the various kinds of work, ceremony, children’s play and other activities most characteristic and distinctive of these peoples. What Flaherty chose to show are traditional skills and customs that, while different from the “civilized,” ways of modern era, are rooted in common sense that all can appreciate.  Nanook’s kayak appears an extremely serviceable craft for navigating the ice-clogged waters of the far north. The igloo that Flaherty asked the Inuit to build seems an efficient and comfortable home, even though this one was constructed with a cut away side to create enough light for the camera.  In Samoa, clothing made from the bark of the mulberry tree and outriggers of carved wood and spars bound together with vines seem good use of what is readily available and well suited to tropical climate and rolling surf. Nothing in these films reflected the growing force of imperialism, nor the Machine Age, which had already greatly altered these communities. The Flaherty films have been criticized for not dealing with these modern problems, but social comment was never their purpose. With Moana they were eager to make a “hit” film, and the exoticism attributed South Pacific islands by Western culture might help with that.

What all the Flaherty films offer are beautiful visual descriptions of then unfamiliar human activities and artifacts, of exotic flora and fauna – a perfect purpose for a maker of silent films.  His films are all virtually silent.  When sound became available, it was used essentially as an accompaniment to the images, filling in another sensory dimension of reality with natural sounds, adding emotional color with music.  Dialogue is used sparingly in Flaherty’s two major sound films, Man of Aran (1934) and Louisiana Story (1948).  Mainly it serves to characterize the timbre and style of his subjects’ speech and to suggest their attitudes, more than to convey information or reveal psychological motivation. Those who spent long evenings in Flaherty’s company remembered him as a teller of tales, a consummate raconteur with a sure sense of drama.   The interaction between people and nature is the central theme in each film. It is these characteristics that cause some to apply the term “romantic” to his work.   The Flahertys used film language to create mystery and suspense, to arouse curiosity, to share with audiences the subjects that fascinated them.  One of many similar instances of this method occurs early in Moana when Moana’s younger brother, Pe’a, climbs a palm tree.  First, he is seen mid-frame, on a section of the trunk.  He is allowed to climb up out of frame; then the camera tilts up to re-center him.  Pe’a again climbs out of the frame and is again followed by the camera. By the third such camera tilt, when the treetop is seen, viewers are prepared to accept this as the tallest palm in the world.  Flaherty’s visual exposition is splendid in its simplicity and clarity.

The dramatis personae of the Flaherty films are the nuclear family arbitrarily structured along conventional Western cultural lines.  He did not acknowledge the polygamy practiced in traditional Inuit culture, nor the looseness of the Samoan family arrangement and the fluidity of sexual identity found there.  A Flaherty film family usually has:  a strong, mature father; gentle but heroic mother devoted to the concerns of the family; and a son who is finding his way into his cultural and natural surroundings.  The women in Flaherty’s films are supportive of the men in the struggle for existence, assisting them in domestic and ceremonial activities. Maggie, in Man of Aran, is the most forceful in her strength of character, independence, resourcefulness, and bravery.  The boys of his films are perhaps surrogates for the young Flaherty.  Water, boats, and fishing are important in the life of the films, as they were for the young Robert Flaherty.  The families were artificially created for the films, for the most part, with considerable care given to the casting.  Those selected to become father, mother, son, sister, and the rest are physically representative of the culture and attractive.  The sudden appearance of numerous Inuit, Samoans, or Aran Islanders for the trek to the fur traders, the performance of tribal dance, or the hunt for basking sharks is surprisingly juxtaposed with the prevailing intimacy and isolation of the central family.  Ages and stages of life are present, but there are no human deaths or births in Flaherty films.

A critical difference between the Flahertys and Hurley, Schoedsack, Curtis, the Johnsons, and others, is the philosophy behind their filmmaking. Hurley, for example, traveled only briefly in the islands, in contrast to the Flaherty method of living with and understanding the people there. Hurley did underwater photography and shot from an airplane. He was more interested in creating attractive, commercially successful adventure scenes than in seeking to poetically present an endangered way of life. His work is more like the sensationalism of Schoedsack and Cooper. Hurley’s artistic photographs and films, especially those of three Antarctic expeditions resonate today, but business decisions make clear his intentions. For US distribution Hurley changed the name of Pearls and Savages (in itself derogatory) to The Lost Tribe and promoted the film with a poster displaying the tagline, Thrilling Adventures and Discovery of the Semitic “Sambo” Savages. It is impossible to imagine the Flahertys titling a film in this way.

