Flaherty, Robert (1884–1951), filmmaker, was born 16 February 1884 in Iron Mountain, Michigan, eldest among seven children of Robert Flaherty, a protestant miner who had emigrated from Ireland by way of Quebec, and his catholic, German-born wife, Susan (née Kloeckner). Robert was raised as a protestant and educated sporadically in Minnesota, Michigan, and Ontario, but preferred making trips with his father in search of iron ore. He attended Upper Canada College in Toronto (1898) and the Michigan College of Mines (1902), which he left before graduating. After working for two years (1906–8) as a surveyor for the Grand Trunk Pacific Railroad, he was hired, through his father, by Sir William MacKenzie, a mining and railroad magnate, to search for iron ore in the Nastopoka Island, and the next year on the Belcher islands.
MacKenzie provided still photographic equipment for Flaherty to record geographical and cultural features, and was sympathetic to his ambition to be a film maker, sending him (1912) to Rochester, New York, to learn about motion-picture photography and processing. This led to Flaherty's first film, a travelogue about the Belcher islands, which was shown in Toronto in 1915. However, the collapse the following year of MacKenzie's Canadian Northern Railway meant that Flaherty lost his sponsor and had to spend the next few years lecturing. In 1920 he convinced Capt. Thierry Mallet of the fur-trading Revillon Frères to produce a feature film to celebrate his company's two-hundredth anniversary. This was Nanook of the north (1922), set in Port Harrison (now Inoucdjouac), Quebec, and depicting the life of the Inuits, which Flaherty had studied carefully for a number of years.
Nanook of the north, a highly successful, landmark documentary, revealed the themes that Flaherty was to explore throughout his film-making career: an indigenous people, living close to nature, involved in an heroic and ennobling struggle to survive in harsh conditions. A pioneer in using real people enacting their everyday lives, he had a genuine ethnographic interest in portraying remote cultures. He worked without plot or script and allowed for improvisation. His technique, however, was one of poetic realism, what he termed ‘natural drama’, rather than naturalism, and was dependent on a central conflict – walrus hunting, in the case of the Inuits.
Over the next ten years he made four films (including two shorts), and worked on another, which was abandoned. His experiences with Hollywood left him disillusioned. However, his work attracted the attention of John Grierson, the influential English film writer, who in 1926 coined the word ‘documentary’ to describe Flaherty's second film, Moana. Through his influence, Flaherty was hired in 1931 to film Industrial Britain, which applied his technique of ennobling portraiture to working-class people. It was in Grierson's vein of social documentary, but this was not a prime concern for Flaherty, and for his next project he returned to man's struggle with nature.
Grierson suggested a documentary on the Aran Islands, and Flaherty was drawn to the location through his knowledge of J. M. Synge (qv) and because of his Irish heritage. Funded by Michael Balcon of Gaumont-British Pictures, he settled with his family on Inishmore in January 1932 and remained two years, shooting thirty-seven hours for a seventy-four-minute film. According to an aide, he lived like a king, in a large house, ‘with a cordon bleu chef and two men just to put peat on the fire’ (cited Sellers, 29). The filming of Man of Aran was a national event; its progress was treated as news and many visited to observe the filming, including the playwright Denis Johnston (qv), who wrote Storm song about his experiences on set.
As always, Flaherty sought poetic realism rather than naturalism. Although he did not use actors, he did stage his characters and picked idealised types to function as a family unit. He drew on the islanders' working practices, but only those that served his themes. Thus he insisted on their using heavy baskets, slung over their backs, to carry seaweed, even though they had started to use donkeys for hauling years earlier. The central scene shows a shark-hunt, involving men harpooning from coracles. This method had not been used for almost a hundred years, and an expert had to be called in to teach the islanders the old and dangerous craft. A title-card explains that the shark oil was needed for lamps, even though the island was by then lit by electricity, and the wires are visible in one scene.
Flaherty uses the sea almost as a character, and the last scene, where men battle with their boats in a storm as a woman and child look on in fear, captures something of Synge's tragic mood. The cinematography is striking and beautiful throughout but the score by the composer John Greenwood bears no resemblance to traditional Irish music. The scenes are choreographed to music in an operatic and stylised manner.
The excitement around the project galvanised the government into providing its first-ever funding for a documentary – it gave £200 for Flaherty to direct a short in Irish to accompany the main feature. This short, Oidhche sheanchais, intended to showcase the ‘seanchaí’ tradition, was filmed in Gaumont studios and featured Tomás Ó Díorain telling a story to the cast of Man of Aran. However, it was static and uninteresting; Flaherty did not understand Irish, and the script, provided by the government, was poor.
The Irish première (6 May 1934) of Man of Aran was attended by Éamon de Valera (qv), W. B. Yeats (qv), Eoin MacNeill (qv), and other luminaries. The nationalist historian and de Valera's close friend, Dorothy Macardle (qv), led the chorus of approval with a glowing review in the Irish Press praising Flaherty for capturing the reality of the Irish experience. The film accorded with de Valera's ascetic vision of an Ireland of frugal self-sufficiency. It was a box-office success and won the prize for best foreign film at the Venice film festival in 1934, but outside Ireland the critical reaction was mixed. The New Statesman reviewer was first to question the anachronisms and idealism and the failure to deal with the social situation of the islanders – it was ‘man's struggle with nature rather than man's struggle with man . . . No less than Hollywood, Flaherty is busy turning reality into romance’ (NS, 28 Apr. 1934). The film became the focus of debate about the documentary form – a debate given a political thrust by the depression and the rise of fascism in Europe, with some seeing Man of Aran as reactionary and proto-fascist. By 1936 Irish critics had joined the fray: ‘[It] is quite free of stage Irishism but only at the cost of being quite free from Irishism of any kind’ (Dalton, 34). However, in the years since its release, Man of Aran has withstood all criticism, and remained seminal in Irish cinema. Tim Robinson, cartologist and writer on the Aran Islands, has concluded that the film is deep enough to sustain numerous reinterpretations and that ‘[Flaherty's] Aran stands like a rock after all the buzzing froth of Celtic and filmic exaggeration has fallen from it’ (Robinson, 169). Flaherty himself is regarded as among the most important of twentieth-century directors, and is cited as a major influence by Jean Renoir, Fred Zinnemann, and others.
After Man of Aran he made four other films, of which the most successful was Louisiana story (1957), about the introduction of the technology for oil exploration into a traditional culture. At the time of his death on 23 July 1951 on the family farm in Vermont, he had begun his biggest-budget film, This is Cinerama. He was survived by his wife, Frances Hubbard (m. 1914), and by three daughters.