From the March 2016 issue of Artforum, where it appears under the title “Given Voice”. — J.R.
“Until recently,” wrote anthropologist Jay Ruby 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 second feature, Moana (1926). (Seeking to duplicate the success of Nanook of the North , but in warmer climes, Flaherty set sail for the South Seas the following year, his entire family in tow, to shoot a film in Samoa.) Significantly, Grierson employed the novel term to register one of the film’s subordinate virtues: “Of course Moana, being a visual account of events in the daily life of a Polynesian youth, has documentary value,” he noted.… Read more »