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Restoring the Lost Flaherty Classic 'Moana With Sound'

By Cynthia Close

Courtesy of Kino Classics

Moana With Sound, 1926/1980, B&W, 98 min.
by Robert J. Flaherty, Frances Hubbard Flaherty and Monica Flaherty
Released by Kino Classics, 2015
DVD Includes Special Features: Moana With Sound: A Short History, 39 minutes; About the Restoration, 12 minutes; Flaherty and Film: Moana, 1960, 17-minute interview with Frances Flaherty by Robert Gardner; Flaherty Family Home Movies, 5 minutes; Twenty-Four Dollar Island, 1925, 10-minute experimental "city symphony" by Robert Flaherty; Filmed commentaries by historians Enrico Camporesi and Bruce Posner; Promo Trailer, 2015

Robert Flaherty was initially an accidental filmmaker. This man, now regarded as one of the great forefathers of documentary film, originally set out to be a prospector, just as his father had been. Born in 1884 in Iron Mountain, Michigan, he moved with his family to Canada's northernmost territories when he was still a boy. There, he spent 16 months in the early 1920s exploring, living with and filming the Inuit. Out of this footage he made Nanook of the North (1922), his first, and best known, film. Widely distributed in theaters by Paramount, it became a huge international success, and it set the bar for excellence in nonfiction filmmaking.

Based on the commercial success of Nanook, the Paramount execs offered Flaherty the opportunity to "go anywhere in the world" he wanted, as long as he could "bring back another Nanook." Through word of mouth, Flaherty heard about the exotic lifestyles on the beautiful South Sea island of Savai'i, then a protectorate of New Zealand. He, along with his wife and collaborator, Frances Hubbard Flaherty, and their three children, took film and camera equipment and headed off to the Samoan island to observe and document what they were told was a rapidly disappearing culture.

The Flahertys were neither anthropologists nor trained filmmakers. By nature they were genuinely interested in the people they filmed, forming relationships that allowed them access, giving their films the much-admired qualities of intimacy and authenticity. Frances tells us in a 1960 interview with Robert Gardner, founder of the film program at Harvard University, that her husband was so admired by the chiefs and elders in Samoa that they made him an honorary "Great Chief." She goes on to say they were looking for a "dramatic arc" for the story they hoped to film in Samoa: another battle for survival against nature, similar to what Flaherty had created in Nanook. They even had hoped to find some ancient sea monsters, like a giant squid, in an attempt to create drama. Frances reflected, "How do you make a film about a subject you know nothing about?" After weeks of failing to find any monsters, real or imagined, they decided to put away their preconceptions about the kind of film they would make or the story to be told and just started shooting the people and learning about their daily lives, and about rituals that in some cases had recently been discarded, but not forgotten.

Tattooing had been an important and dramatic part of Samoan culture. They decided to loosely structure their film around a young man named Moana and his coming of age, which includes ritual tattooing as well as eventual courtship and marriage to his chosen love. At the time of shooting, some Samoan men still had the nearly full-body tattoos that had by then fallen out of favor due in part to the pain this ritual inflicted. But Moana obliged Flaherty by submitting himself to partial tattooing on camera, which created a moment of tension in an otherwise serene, lyrical, poetic narrative. This method of using "real" people as actors in films that are also cultural artifacts may have first been utilized by Flaherty. Later, Bulgarian anthropologist and filmmaker Asen Balikci relied on re-enactments by native actors in his Netsilik Eskimo films of the 1950s and '60s, and Jean Rouch, the French New Wave filmmaker, worked with his African friends as subjects in his films throughout his career.

Arguably Flaherty may have put some of his "actors" at risk for the sake of re-enacting the actual drama of their lives, but he also put himself at risk. During his shooting of Moana, he was developing his film in a cave on Savai'i and nearly died, having inadvertently poisoned himself by drinking the water from the cave, which contained silver nitrate that had washed off the film stock. Luckily he survived, but the film, unfortunately, did not do as well as anticipated.

Courtesy of Kino Classics

Ultimately, Moana, which means "the sea," was released as a silent, black-and-white film in 1926. It came out at a time of transition, when silent films were giving way to the "talkies." As a result, Paramount did not put much effort into marketing Moana. It had disappointing returns in the United States and eventually fell out of public view, although it was received more enthusiastically in Europe. Nanook, along with Flaherty's later classics, Man of Aran and the 1948 Oscar nominated Louisiana Story, solidified his place in the pantheon of documentary film, while Moana was seen by few and languished.

Monica, the youngest of Flaherty's three children, was about three years old during the family's stay in Samoa. The family moved to Dummerston, Vermont, in the 1940s and Robert Flaherty died there in 1951. Home movies of the three kids, in Samoan dress, re-enacting the dances included in Moana, are included as extras in this new DVD release of the restored version of Moana With Sound, a project spearheaded by Monica that has taken over 35 years to complete. In the mid-1970s, Monica decided to return to Savai'I, along with renowned cinema vérité filmmaker Ricky Leacock, to record a soundtrack that accurately re-created the sensual feel of the place, the ambient sound of the waves, birds and human voices as seen in the original film. It was an arduous, painstaking task, but they managed to sync the sound with the images in an astoundingly accurate way that enhanced the poetry and aesthetic experience of the original film. The film was released in 1980. A very informative short documentary about the history of the making of Moana With Sound includes a commentary with Leacock about his work with Monica Flaherty.

While an aesthetic achievement, Moana With Sound had technical limitations that became more evident with time. Monica had worked with a 16mm print that was a copy several generations removed from her father's original 35mm nitrate film. It lacked the clarity of the original and had not survived well since its 1980 release. It was at this point that Bruce Posner, a film preservationist and curator, who met Monica Flaherty in 1980, took on the task of managing the restoration of Moana With Sound. Posner teamed up with Finnish filmmaker Sami van Ingen, Flaherty's great grandnephew, to track down all the existing 35mm prints of Moana. This in itself was an odyssey that took them around the world—from the Library of Congress to the British Film Institute, the Cinématheque in Paris, and other archives in Sweden, Germany, New Zealand, Russia and Serbia.

Once the best materials were located, the job of restructuring the film digitally was done by Thomas Bakels in Germany. He also digitally restored Fritz Lang's Metropolis and Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. Next, Posner brought the visually restored work to Lee Dichter in New York for the sound mix. Besides having worked on sound with Woody Allen, the Coen Brothers, Mike Nichols, Robert Altman and many others, Dichter had also collaborated with Monica Flaherty on the original 1980 release of Moana With Sound.

The outstanding result of this complex process is offered on this DVD. While the film itself is of great value to film historians and cinephiles alike, the story of the restoration is a separate but equally rewarding saga to those of us involved with the work of film preservation and archiving. It lays out a roadmap of the trials and tribulations encountered in the restoration process, and provides clear directions on how to overcome them to benefit us all for generations to come.


Cynthia Close is the former president of Documentary Educational Resources. She currently resides in Burlington, Vermont, where she consults on the business of film and serves on the advisory board of the Vermont International Film Festival.