There are many lies in documentaries. Robert J. Flaherty’s Louisiana Story is better classified as a “docudrama,” a form pioneered by Flaherty in 1922 with his first effort Nanook of the North. That film, usually still classified as a straight-up documentary, was criticized for Flaherty’s staging of most of the events filmed. This included hunts where the Inuit subjects used native weapons though they had long since upgraded to rifles. Even Nanook’s name was a fiction.
Now, at the other end of his career, the only substantial difference in Flaherty’s approach is the way Louisiana Story is more forthright with the “drama” side. The cast of actual (though unrelated) Cajuns are credited onscreen. So are Flaherty and his wife Frances for the screenplay (their script was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Motion Picture Story alongside traditional fictions including The Search, Red River and The Red Shoes). Even so Louisiana Story is often categorized as a documentary (on Letterboxd, for example) and in some ways it’s not an unfair classification. Every documentary, even the most unobtrusive fly-on-the-wall attempts, is shaped into a subjective version of the truth. Otherwise it would be security camera footage. Regardless, Louisiana Story plays with questions of truth from two angles.
The movie begins. A large alligator slides across the surface of the bayou. A young Cajun boy (Joseph Boudreaux) rows his boat among the reeds. His pet racoon (uncredited) sits in the prow. A water snake wriggles in the water. The boy looks up. The alligator dives below the surface of the water out of sight.
One automatically groups these sentences together, presented in paragraph form as they are, and parses them as a story. In the same way, even though shots of each of these sentences could be collected at wildly different times when presented in succession they connect into a story. Which is the way any nature documentary is made. No doubt a zoologist adept at quickly identifying individual animals of the same species – or even discerning genders within the species – finds nature documentary narratives distracting as they often pretend shots of different animals actually follow a single protagonist to create a clear story that also conveys information about the habits of their species in general.
The story of the Boy and his raccoon is a lie of that nature. Their story has us believe that the alligator – the same alligator – eventually eats the raccoon and the Boy baits and catches the alligator in retribution. Never mind that during the exciting tug-of-war Boy and gator never share the same frame. This is, on one level, bullshit. But it’s also a tour of unspoiled bayou wetlands, a look at the plant and animal life that lives there, and recording this is the purpose of the film. Plus, somebody really does have that alligator on the end of a rope. And I don’t know if it was our raccoon friend, but the offending alligator was chomping on something.* Of Nanook’s methods Roger Ebert wrote “The movie is an authentic documentary showing the creation of itself. What happens on the screen is real, no matter what happened behind it.”** Louisiana Story, made a quarter-century later when the rules of documentary were more established, offers the same amount of authenticity.
The second issue of lies gets a bit thornier because it relies almost entirely on the story portions and outside Flaherty’s strengths as a director. The Boy’s father (Lionel Le Blanc) signs a lease for an oil representative, lending his portion of the bayou for drilling as the mother (E. Bienvenu) cooks on an old-fashioned stove. These scenes ostensibly document a bit of the Cajun way of life in the manner of each of Flaherty’s other films, but their secondary purpose of furthering the story creates a distraction. The awkwardness of this scene contrasts with the ease and splendor of the outdoor parts and suggests a limit to either Flaherty’s abilities or interests as a filmmaker. He’s much more comfortable constructing a story out of Richard Leacock’s photography than staging shot-reverse-shot.
This limitation arrives hand-in-hand with the larger compromise of Louisiana Story, that it was sponsored anonymously by Standard Oil of New Jersey. Flaherty was paid $258,000 (over $3.5 million today) and, interestingly, given total creative control and ownership over the film including distribution rights. This laisseiz faire deal would seem to invite problems from a director who had made a career of documenting rapidly vanishing cultures, but the film depicts the intrusion of the oil rig as generally problem-free and impermanent.
Generally Louisiana Story is seen as a successful deployment of promotional dollars by a big oil company. Flaherty captures with grandeur the platform drifting into place on the surface of the water and the large mechanism that towers over the bayou looks more impressive than imposing. In his book Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film, Erik Barnouw writes that the movie is another example of Flaherty expressing “his love for the unspoiled wilderness and its life” and “by focusing on this – and de-emphasizing oil – the film had the message: have no fear, the wilderness is safe. This became in subsequent years – despite oil slicks in bayou, stream, and sea, or perhaps because of them – the recurring them of countless oil-sponsored films and television commercials.”
There’s a bit of evidence to the contrary. Flaherty emphases the wake left by the motorized boats of the oil men in contrast to the gentle lapping of the Boy’s paddle. The oil rig itself is all noise with no room for the celebrated score by Virgil Thomson that accompanies the exploration of the bayou. The derrick blows its top at one point and the workers must scramble to cap it (the actual blow out was filmed at a rig sixty miles from where the main filming was taking place). The Boy runs his hands over some black oily residue left by the accident.
But the damage by the presence of the oil rig is minimal and temporary. The Boy even lends a bit of Cajun charm to the procedure, adding his salt and spit into the capped well the way he does to bait to attract the alligators he hunts. In the end the oil rig moves on, drillers and Cajuns waving to each other like the last day of Summer Camp. It’s not quite the blatant fluff piece some summaries describe it as, but it’s unlikely Standard Oil regretted their investment.
Louisiana Story is a valuable, often beautiful, document of a place in a time that has disappeared. But like all documents, it’s important to know the authors.
* Also, the raccoon – the same raccoon? – turns up alive at the end of the film so apparently an innocent crocodile has been skinned.
** My favorite quote from his review: “If you stage a walrus hunt, it still involves hunting a walrus, and the walrus hasn’t seen the script.”