Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Man of Aran

(Ireland, 1934)

This is the third of the documentaries of Robert J. Flaherty. He only made five of them. I remember being knocked out by it, as I had been earlier by Nanook of the North, when I saw them at film society screenings at Michigan State. Back then I thought it was all accurate, telling it like it is …

But it wasn’t. Flaherty’s reputation has suffered since his real story became more widely known. He did things that modern documentarians would never do, like staging scenes. In this one, showing the very hard life of the people of this tiny Scottish island that is so rocky that they have to make their own topsoil, he was showing a way of life that didn’t really exist anymore, much the same as he had Nanook and his people re-enact customs and events from an earlier time. His main characters were a man, his wife, and their son … but they weren’t even related.

The most amazing and harrowing scene, for instance, was a long battle with a basking shark, the second-largest fish in the sea, at around 25 feet long. It is true that the people of Aran used to hunt these monsters from small boats, but in 1934 they no longer did.

For myself, I cut him a lot of slack. He pretty much single-handedly invented the documentary feature film, so there really were no hard and fast rules at the time. The films he made still stand as classics, and the black and white photography can be stunningly beautiful. He endured a lot of hardships to get his footage, of which he shot a huge amount. The only thing I can really fault him for is persuading those Aranese men to go out and battle that damn shark when they really didn’t know what they were doing. They could have been killed. But from what I understand, they were happy to be in his film.