Man of Aran asks how many lives you would put at risk for a good movie.
Robert Flaherty’s answer is “at least five.” Already renowned as filmmaking pioneer and controversial for his tricky relationship with the truth, even by the flexible standards of the docudrama, Flaherty spent two years on the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland capturing the hardships of life near the unforgiving sea. As per usual, he follows a native family consisting of a father, mother and a plucky young son. Also per usual, the “family” members are unrelated and selected from the population through a casting process (the cheeky Martin McDonough play The Cripple of Inishmaan involves characters perfecting their auditions for this movie).
Flaherty was ever the lover of the struggles of humanity against their immediate natural world, even if he had to shake the specimen jar a bit to get the point across. Here he documents the arduous process of potato farming on a rocky island where soil has to be dislodged from crags and hoisted up cliffsides to just to create a viable plot.* Heavy loads of seaweed must be carted to the soil for fertilizer. These are real chores for the farmers of Aran, though they aren’t usually performed by a solitary woman (Maggie Dirrane) in the midst of a tumultuous rain storm. That idea was pure Flaherty. Yet the very real Maggie of Aran had to scramble across those rocks in the face of the elements. We can dismiss the image as a lie and still cringe at the authentic peril.
As discussed before, Roger Ebert justified Flaherty’s similarly embellished (though less clearly labelled as such) Nanook of the North saying “The movie is an authentic documentary showing the creation of itself. What happens on the screen is real, no matter what happened behind it.” I will never tire of repeating his quote about the walrus hunt in that movie “If you stage a walrus hunt, it still involves hunting a walrus, and the walrus hasn’t seen the script.”
This is advice to keep in mind for the most celebrated section of the movie, a thrilling shark hunt where four men on a small boat stalk and harpoon a basking shark the size of their vessel. A shark this big will provide valuable oil for their lamps, we’re told, so the men match wits with the beast as the Wife and the Boy of Aran look on from on high.
Sharks add adrenaline to any movie, and the scenes of this hunt are no exception. First, the shark is introduced with terrifying majesty. The score by John (not Johnny) Greenwood, heretofore the only aural competition to the crashing waves, suddenly drops out when the boy spots the shark. It’s all (four) hands on deck as the men make their way into the water. Taking advantage of some very long lenses, judicious inserts, and post-production sound recreating the calls of the hunters and the clang of their tools, Flaherty assembles a tense give-and-take between hunters and prey where the roles threaten to reverse.
“There he is!” I assume somebody shouts, though it’s actually impossible to understand anybody through the splashes and the brogue. And indeed there’s the shark of Aran, flashing his dorsal fin over 40 years before another shark movie would make it the universal shark calling card. The harpoon strikes true and Flaherty cuts rapidly between the men leaning over the side of the boat and the excess rope uncoiling. The large shark pulls the men’s vessel along like a tugboat. Wife and Son tense with concern. The shark escapes. A few minutes of calm before the men find him and harpoon him again. The cutting is all rapid now, bordering on chaotic. More rope unwinds. The men lean over the side of the boat to grapple with it. In the distance the silhouettes of the men get dragged across the water. The shark reveals itself, flails. No time for the 180-degree rule, no time for spatial reasoning – this is a battle.
At last the beast is dragged to shore and the rendering process begins. The precious oil drains into a cask. Cut to a burning lamp of Aran.
Obviously some of this sequence is fabricated by necessity. One would expect the shark hunt was initiated by the filmmakers, not by a boy conveniently spotting the shark while the cameras rolled. Since our wide shots don’t include any camera equipment or operators in or around the boat we can assume the inserts of the uncoiling rope and the shots of the men leaning over the side of the boat were filmed at a later sharkless point and spliced in. Same the reaction shots of Wife and Son. But what wasn’t fabricated was the bigass shark pulling that boat around, flailing against his assaulters, and finally getting hauled out of the water. Pitting these men against a killer from the deep is dangerous, but the value outweighs the risk in showing the way of life for the noble people of Aran.
But maybe some of that is spoiled when you learn that the residents of Aran had actually not hunted sharks for several generations. And that the practice of hunting in a little boat with a harpoon had to be taught to the men of Aran by an expert brought in by Flaherty. Perhaps the risk to those shark hunters seems an extreme method of capturing an aspect of their livelihood when it’s not actually an aspect of their livelihood.
But an undeniable part of a life on the Aran islands is the sea. Keen observers will note the presence of an ocean washing over, crashing down upon, or otherwise soaking nearly every single frame of this film. The ocean is photographed with attention to its astonishing scale and intensity as it beats against the cliffs over and over as though grasping at the characters on rocks above. A storm arrives and the waves reach unbelievable heights, rivaling the cliffs on which perch the tiny figures of Aran. The sea is a creature of kaiju proportions throughout the movie.
So like any good dramatist, Flaherty pits his characters against the monster. First, during the earlier gathering of the seaweed, an activity in reality always done during low tide, he sends Dirrane across soaking cliffs. Off camera, she’s hauled backward by a large wave and nearly drowned before being pulled out of the water by her hair. To cap the movie off, Flaherty puts our shark hunters on the water during an intense storm. His long lenses capture the men bobbing on their boats in the obviously dangerous waves. Nothing about this is real from a documentary standpoint, other than we’re really seeing people possibly about to die at the hands of Poseidon.
Many years later Flaherty would say he should have been “shot” for the demands he made on his cast. Time has softened the initial outrage at his recklessness – nobody did die after all and everybody was paid their wages (some of which was in beer). A callous argument could be made that everybody in the film is dead now anyway. And how is a documentarian to capture the essential, unbreakable spirit of a people? Record their “music, dance and storytelling, essential parts of Irish rural life,” as Sheila O’Malley suggests? Pshaw. It’s a man vs shark vs ocean world and it’s incumbent on Flaherty to show it as such, even if he has to be the one to introduce the confrontation.
Presumably the general public and verifiably the courts of Wayne County, Georgia do not find mortal risk desirable in the pursuit of fiction. On the other side of the spectrum, journalists and documentarians are killed every year bringing true stories from dangerous parts of the world and rightly lauded for it. Man of Aran lives in a Flahertian zone between true document and outright lie. The director’s regard for safety should be characterized like his respect for the truth: flexible.
* Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic farmers are having a rough go of it due to their own self-inflicted challenges.
- Other titles considered: “In Search of the Atlantic OSHA” and “Erin go Brauuuugghhh!”