- A Boatload of Wild Irishmen by Mac Dara Ó Curraidbin
A Boatload of Wild Irishmen is a long-overdue portrait of the legendary film-maker Robert Flaherty. Written by Brian Winston, Professor of Communication at the University of Lincoln and award-winning scriptwriter, and directed by Mac Dara Ó Curraidbin, it presents Flaherty’s work and ambition through the perspective of a wider context and networks of influence. Flaherty’s oeuvre and legacy has particularly fallen prey to the persistent fragmentation of disciplinary engagements in academia as well as in industry, which has frequently skewed the attention given to his work as informed by segregated fields such as visual anthropology, documentary film history and theory, and commercial film.
Flaherty’s work and the subsequent criticism of his romanticist, heroic docu-fiction style (so-called “ethnofiction”) has become a burden for his legacy. A Boatload of Wild Irishmen, however, manages to stay above the controversies. It neither resituates nor re-evaluates Flaherty’s work nor does it feel the necessity to take a position. Instead, it stays close to Flaherty and those who have worked with him and includes his wife’s professional and private role in his career and life. Opening with shots from Man of Aran (1934), the film introduces Flaherty’s Irish origins, although he was born to a mining engineer in Iron Mountain, Michigan. It shows how he gained a respectable reputation as a prospector, explorer and photographer, which placed him in company with Shackleton and Scott at the Royal Geographic Society in London. The story then moves chronologically through the key works and sets them against the context of Flaherty’s personal life, and, most relevantly, the context of Hollywood and the thriving film genre of the travel-adventure film that drew audiences to experience something more authentic than pure fiction in the narrativized reworkings of life’s hardship and dramas set in exotic locations.
Against this background, the reception of his famous Nanook of the North (1922)—in itself a recognized heroic adventure with on-site film development in which the “actors” also assisted—is contrasted and contextualized with the Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle scandal, one of many moral scandals that dogged Hollywood in the early 1920s. Nanook of the North, released in 1922 with the subtitle A Story of Life and Love in the Actual Arctic, had a most powerful impact. It was a staged re-creation of stories that were told to Flaherty during prospecting on the Belcher islands in 1913, which a Pathépicture film poster announced as a “truest and most human story of the Great White Snows.” Flaherty’s work has raised many ethical concerns over the years, not only with regard to the imposition of a romanticized view onto a reconstructed, fictionalized past but especially also in respect to the physical dangers and the short-lived yet transformative life changes to which the film work and its legacy subjected the “actors.” Interviews with filmmakers and experts from various local contexts, as well as from universities, outline aspects of the critical reception of Flaherty’s working method in indigenous contexts. A Boatload of Wild Irishmen avoids overloading the narrative with information and carefully orchestrates a broad spectrum of perspectives and archival footage (including interviews with Flaherty himself) and lets the short extracts from Flaherty’s original film footage “speak for themselves.” Some of these clips are captured during screening to specialist audiences as well as local communities, such as on the island of Savai’i on Samoa, where Moana (1926) was filmed. In addition, the interviews with descendants of those who worked with Flaherty, including Martha Flaherty, his and Nanook of the North “actress” Nyla’s granddaughter, offer particularly touching insights into the complexities of the way Flaherty is memorialized and also of a film’s diverse reception, reinterpretations and afterlife. These highlights bring to the fore how, despite controversial opinions and positions when it comes to personal engagements with a film’s history and reception, the latter is always bound up with precious practices of...