Film Review: Moana with Sound

Remarkable restoration of a silent South Seas documentary, with a soundtrack recorded 50 years later by filmmaker Robert Flaherty's daughter Monica.
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After the box-office success of Nanook of the North (1922), filmmaker Robert Flaherty signed a contract with Paramount Pictures to make a similar movie set in the South Seas. Moana didn't sell as many tickets as Nanook, but its influence over the years has been incalculable. It was for this movie that critic John Grierson first used the term "documentary."

The story behind Moana is almost as interesting as the movie. In 1923, Flaherty took his family to Savai'i, a volcanic island which at the time was part of British Samoa. They remained until the end of 1924, Flaherty and his wife Frances working with locals to recreate rituals and traditions that decades of missionary zeal had tried to erase.

Flaherty filmed on Kodak's new panchromatic black-and-white stock, developing his footage in a cave, projecting his rushes, then restaging scenes until he was satisfied with the material. It took the filmmaker an additional year to finish editing.

Moana received rapturous reviews when it opened in New York in 1926. Flaherty worked briefly on W.S. Van Dyke's MGM feature White Shadows in the South Seas (1928), and with F.W. Murnau for his Tabu (1931), but returned to independent filmmaking with his feature Man of Aran in 1934.

Flaherty's daughter Monica traveled to Savai'i in 1975 with filmmaker Ricky Leacock to record a soundtrack for her father's movie. Unfortunately, she was unable to work with 35mm picture elements. In 1980, she screened Moana with a soundtrack synchronized to a stretch-printed 16mm copy. Despite the compromised visuals, her work was championed by film historian Kevin Brownlow and composer Virgil Thomson. Simple, subdued, her soundtrack is an excellent complement to her father's movie.

In 2014, archivist Bruce Posner and Finnish filmmaker Sami van Ingen finished a restoration of Moana that used a 1925 nitrate print struck from Flaherty's camera negative and a remixed version of his daughter's soundtrack.

A series of impressionistic scenes rather than a straightforward documentary, Moana is an idealized look at a way of life that had largely disappeared by the time Flaherty started filming. (He subtitled the movie A Romance of the Golden Age.)

Moana builds a narrative of sorts around the title character (played by Ta'avale Uni) and his family, including his troublemaking younger brother Pe'a and fiancée Fa'angase. Moana and his father Tupenga hunt wild boar, harvest taro and breadfruit, and fish with rods and spears. Pe'a climbs a 75-foot tree for coconuts, and later starts a fire to smoke prey from a cave. Fa'angase gathers giant clams. She also helps Moana's mother Tu'ungaita stretch and dye fabric from the bark of a paper mulberry tree.

Flaherty filmed tribal chants and dances, and an elaborate tattooing ceremony. But Moana is more than an academic work, it is a portrait of people unencumbered by modern society. Crucially, Flaherty doesn't present Moana and his family as less equal than their "civilized" counterparts. He sees the Samoans as complex, fully formed personalities, and treats them with respect and appreciation, even during the movie's charged erotic encounters.

Moana is praiseworthy as a glimpse into Samoan life, but it is even more remarkable for Flaherty's imagery. Sky and sea, jungle and village, all appear in the lustrous sheen only nitrate can give. Flaherty's compositions, his exposures, his sense of how to define place or show action placed him at the forefront of cinematography. In Moana he found his greatest subjects.

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