At the time no one was developing and printing film on location, then showing the film to its subjects, nor were they interested in interpreting indigenous peoples’ lives. The Flaherty methods of conception and production were original and unusual in at least two respects.  One was what was characterized by Frances, constructor of what became the “Flaherty Myth”, as “non-preconception.”  Rather than approaching a society with an idea of the film they wanted to make, the Flahertys chose to live with and befriend people, to discover their essential story, somewhat like the Inuit sculptor who cuts into the ivory tusk until he finds the seal figure it contains.  The other, corollary characteristic was Flaherty’s practice of shooting tremendous amounts of footage of the people and their environment that struck him as significant, or beautiful. The initial lack of fixed intention and seemingly random shooting were accompanied by long evenings of screenings, looking for the essences of the culture in the images, seeking the particular rhythms and graces of the life being shown.  As part of the editing process in each major film, Flaherty’s subjects and members of his family and crew screened the uncut footage with him and discussed it for days.

As innovative as his production methods were, his use of film language followed then accepted practice.  Flaherty’s camera was always mounted on a tripod.  His non-actors were directed to reenact things he had observed them do and to repeat their actions in multiple takes.  Though occasional lapses are evident, the sequences are constructed with long shot-medium shot-closeup, matching action and sightlines, and consistent screen direction. Though he tended to profess ignorance of technological matters, Flaherty was a natural and perhaps superb technician.  He also surrounded himself with masters in the technical.  From assistant cameraman Sam Sainsbury on Nanook through editor Helen von Dongen and cameraman Ricky Leacock, on Louisiana Story, skilled craftspeople and artists contributed to the films.  And Frances’ imprint is always there behind the scenes guiding and protecting. The Flahertys seem never to have stuck to pre-written scripts, using notes collected during years of research and still photographs.  However, they as a team received a 1949 Oscar nomination for Best Story, Motion Picture. This recognition was most likely based on the script they were required to submit to the film’s sponsor, the Shell Oil Company, which commissioned the film to promote its drilling operations in the Louisiana Bayou.

Man of Aran was the Flahertys’ first sound film. On the Irish island of Inishmore it would have been next to impossible to record synchronous sound with the cumbersome optical equipment then in use.  (Magnetic recording was not yet available.)  To solve this problem Flaherty post-recorded in a London studio a soundtrack made up of music and noises and fragments of speech, laying it over the images in a complex and poetic blend.  Louisiana Story was his one film in which sound was recorded on location, using a direct to disc method, with poor results.

The Flaherty Way

One aspect of Flaherty’s lasting significance is his special use of the film medium, which grew out of his creative impulse and experiences with indigenous people. Flaherty used film to show the people he loved and admired to cinema audiences. He was not an anthropologist; he idealized and interpreted as an artist does. The view the films offer is his view. Admittedly colored by his own early life and early 20th Century culture, the Flahertys’ vision transcended the era in which they lived.  At the 1904 Saint Louis World’s Fair, as was common at exhibitions of the time, pygmies were shown in made-up “villages” as curiosities, not considered fully human.  Flaherty films never condescended to or marginalized their subjects in this way.  In some respects, the films are as much about Robert Flaherty — his pleasures, his prejudices, his convictions, as about the people he was filming.  Often, they were set back in time to recapture and preserve cultures that were disappearing, and they always presented people at their finest, simplest, and noblest, gaining their cooperation to achieve this presentation.  Man of Aran especially, in which the hunting of basking sharks was recreated from past practices, and the urgent present economic problems of Aran ignored, was criticized for its “distortions”, especially by John Grierson.

Flaherty did not totally invent nor glamorize.  The films were not created from make-believe; all that is shown did happen or had happened in the lives of the people.

True, the Flahertys usually stuck to peoples in far corners of the earth and dealt with the essentials of their traditional existence.  But this is not exoticism à la “Hollywood”, as was the case with Tabu (1931), on which Flaherty worked for a time with F. W. Murnau in Tahiti, but which became Murnau’s eroticized love story after Flaherty departed. In the Flahertys’ films there are neither “colorful natives” nor “native color.”  Instead, they show how different cultures are alike, rather than how different and strange.  This approach was shared by the developing field of visual anthropology, but unlike anthropological studies, Nanook ends with a closeup of Nanook’s grinning face, and audiences may think, “There’s a man I’ve enjoyed getting to know.  If I were in his situation, I hope I would be able to do things as well as he does.”

