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Why ‘Moana,’ the First Docufiction in History, Deserves a New Life

Why 'Moana,' the First Docufiction in History, Deserves a New Life

In the summer of 1924, American filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty moved to the Samoan island of Savai’i with a group that included his wife, three daughters and 16 tons of filmmaking gear. The purpose was to capture the natives in their habitat, creating a work of art that producer Paramount Pictures hoped would recreate the success of “Nanook of the North,” Flaherty’s previous film.

Thus was born “Moana,” named after the young male tribal it followed into manhood.

More than 50 years later, Monica, his youngest daughter, went back to the same island and recorded sound for the film. She produced this version herself, seeking out the consultancy of anthropologists, linguists and filmmakers such as Jean Renoir. After five years of painstaking work, “Moana with Sound” premiered at the Cinémathèque française in Paris in 1981.

Today, more than 30 years after that premiere and 90 years after Flaherty first landed on Savai’i, “Moana with Sound” has been restored in 2K by Bruce Posner of the Filmmakers Showcase in Claremont, working with Finnish filmmaker Sami van Ingen. The spotless outcome had its world premiere at the 36th Moscow International Film Festival last week.

Perhaps because of the lack of a primal conflict like in “Nanook,” “Moana” underwhelmed at the box office in its initial run, even though it drew critical raves. In his review for The New York Sun in 1926, critic John Grierson — writing under the pseudonym “The Moviegoer” — translated the French word “documentaire” to “documentary,” effectively making “Moana” the first movie to receive that label. Writing for The New York Times, Mordaunt Hall congratulated Flaherty, who according to the reviewer deserved praise “for having kept [‘Moana’] free from sham.”

In hindsight, these two statements have turned out to be sweetly ironic, for “Moana” — while not a sham — would definitely face trouble passing for a documentary today.

When Flaherty reached the island, he found that this wasn’t the pristine Eden he had in mind but in fact a corrupted mandate of New Zealand. He didn’t let present day reality affect his plans, however, and set about staging scenes fitted to his vision. The “family” we follow isn’t related by blood at all; the members were picked for their photogenic nature and acting skills, as critic Jonathan Rosenbaum revealed in his review for the Monthly Film Bulletin, written nearly 50 years after the film’s release. The famous tattooing ceremony that ends the film was no longer practiced on the island; Flaherty had to pay the actor to endure it so his film would have a natural climax.

The director wanted to film “Moana” in color, but when his Prizmacolor camera malfunctioned, he was forced to stick to black and white. More than that, he also wanted the film to have music synched up with the imagery, which was a tough task back in the pre-sound days of 1924. Flaherty’s dreams of color were never realized. But Monica managed to fulfill his wish of having “Moana” integrated with an appropriate audio track.

“Moana with Sound” opens with a quote by Frances Hubbard Flaherty, the director’s wife: “Oh, if we could only take back with us the singing. Not the songs, but the singing.” It serves as a nice addition to the R.L. Stevenson quote that began the original film, stating there are three great things in life: one’s first love, the first sunrise and the first glimpse of a Samoan island. The singing is a vital part of the islanders’ identities; to remember their music is to remember them and their universe.

To that end, “Moana with Sound” has three concurrent tracks of audio. The ambient noises of the land are omnipresent: leaves rustling, wind blowing and birds chirping. Then there are the sounds of any scene’s main activity, be it two natives talking to each other or a turtle swimming by. And finally, there’s the singing: various tribal songs pepper the film, almost as if a soundtrack. Together, these disparate elements combine to create an aural experience that’s special, for “Moana with Sound” is a miracle.

The types of noises heard in this cut of “Moana” are so natural and believable that a layman wouldn’t believe they were recorded five decades after the original capture of footage — and by a different person no less. The sounds heard as a few boys jump into the water, or as some women flatten the bark of a mulberry tree to fashion a dress, have been so accurately welded to the visuals — in positioning and duration — that the only logical way for Monica to obtain them would have been to recreate those scenes. When she landed in Savai’i in 1975, she managed to track down three actors who had worked on the film all those years ago, including the main lead. Ta’avale, who played Moana, still lived in the same village. The very fact that these people could be found and their sounds recorded decades after the events in the film hints at the timelessness of life on the islands, perhaps making Flaherty’s point better than he ever could.

The addition of sound also makes “Moana” itself a different film. In general, sound adds immediacy to the images and changes the tone of several scenes completely. The images don’t seem like exotic footage captured by a Western filmmaker sent to a faraway land; instead, it’s like something is happening near us, and involving people just like us. It’s amazing that hearing someone laugh can help you realize we’re all the same.

A famous sequence from the film depicts a snare. As the natives trap a boar, the beast screeches wildly and loudly, cries that are amplified and impossible to ignore in this cut. This is no longer a bemusing peek at a quaint ritual; it’s a horrific scene that divides our sympathies.

Calling “Moana with Sound” a “restored version” of the Flaherty original would do it a disservice. Yes, the 2K version looks so sharp now that you can see beads of sweat on Moana’s face as he is being tattooed. Yet Monica’s update of her father’s feature is also a completely new film that will evoke downright different responses from viewers of the original.

This title will travel to other festivals around the globe, and deservedly so; art-house cinemas would do well to give it a limited run. After all, New York’s Museum of Modern Art was one of the few places stateside to screen “Moana” adequately when it released in 1926. Wherever it plays today, “Moana with Sound” should perform better than it did on its initial run. There’s quite simply nothing like it.

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