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Robert J. Flaherty’s Moana with Sound

Robert J. Flaherty, Moana, 1926, 35 mm, black-and-white, silent, 92 minutes. Production still. Fa’angase (Fa’angase Su’a-Filo) and Moana (Ta’avale).

“UNTIL RECENTLY,” anthropologist Jay Ruby wrote thirty-odd years ago, “the scholarship and popular press surrounding [Robert J.] Flaherty have tended toward two extremes—portraying him in mythical terms and ‘worshipping’ his films or debunking them as fakes and frauds and castigating him for a lack of social and political consciousness.” But the more balanced view of “Flaherty as a man of his time and culture” that Ruby saw succeeding these extremes still hasn’t fully taken hold, perhaps because the very meaning of the term documentary is still being debated. Even when we smile (or flinch) at some of Flaherty’s romantic conceptions, the comprehensive theoretical questions raised by his methods are ones we still can’t confidently say we’ve resolved.

Documentary was reportedly first used in English by the Scottish filmmaker John Grierson in a pseudonymous rave review of Flaherty’s

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