Flaherty's Flawed Masterpiece

'If you were to ask passers-by on the street if they'd be interested in seeing a 1934 documentary about the harsh day-to-day existence of a tiny community living on a remote island off the coast of Ireland - well, you'd be standing there all day before you could find someone who'd say, "sure!". Which is really a disappointment because they don't know what they're missing!'

Made in 1934, Man of Aran is a fictional documentary - what’s called ‘docufiction’ - by American explorer, filmmaker and visual anthropologist, Robert J Flaherty about life on the remote Aran Islands off the western coast of Ireland. Three years in the making, Man of Aran is an epic portrayal of life in a brutal, beautiful and pioneering film where families eked out a living from fish, potatoes and shark oil. Its characters live in pre-modern conditions, follow their daily routines such as fishing off high cliffs, farming potatoes - where there is little soil, and hunting for huge basking sharks to get liver oil for lamps. The film appears to the viewer as what we call today as ‘fly on the wall’ or to be more accurate - ‘gull on the cliff’, but it is interesting that some situations are fabricated. Such a scene is where the shark fishermen are almost lost at sea in a sudden gale. And the family members shown are not actually related. They have been chosen from amongst the islanders for their photogenic qualities. This however does nothing to lessen a film that still astounds and challenges the boundaries of the documentary form even with all of today’s technology. Some scenes may be created but they are still filmed as actuality. There is certainly no fakery in that. Man of Aran is a very simply told film, but never simplistic as shots of how a small family fishes, hauls seaweed for fertilizer (there is no soil on the island and I am reminded of the Badbae inhabitants having to bucket the soil back to the patches of dug earth on the wild, exposed cliff edge of Caithness). They also dodge waves so high that the foam sprays above the cliff-tops - not to mention an incredible sequence where five fishermen try to catch and kill a shark that is a much larger than their fragile patched boat! Think of all the poems you've read about the sea and our relationship with it and you gleen an insight to how affecting a film it is. What's most incredible about Man of Aran is you can't help but think that these people must be crazy to choose to live in such a desolate and difficult place as the peril of their daily lives unfolds on the screen. But strangely as it seems it’s hard to imagine them elsewhere - they seem born out their environment as the sea-worn cliffs are. And as you hear the thunder of the ocean and the cries of the gulls builds and envelopes the senses to such a crescendo, you kinda know that these people could live no where else.

There are a few brief moments of ‘romantisism’ with the help of the score, but the filmmakers thankfully left out the music during all of the film's most important scenes. Nature with a soundtrack as epic as this rarely needs help! To me it is one of cinema’s great experiences, an over-used word today, but the film makes you think and imagine ‘what would it be like to live like this where every day is a struggle with the elements and a constant fight for survival’. Man of Aran is flawed if viewed by today's moralistic outlook but yet never looks beyond the moment where tragedy broods ever near. It is filled with the deepest awe and respect for nature and for living. I’ve selected three segments that are I feel are of particularly note and worth highlighting:

First clip (6.11 – 11.26) shows where the fishermen come back in from the sea. This shows how even relatively simple tasks are life threatening.

Second clip (16.57 – 24.33) shows how seaweed is essential to their farming. Notice how the heroic efforts, this time getting the seaweed from the shore up to the cliff tops is one of immense labour.

Third clip (1.05.14 – 1.13.37) shows the sea making its grand statement. Here you sense that the filmmakers wanted to show that nothing competes with full force of nature and as small fragile people we ultimately live in its grip – it demands our respect or suffer the consequences.

Watch Man of Aran in full

© 2017 Robert Aitken

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