Review: Moana

Moana : A Romance of the Golden Age — The Love-Hate Relationship between Robert Flaherty, Hollywood, and Samoa

Wang, Yae-Wei

Planning Department Manager, Public Television Service Foundation

Robert Flaherty’s classic Nanook of the North received enthusiastic reviews and huge box office success at Metropolitan Theater in New York in June 1923, and the film then went on to do very well nationwide and overseas propelling the previously unknown Flaherty to instant stardom in the movie industry. Nine months later Paramount Pictures Corporation approached Flaherty with an enticing offer to “Go off somewhere and make another Nanook. Go where you will, do what you like. We’ll foot the bills. The world’s your oyster.”Being tapped by a major Hollywood studio confirmed Flaherty’s unique technical prowess and box office appeal. It was virtually impossible to refuse such a generous offer. The only question was where to film.

Given the suddenness of the offer, Flaherty had not thought at all about where to make his next film, but his natural impulse was to do the same thing he had done in Nanook of the North-a film richly showing an indigenous way of life that was being threatened by the encroachment of outside culture. After discussing the matter with friends, Flaherty decided on Samoa. He was especially excited because a camera equipment company pledged to provide newly developed cameras, telephoto lenses, and films for his experimentation.

In May 1923, Flaherty departed for Samoa with his wife Frances, their three children, his younger brother David, and the family’s nursemaid. Their final destination was a village called Safune. The setting was idyllic-a beautiful island, moderate weather, and an ample food supply that only required gathering. The environment stood in complete contrast with the frozen north where the Inuit lived on the edge of starvation and ate the raw flesh of their caught prey. In Samoa, survival was never in doubt, and even the act of food gathering involved a good deal of frolicking. Flaherty immediately realized the challenge he faced. With his previous film, all he had to do was record the struggle of the Inuit for survival in an unforgiving environment. The story told itself. In contrast, the paradise of Samoa offered no similarly moving experience. And Flaherty’s own background threw up an even more fundamental stumbling block. When he filmed Nanook of the North, he was working in that arctic region already nearly 20 years. He was very knowledgeable about the Eskimo way of life, and had developed a special feeling for the people after having spent so much time with them over the years. With his second film, however, he knew very little at all about the South Pacific peoples, and because he was now being bankrolled by a motion picture studio, he was under deadline pressure that left him with less time than he really needed for the task at hand. He was required to finish filming in one or two years, all the while taking into account the prospects for box office success.

After a few months in Safune, Flaherty proposed a romantic story for a film entitled Moana based on traditional lifestyles that no longer existed in Samoa. The film’s subtitle-A Romance of the Golden Age-hinted at Flaherty’s purpose. Samoan traditions had already by that time undergone significant change due to the influence of British colonial rule and the Christian missionaries among the islanders. Some aspects of Samoan tradition had already vanished, but Flaherty resurrected them in order to spin an entertaining tale.

From the local villages Flaherty recruited six people to act as a family living out a traditional lifestyle. The main character was a young man named Moana who was preparing to go through his coming-of-age ceremony. The characters in the story were his older brother Leupenga, his younger brother P’ea, his mother Tu’angaita, his bride-to-be Fa’angase, and a tufunga (tattoo expert). One aspect of the film depicts a “happy-go-lucky” people living in a land of plenty. The other focus is the application of a tattoo to young Moana in his coming-of-age ceremony. The early part of the film shows the gathering of items that will be needed for Moana’s coming-of-age ceremony. His family members are seen collecting taro root, banana, mulberry bark, and coconut. They also catch fish and a wild boar. The middle part of the film shows traditional Samoan methods of cloth making, cooking, and various other exotic looking vignettes. In the final two scenes we see flirting between Moana and his bride-to-be, the beautiful dances by the two, and the highlight of the film-the application of the tattoo.

In reality by the 1920s the tattoo culture was already past heritage in Samoa. Flaherty had to pay young Moana a considerable sum to get him to undergo the painful ritual. It took six weeks to film the tattoo ceremony because young Moana had a hard time putting on the brave expression that Flaherty was looking for. The filming progressed only a bit at a time.

As Flaherty was busy spinning his romantic tale, the people of Samoa were groaning under the pressure of British colonial masters and Christian missionaries seeking to do away with their traditional culture. At the time the islanders were prohibited from dressing in their traditional attire including their hairstyles. Witchcraft rituals were naturally not encouraged, and animism was replaced by a transplanted monotheistic belief in Christianity. Flaherty still continued with his original agenda even after many months on the island, choosing to ignore the social problems swirling all around him. According to Flaherty’s methods, he paid the villagers who took part in the making of his film, then asked them to depart radically from the pattern of their daily lives in order to fit into his story.

Richard M. Marsam, a historian of documentaries, stated critically “There might seem to be no big harm in doing something like that, but it is symptomatic of a deep-seated indifference to social, psychological, and economic realities, as if one need not be at all concerned about other people’s problems.” Another authority on documentaries, William T. Murphy, points out “Flaherty didn’t realize that even though a primitive society may seem quite simple at first glance, its complexity and rituals reflect needs and anxieties that are just as acute as those seen today in any modern civilization.” From today’s perspective it seems clear that Flaherty, having agreed to cooperate with a major Hollywood studio, had little choice but to adopt the methods that he chose. Operating under time and box office pressure, Flaherty could only operate within the confines of the romanticism with which he was familiar in order to create a fictional protagonist, and to use this figure’s ordeal as a means of creating a transcendent message of universal resonance, one that people throughout the world could sympathize with and understand. But Flaherty ignored the real nature of the personal and social interactions in Samoa and chose to simplify their complex relationships with their culture and the surrounding environment. Flaherty attempted to bend reality to fit his story. He rejected anthropological and scientific techniques of observation and verification, and reveled instead in his own subjectivity and his ad-lib style of filmmaking. He went to great lengths to create a “noble savage” image of life in Samoa. The results did not hold up to scrutiny, thus it detracts from the value of the film.

As a pioneer of the documentary genre, however, we should see Flaherty indeed as a product of the time in which he lived. And, if someone objects to the limitations thereof, after all, when documentary motion picture director John Grierson coined the term “documentary,” he did so after viewing Moana. The aesthetics, ethics, and theory of documentary filmmaking have gradually developed since then. It was only after the anthropologist Margaret Mead published Coming of Age in Samoa two years later that people began developing ideas about the significance of scholarly principles in discerning a culture as a guide the making of ethnographic documentaries. Flaherty was the one who did the initial spade work.