Have you seen Disney’s Moana? I watched it on Netflix a few months ago, and thought it was all kinds of cute and fun. Plus, Moana hasn’t worn out its welcome like some films that shall remain nameless (Hint: “Let it go, let it go…”). Also on Netflix is another version of Moana from 1926. Uh huh. Silent. It’s always fun to find silent films on Netflix, even though they seem to prefer them to be of the tweaked variety. There are two versions of Georges Melies’s A Trip To the Moon on there, and one has silly narration while the other has silly music. Come on, guys–leave well enough alone, please.
Moana is tweaked as well, but we’ll get to that. Its filmmaker, Robert Flaherty, made such a big success with his previous movie, Nanook of the North, that Paramount Pictures commissioned him to film Moana. Shot over the space of a year in British Samoa, the picture tells the story of a young man undergoing rites of passage. Flaherty lived on the island with his wife, Frances, and their three children, and apparently their interpreter was the daughter of a close friend of Robert Louis Stevenson. Small world, isn’t it?
The film opens with shots of the Safune district of the gorgeous tropical island of Savai’i, where these beautiful Samoan people are busy foraging for food, such as sea turtles, crabs, coconuts, wild boar, and taro plants. The film goes into great detail about how these things were procured and how they were prepared, and a lot of their methods were ingenious. The crab, for instance, is cooked over hot coals in a makeshift oven, and the boy who caught it gleefully says, “You shall never climb my father’s trees again!” Okeydokey. I also liked the part where a kid loops a special cord over both feet and climbs all the way up a tall coconut tree like a Humboldt County tree topper–he made it look so easy. What would have been really impressive would be to see him come back down, but the film doesn’t show that. Oh well.
The boar was of course, cooked on a spit over an open fire, and the people seem delighted to eat an animal that has killed more than a few of their men. Meanwhile, the coconuts are put to good use as a custard. The film shows a woman scooping out the thin custard into a lot of little coconut shells and then packing them like ramekins into a specially woven basket, presumably to cool and set somewhere.
The film also shows a woman making a new dress, and she gets the fabric from the bark of a mulberry tree, which, amazingly enough, she expands and works into the proper amount of material. It was really interesting watching this happen, because mulberry trees are not exactly substantial in the trunk, and the fact that this woman was able to get about two yards of fabric from one tree is remarkable. She even paints a nice geometric pattern on it, following the grains of the fibers.
At another point in the film, a young woman is sitting with a young man and she’s making a wreath of leaves, which she puts in the man’s hair. He gets up and starts dancing, which the girl and another woman find absolutely hilarious.
Lest this all seem a bit too random and perfect, the intertitles say that this young fella’s name is Moana, and he’s about to become a man. The young woman then proceeds to rub perfumed oils all over him, after which he goes back to dancing, and the girl gets up and joins him. Apparently the oil-rubbing bit was known as a Siva.
Growing up hurts, though, and Moana’s got pain in store. Part of becoming a man means having special tattoos applied all over his back, which is done a little at a time since it obviously hurts. At least the women have a special ointment that they dab on the poor guy, and even so, he flinches. The scene is drawn out and drawn out until it almost becomes vicariously uncomfortable. Another part of the ceremony involves grinding a kava plant to dust, which is rinsed several times with water before the mixture is drunk by the elders. Then Moana, who is still smarting over his first tattoo, has to get another one encircling his knee. Sheesh. Fortunately, he manages to summon enough energy to dance again later, when he will be allowed to choose the woman he wants for a wife. Guess becoming a man has its compensations.
While this is all well and good, sorta, here’s the quirky thing about Moana: The vast majority of the film was staged. At that time in Samoa, the people had already taken up Western-style clothing. Flaherty talked them into wearing native Samoan dress for the film, which meant older women in fiber dresses, younger women in skirts sans tops, and the men wearing what amounted to loincloths. Then, as now, the Samoan population was mostly Christian, and tribal initiation customs had been discarded, including the tattooing. The young man who was on the receiving end of that wonderfulness in the film only did it on the condition that he would be paid handsomely, and I can’t blame him a bit.
Moana tanked at the box office. In spite of the spectacular photography, audiences found it was just too placid. Public opinion changed, however, when Flaherty’s youngest daughter, Monica, returned to Savai’i in 1975 to record a soundtrack for the film to give it more authenticity, which it does in a dialogue-out-of-sync kind of way, almost like a Samoan Kung Fu movie. Monica’s adding of sound to Moana was a tremendous hit when it premiered in 1980, and it made yet another splash when a newly restored print was shown in 2014 at the New York Film Festival. This is the version that I saw, and I have to admit the print looks great.
Even though his films were mock-ups in real settings, Flaherty is known as the father of the documentary. This is kind of amazing, because Moana is closer to This Is Spinal Tap than Man With A Movie Camera. So, technically, Flaherty is the father of the docudrama or docufiction. While there’s nothing wrong with that, I think it would have served both Flaherty and the Samoan people better if Moana was a film that showed them as they really were in 1926, instead of Flaherty’s idea of who they were. They say that truth is stranger than fiction anyway, and it can be, if given half a chance. Still, Moana is a very fascinating little foray into early documentary filmmaking, and can be enlightening even if it isn’t real.
Next Friday we have another blogathon coming up: