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Moana (1926 film)

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Director  Robert J. Flaherty
Music director  James C. Bradford
Country  United States
6.8/10 IMDb

Genre  Documentary
Moana (1926 film) movie poster
Release date  January 7, 1926 (1926-01-07) (U.S.)
Writer  Robert J. Flaherty (screenplay), Robert J. Flaherty (titles), Julian Johnson (titles)
Cast  Faamgase, Pea, Taavale, Tugaita
Screenplay  Robert J. Flaherty, Julian Johnson
Similar movies  Related Robert J Flaherty movies

Filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty spends a year living in a village in Samoa documenting the life of the villagers.

Moana (pronounced [?mo.ana]) is a 1926 American documentary film, or more strictly a work of docufiction, that was directed by Robert J. Flaherty, the creator of Nanook of the North (1922).

Robert J. Flaherty's South Seas follow-up to Nanook of the North is a Gauguin idyll moved by "pride of beauty... pride of strength."


Moana was filmed in Samoa in the villages of Safune district on the island of Savaii. The name of the lead male character, moana means deep water in the Samoan language. In making the film, Flaherty lived with his wife and collaborator Frances and their three daughters in Samoa for more than a year. Flaherty arrived in Samoa in April 1923 and stayed until December 1924, with the film being completed in December 1925.

Hoping that Flaherty could repeat the success of Nanook, Paramount Pictures sent him to Samoa to capture the traditional life of the Polynesians on film. Flaherty reportedly arrived with 16 tons of filmmaking equipment. This included both a regular movie camera and a Prizma color camera, as Flaherty hoped to film some footage in that color process, but the Prizmacolor camera malfunctioned. Moana is thought to be the first feature film made with panchromatic black-and-white film, rather than the orthochromatic film commonly used at the time in Hollywood feature films. Flaherty developed his film as he went along, in a cave on Savaii. In the process, he inadvertently poisoned himself and required treatment after drinking water from the cave that contained silver nitrate which had washed off the film stock. The silver nitrate also caused spots to form on the negative.

As in the earlier Nanook (and his later film, Man of Aran), Flaherty went well beyond recording the life of the people of Samoa as it happened. He followed his usual procedure of "casting" locals whom he considered potentially photogenic performers into "roles", including creating fictitious family relationships. He also, as in the other films, on occasion set up scenes in which exotic earlier practices were reenacted as if still current. In Nanook and Man of Aran, this included setting up anachronistic hunting sequences. In Moana, at a time when Samoans were typically wearing modern Western-style clothing under the influence of Christian missionaries, Flaherty persuaded his performers to don traditional tapa cloth costumes (made from the bark of the paper mulberry tree, in a process shown in some detail in the film); the "maidens" went topless. He also staged a coming-into-manhood ritual in which the young male lead underwent a painful traditional Samoan tattoo; a practice that had already become obsolete by that time (and for which the young man required to be generously compensated). Devices of this sort have led to Flahertys films sometimes being categorized as "docufiction".

Beyond this, it emerged that living off the land and the ocean in Samoa was comparatively easy, leaving limited scope for Flaherty to draw on his favored theme of "Man against Nature" as he had in Nanook and was to do again in Man of Aran. Thus, although the film was visually stunning and drew critical praise at the time, it lacked the raw drama of Nanook, which may have contributed to its failure at the box office.

The word documentary was first applied in a cinematic context in a review of this movie written by "The Moviegoer", a pen name for John Grierson, in the New York Sun on 8 February 1926.

The youngest of the children Robert and Frances Flaherty brought with them to Samoa was their then-3-year-old daughter Monica. In 1975, Monica Flaherty returned to Savaii to create a soundtrack for her parents’ hitherto-silent film, including recording ambient sounds of village life, dubbed Samoan dialogue and traditional singing. The resulting "Moana with Sound" was completed in 1980, with help from filmmakers Jean Renoir and Richard Leacock, and first shown publicly in Paris in 1981. At that stage, however, with the original negative no longer in existence, the visual quality of Monica Flahertys 16 mm print (a copy of a copy of her fathers original 35 mm nitrate film) left much to be desired, and it was to suffer further degradation with time. More recently, however, preservationist and curator Bruce Posner and Finnish filmmaker Sami van Ingen, a great-grandson of the Flahertys, drew on the best surviving 35 mm copies of the film to prepare, with the assistance of restorer Thomas Bakels, a digitally restored print, which was matched by sound expert Lee Dichter to Monica Flaherty’s soundtrack. The restored "Moana with Sound" was shown at the New York Film Festival on September 30, 2014, and has also appeared, among other showings, at the National Archives in Washington DC (January 2015). The program for the New York Film Festival describes the restored version as "absolutely wondrous".


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