Simply categorizing Flaherty as a “romantic,” somewhat misses the point.  One can see what Paul Rotha was thinking when he called Flaherty films romantic, in that the people and settings and the way they are presented are linked with the noble savage of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the idealized landscapes of early nineteenth-century painters. The image of “man against the sky” found so often in the Flaherty films can be viewed as romantic, but Flaherty films have little to do with the romanticism of the “romantic movement”, resting as it does on individual imagination and heightened emotions. Flaherty worked with what he understood and said what he had to say.  Like many artists of substance this was essentially one thing.  The great French director Jean Renoir once remarked that a filmmaker spends his whole life making one film over and over again.  Flaherty, a good friend of Renoir, repeatedly showed that humankind has an innate dignity, and beauty dwells in its patterns of existence.

The Flaherty Legacy

Though no school or movement ever formed around him, other documentarians have continuously followed Flaherty’s example, often without understanding or acknowledging his methods and purpose.   Nanook is a recognizable name even in the 21st Century, and the idea of observing and recording people in their own milieu with a sympathetic eye continues to be a vital strand in documentary making. Many also cite Nanook of the North as being among the first ethnographic films, and as anthropologists continue to debate about the role of filmmaking in their discipline, no one doubts that Flaherty holds a seminal place in it. The main strength of Flaherty’s vision for ethnographic filmmaking lies in his refusal to pass judgment on his subjects.   The films are about Flaherty’s own unique poetic way of looking at life.  For this, his work is cherished, not only by visual anthropologists, but also by other kinds of filmmakers working today.  For others, including John Grierson, Flaherty’s lack of social comment was his downfall, perhaps even the antithesis of what they called documentary, especially during WWII. Yet the films speak for themselves, and the major works continue to resonate with audiences today.

Like almost every white woman in the Western world of her time, Frances, and the society around her, minimized her contributions. In the thinking of that time her job was to foster Robert’s genius. Born in 1883, she spent her formative years absorbing the ideals and the mores of the late Victorian world, when women were defined by marriage and motherhood.  Despite her privilege, intelligence, education, sophistication, and hard work she chose to facilitate and promote her husband while seeking no recognition for herself.  Her passion continued after Robert’s early death in 1951, with a dogged determination to paint Robert Flaherty as she wished him to be remembered. In 1954 Frances invited a group of eight filmmakers and students, some of whom had worked with them, to gather at the Flaherty farm in Dummerston, Vermont to look at Flaherty films, to reflect on his vision of filmmaking, as articulated by her, and to discuss their own works.  The seminar continues to this day with around 100 students, filmmakers, curators, critics who spend a week each summer, isolated from everyday concerns, completely immersed in films and discussions. Through the decades, and despite the shifting preferences of various factions, the Seminars continue, having influenced thousands of people.  The true meaning of the Seminar is often lost in today’s proceedings, negating a vital part of cinema history. It has moved far away from Frances’ goals, and in many ways is now the antithesis of her vision. This unfortunate path misses a most important legacy; the Flaherty films’ extraordinary beauty, technical achievements, and respectful approach to the people of various cultures. Despite the many criticisms levied again the Flahertys, their films continue to resonate and move modern audiences.

John Grierson and the British documentarians employed some of Flaherty’s form, albeit to very different subjects and purposes. The British were concerned with people in an industrialized, interdependent, and predominantly urban society. Grierson wanted films to promote a better life and a promising future. His, and others’ interests were social, economic, and political by implication.  Grierson often attacked Flaherty, despite their deep friendship.  But, in a moving “Appreciation” published in The New York Times at the time of Flaherty’s death in 1951, Grierson said of his old friend and ideological adversary, that perhaps Flaherty had been right after all in pursuing the timeless rather than the timely.  In eulogy, Grierson wrote of Flaherty’s seminal importance in the history of film, concluding with a quote from e.e. Cummings in loving tribute to Flaherty:

Buffalo Bill ’s
               who used to
               ride a watersmooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
he was a handsome man 
                                                  and what i want to know is
how do you like your blue-eyed boy
Mister Death