Saturday, October 09, 2010

Moana (1981 sound version)

Famous Players-Lasky, US 1926. 1981 sound version. D: Robert Flaherty; cast: Ta’avale (Moana), Fa’angase, Tu’ugaita, Pe’a; 1981 soundtrack D: Monica Flaherty; HDCAM (NTSC) from Monica Flaherty [not DigiBeta] (transferred at 24 fps from a 16 mm positive print [NB: from a stretch print corresponding to a speed of 18 fps]), 96 min (sound); source: Monica Flaherty Archive, Helsinki. No 35 mm print of this version of the film is currently available for screening.

Viewed at Cinemazero, Pordenone (GCM) with e-subtitles in Italian, 9 Oct 2010

SAMI VAN INGEN in the GCM Catalogue: "Robert Flaherty (1885-1951) filmed Moana, his least-seen feature length film, in Samoa between April 1923 and December 1924. It was the first time his family accompanied him during the filmmaking process. His wife Frances worked with him, while their three daughters, Monica (4), Frances (7), and Barbara (9), spent their time learning Samoan customs and songs and making friends. This relationship to Samoa, particularly the singing of Samoan songs, was kept up by the three sisters in the subsequent years, and was to form the basis for Monica Flaherty’s sound version of Moana decades later. Released in 1926 Moana was not a box-office success; despite being relatively well received in Europe, its distribution was soon limited to a few specialist outlets like MoMA in New York. Robert Flaherty always believed that the original musical score, incorporating classical motifs, was inappropriate and hampered the film, and that audiences would understand Moana better if it had a more suitable soundtrack. In the early 1970s Monica Flaherty, then in her early 50s, took over the managing of the family’s film legacy. One of her first aims was to figure out a way to make a sound version of Moana. By that time portable tape recorders and flatbed editing systems made sound recording and editing considerably easier.

From the start Monica’s intention was to create a “natural” soundtrack, recording in the original locations, and most important, working with people who had intimate knowledge of the making of the film in 1924. She was able to find the surviving members of the original Samoan cast: Pe’a, who played the little boy, and Ta’avale, who played Moana, both still lived in the Safune village, while Fa’angase, the village maiden, lived in Hawaii. Monica made several field trips to Hawaii to show the film to the Samoan community and discuss ideas with Fa’angase. In 1975 she travelled to Samoa with Richard Leacock and Sarah Hudson, recording a wealth of sound material on location in collaboration with Pe’a and Ta’avale and their families.

The post-production was done in Vermont, at a company run by Allan and Susan Seymour. Interviewed in early 2010, Allan recalled how Monica strove for perfection, and was very meticulous in her sound design: “Her soundtrack was dense, it was full – it was like she was standing beside her father with a Nagra.”

Monica Flaherty consulted an incredible number of people on her sound project: experts in Samoan music, anthropologists, linguists, diplomats, financers, celebrities, film technicians and preservationists, and filmmakers who included Jean Renoir. During the 5 years of sound editing, Monica showed the film to Samoans in Hawaii several times and taped their feedback, analyzing their response and then reworking her soundtrack. In 1977 she wrote that she was doing the soundtrack both for the preservation of the film itself and of the traditional Samoan songs associated with it. She also collected invaluable research material about the making of Moana through taped interviews and correspondence with people in Samoa who had been involved in the making of the film.

Paramount had no print of Moana (allegedly they had destroyed the nitrate negatives and prints, without bothering to make safety film dupes). There had been much interest in the film in Sweden in the 1920s, however, and Monica finally found a decent original 35mm nitrate print at the Swedish Film Archive, from which she made a dupe negative. Another challenge for the project was to adapt the original silent print to accommodate a soundtrack at 24 fps, and numerous tests were done to step-print the original 18 fps to this standard. It was soon discovered that different scenes, particularly the lagoon shots, had to be printed at different step ratios. The lab costs steadily mounted, but Monica’s persistence and perfectionism paid off. The end result was as good as analog technology allows, keeping every frame of the original Moana, and with natural-looking movement in each shot.

Paramount was never very interested in Monica’s soundtrack project; for a big studio, work on a low-profit classic was not a viable business venture in the late 1970s, long before the “new media” of DVDs and the Internet. However, they permitted her to screen Moana in noncommercial limited venues. After nearly 10 years of work, Moana with sound premiered at the Cinémathèque française in Paris on 17 June 1981. It was very well received, and was screened 49 times in various venues around the world, including Berlin in 1985 and Cannes in 1990. Monica accompanied the film and gave a talk at each screening.

The last screening of Moana with sound was in 1998, after which Monica, then 76, felt too old to travel with it. As she did not have the distribution rights, Moana once again became an inert film classic. Monica Flaherty passed away in 2008, and left her soundtrack and its related archive in the hands of her estate. After sorting and cataloguing, the materials will be available for research at the Central Art Archives of the Finnish National Gallery in Helsinki. Future screenings of Moana with sound will depend on screening and distribution rights, the interest of curators, and the perseverance of people who want this beautiful film to be seen – and heard – again. SAMI VAN INGEN."

The visual quality of the HDCAM did not pay justice to the cinematography, the sound volume was a bit loud, and the projector broke in the middle of the screening, but finally Moana was screened in its entirety in the Monica Flaherty sound version. As Sami van Ingen stated, we are looking forward to a 35 mm viewing print of Robert Flaherty's masterpiece which has been difficult to see for a long time. During the festival it was interesting to meet film historians who do not care much about Flaherty anyway: no drama, no structure, not enough coverage (no establishing shots in Moana) they said. Certainly not. For me Flaherty is one of the great poets of the cinema, always in search of paradise lost. There are those who prefer White Shadows in the South Seas and Tabu to Moana, and I admire them all (they are all included in my MMM Film Guide of 1100 great films of all time), but for me Moana is superior because of its lack of conventional narrative and its sense of the rhythm of life.

See also Moana 9 Feb 2009
DocPoint Moana 28 Jan 2010


Speaking of Change said...

I'm sorry to hear of Monica's passing.

One of the great magical memories of my life was accompanying Flaherty and company on the 1975 trip back to Safune. I was living in American Samoa at the time, and traveled with the Ala'ilimas, who were, in essence their guides. I remember Faye (My Samoan Chief author, and my father's college friend) and Vaiau Ala'ilima and their daughter Sisilea, all of whom I've lost track of. I would love a chance to see the finished product from this project. My memories of the beautiful village and amazing hospitality are still so vivid, 35 years later.

-Bob Hiltner, Seattle

Antti Alanen said...

Dear Bob Hiltner, thank you for sharing those memories! I'm sure you don't mind that I forwarded them to Sami van Ingen! Antti Alanen