This is a big week for documentaries on Seattle Screens. The big name, of course is the new Frederick Wiseman film, In Jackson Heights which plays Friday through Thursday at the Northwest Film Forum. We’ll have a review of that sometime soon, once we’ve managed to see it. But two other non-fiction films of interest open this week as well. The Grand Illusion is presenting a 2014 restoration of a 1980 updating of a classic 1926 documentary, Moana, the second feature from Robert Flaherty, the man who more or less legitimated documentary filmmaking as an art form with his first feature, Nanook of the North in 1924, while at the same time muddying for all time the distinction between fiction and non-fiction film. A few blocks south on the Ave, the Varsity is playing director Nelson George’s glowing tribute to Misty Copeland, who just this summer became the first African-American principal dancer at the prestigious American Ballet Theatre.
Moana with Sound is a new version of the silent original created by Flaherty’s daughter Monica. In the late 1970s she returned to the Samoan locations where her parents spent several years living and shooting the 1926 film. Her film was made with the best available film elements at the time, which weren’t in particularly good shape. This 2014 version is a complete digital restoration of the film, synced to the soundtrack Monica and her team assembled. The effect is very weird, like watching three different movies superimposed upon each other. Like Flaherty’s other films, Moana is an ethnographic documentary. He would typical go and live in some remote corner of the world, learn about the people living there and make a movie about them. Not guided by any doctrinaire notions of “truth” or “realism”, Flaherty would routinely stage and script scenes for his performers to act out, often going about tasks or behaving not as they would in their normal lives, but as their ancestors might have done decades or even centuries earlier. His goal was never to capture the facts of they way people live now, but rather to tell fascinating stories about the ways humans have adapted to extreme environments: the Arctic in Nanook, the rocky windswept island of Man of Aran, the bayou of Louisiana Story and the tropical paradises of Moana and Tabu.
That last film is an obvious point of comparison with Moana. Released in 1931, Tabu was conceived as a collaboration between Flaherty and superstar director FW Murnau. Flaherty’s location specifics would be merged with Murnau’s lyrical expressionism to create a kind of documentary/fiction hybrid. The two clashed horribly of course and Flaherty ended up abandoning the project (it would go on to be Murnau’s final film, he died in a car accident shortly before its release in 1931). Murnau’s story is a haunting fairy tale of love and the forces of evil conspiring against it. It uses documentary aspects to create a believable world in which archetypal forces operate, guiding his heroes to their doom. Flaherty’s South Seas film is much less narratively ambitious. A prosaic look at various activities of a small group of Samoans, the film eventually reveals its various activities (making a dress out of bark, capturing a giant turtle, gathering cocoanuts) as the prelude to a great ceremony, the marriage of the eponymous hero. The darkest force at work is a very annoyed boar.
The activities Flaherty documents appear to be entirely staged, he’s not a fly on the wall but a creative force guiding the action for the purpose not so much at deception but at communicating certain distinctive aspects of Samoan life. That many of the activities he documents are no longer (or never were) practiced by the Samoans he’s filming is beside the point. For the purpose of the film, Moana undergoes an extremely painful tattooing procedure, a technique which had become obsolete by the time of filming. Similarly his Samoans are dressed throughout in traditional costumes, though Western clothes would have been more in fashion at the time. Like with Man of Aran, which stages a shark hunt despite the fact that the islanders he was ostensibly documenting never actually hunted sharks, Flaherty was interested less in documenting reality that in capturing a more universal experience. In the other films, the story is a dramatic one of humanity carving out an existence on the edge of the world. Moana on the other hand presents an idyllic vision. Or rather, all the films present idyllic vision, all of Flaherty’s communities exist happily in harmony with nature. They hunt, they makes clothes, they have celebrations and dances and love and happiness. The weather just happens to be much nicer in Moana.
The added soundtrack and subsequent digital restoration add extra layers of artificiality and unreality to Flaherty’s visions. The sounds Monica Flaherty recorded may be from the same locations, the voices speaking the same words and languages, but as expertly synced as they are, they remain separated from their images by a distance of 50 years or more, just as the images themselves are documents of cultural practices decades out of date. Similarly, in digitizing the film to match it with the soundtrack, the frame rate appears to be manipulated. Motion is neither as natural nor as jerky as it would be in a 1926 film, everything feels a little to smooth, the action a little too slow. The imdb lists the running time of the original as 85 minutes, while this version is 97 minutes. I don’t know if that’s because of new footage added in either the 1980 or 2014 restorations, or because they simply slowed Flaherty’s images down. Regardless, the effect is eerie, but not unpleasant.
*I am informed of the following from Brian Alter, programmer at the Grand Illusion:
The guy who restored the film, Bruce Posner, says that Monica Flaherty “altered the frame rate to run at different film speeds (14-16-18-24 FPS) depending upon what action was being depicted on-screen. The 2014 digital restoration added nothing except a very nice quality 35mm nitrate and safety print sources to replace the 16mm print used by Monica and much smoother movements than possible in the 1980 version.”
A Ballerina’s Tale is as brazenly authored a documentary as anything Flaherty ever made. Director Nelson George has a very clear message he’s ostensibly attempting to share: Misty Copeland is great and the ballet world has shamefully neglected African-American dancers for far too long. At it’s worst, the film is less strident than sentimental, George doesn’t so much make an argument for the skill of earlier neglected dancers as present the obvious fact that they were discriminated against (of course: how could one prove the skill of a dancer who never got a chance at center stage). The best evidence for the loss the ballet world has suffered for its decades (centuries) of racism is the abilities of Misty Copeland herself. But weirdly, we don’t really get to see her at work all that much (what we do get to see is terrific of course, she’s a marvelous dancer). Perhaps after a more general audience, one that would get bored with long performance sequences and wouldn’t really know good ballet from mediocre anyway, the film focuses less on her performances than on her self. We get her narrating her story, see glimpses of her personality in talking to other people (older African-American ballerinas in particular, but also George himself in a weird meta-moment halfway through the movie when they appear to meet for the first time, this is followed by a stylistic shift in the film, becoming more verité and less like television), footage of her posing for photographers and appearing in advertisements. A lengthy digression documents her struggle, on the cusp of stardom, with a series of injuries. Far more time is spent documenting her physical form than ideas she has about the world or about her art form, or in interrogating her personal history. A film ostensibly about a dancer tells us that it’s a movie about a star, but shows us that it’s a movie about a body. A body that symbolizes progress (and progress must be aware of history). A body dedicated to tasks which should be impossible for any body to perform and which is constantly in danger of shattering under the pressure its put under.
The best recent documentaries about ballet, Wiseman’s Ballet and La danse and Jody Lee Lipes’s Ballet 422 take a distanced, non-narrated (though not non-narrative) approach to their subject. In showing the ballet as a process, as a matter of work, they simultaneously demystify and reify the creation of art, the sublimity of institutions dedicated to an idealistic purpose. With a style borrowed from cinema-verité, but under no illusions about the fact that their images are as carefully constructed as their narratives, they draw the audience into an alien world with nary a talking head or intertitle to orient us. A Ballerina’s Tale, at times, adopts this approach, especially in the long stretches of Copeland’s recovery and rehabilitation from injury. At other times, it feels as phony as a Flaherty reconstruction. What Wiseman and Lipes know is that the best parts of Flaherty’s film, the best parts of George’s film, the best parts of any documentary, are the images, and the sounds, of people at work. We like to watch people doing things.
Moana with Sound plays Friday November 20 – Thursday November 26 at the Grand Illusion Cinema.
A Ballerina’s Tale plays Friday November 20 – Thursday November 26 at the Varsity Theatre.