Robert Flaherty

Robert Flaherty (1884-1951) was an American documentary filmmaker who, beginning with Nanook of the North, created a vision of human good will, curiosity, and ingenuity in adapting to nature and civilization.

Robert J. Flaherty was born in Iron Mountain, Michigan, on February 16, 1884, the son of a mining engineer who took the boy along on prospecting expeditions and to gold mines that he managed in northern Canada. Flaherty had little formal education, starting late and finishing early. He was expelled from the Michigan College of Mines after seven months, during which he spent much of his time camping in the woods. But at the college he met Frances Hubbard, a Bryn Mawr College graduate and the daughter of a distinguished academic geologist. He later married her, and she became his lifelong collaborator.

Flaherty spent the years between 1900 and 1920 as an explorer and prospector, making several hazardous expeditions to northern Canada. From 1913 to 1915, on two expeditions, Flaherty shot 70,000 feet of motion picture film of Eskimo life. The negative of this film was destroyed in a darkroom fire when Flaherty dropped a cigarette; the one surviving positive print has been lost.

In 1920 Flaherty secured the backing of a fur-trading company, Revillon Freres, to return to the north and make a film about Eskimo life. The result, Nanook of the North, was released in June 1922 to modest reviews and box office receipts but has for many decades been regarded as a classic. The film shows Nanook, an Eskimo hunter, and his family as they travel by kayak and dogsled through a frozen wasteland, surviving by hunting, fishing, and trapping.

Hollywood, which had been disinterested in Nanook, now sought Flaherty out, and in 1923 Jesse Lasky commissioned Flaherty to produce a film for Paramount Pictures. Lasky told Flaherty to "make me another Nanook. Go where you will, do what you like." Flaherty chose American Samoa. In February 1926 the resulting film, Moana, opened in New York City. It was in a review of Moana that John Grierson, later the father of the British documentary film movement, first applied the term "documentary" to a motion picture. Moana is a film of great visual beauty in which Flaherty explored the possibilities of a newly developed panchromatic film stock and with it recorded the textures of sea and skin in a Polynesian paradise. Some reviewers objected that Flaherty inappropriately included a long sequence of body-tattooing to give his film an element of conflict and suffering.

Flaherty's next major film, Man of Aran (1934), described the hard life of fishing and farming on the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland. Flaherty had by this time become a world figure, generally recognized as the originator of documentary film, and Man of Aran was voted the best film of the year at the Venice Film Festival of 1934. His work, however, was becoming controversial within the documentary community and awkward for the film industry. The documentary movement that grew up in 1930s in Great Britain under the leadership of John Grierson was devoted to the capacity of film to describe and influence the social conditions of modern, industrial democracies. For these filmmakers, who were also articulate theorists and critics of documentary at the time, Flaherty's work seemed to have petrified into a romantic vision that evaded the real issues of the 20th century. And for the film industry, Flaherty was difficult in other ways. He preferred to work with a small crew and to shoot enormous amounts of film over an extended period of residence and reflection, which made him an awkward problem for the system of studio production.

Flaherty's last finished work was Louisiana Story (1945), which describes, from the point of view of a Cajun boy, the introduction of oil drilling in the bayous of Louisiana. The film, sponsored by the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, was photographed by Richard Leacock, later a major figure in American documentary, and edited by Helen van Dongen.

Flaherty's films endure, largely because of their great visual beauty, the genuine respect he showed for his subjects, and their vision of the largeness of the human spirit. The people in his films know how to cooperate, how to laugh, and how to survive both permanent hardship and the mysteries of change.

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Further Reading on Robert Flaherty

Among the best works on Flaherty are Paul Rotha, Robert J. Flaherty: A Biography (1983); Arthur Calder-Marshall, The Innocent Eye: The Life of Robert J. Flaherty (1963); Frances Flaherty, The Odyssey of a Film-Maker (1960); and Richard Griffith, The World of Robert Flaherty (1953). For a guide to other sources, see William T. Murphy, Robert Flaherty: A Guide to References and Resources (1978). For a discussion of Flaherty's place in documentary film, see Erik Barnouw, Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film (1974) and Richard M. Barsam, Nonfiction Film: A Critical History (1973).

Additional Biography Sources

Rotha, Paul, Robert J. Flaherty, a biography, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.