A Boatload of Wild Irishmen (Icarus Films, NR)

Maybe watching it will send more viewers to seek out the originals. If that happens, then this documentary has done its job.

If you want to talk about the history of documentary film, the name Robert Flaherty simply has to be included. He’s a key figure in the early history of documentary, with films like Nanook of the North (1922) and Man of Aran (1934) still studied today and not infrequently viewed by members of the general public as well. So Flaherty’s place in film history is pretty well assured, although the exact nature of that place is subject to debate.

Flaherty’s life story is less well known and filling that gap is the goal of Mac Dara Ó’Curaidhin’s documentary A Boatload of Wild Irishmen: The Life of Robert Flaherty, originally released in 2010. It’s a straightforward, fact-based documentary with voice-of-God narration (written by Brian Winston), which incorporates clips from Flaherty’s films, numerous interviews (including some with Flaherty himself), and other archival materials.

Flaherty led an interesting life, that’s for sure. Born in Michigan, he worked as a prospector, an occupation that took him into some far-flung locations. He began shooting film while on a prospecting mission but didn’t begin to succeed as a filmmaker until he realized that people were not going to buy tickets to watch footage of other people going about their daily lives, no matter how exotic the location, unless some sort of story was imposed on the footage. The next step was to realize that it would be even easier to make an engaging film if he started with a melodramatic script, cast the roles with people who looked the part, and staged events for maximum dramatic and cinematographic effect.  

So how are his films documentaries at all? Because opinions about what constitute a documentary have changed over time, with analogous changes in the “rules” which documentarians are supposed to follow, good luck getting even a small gathering of film scholars or working filmmakers to agree on what those rules are today! The documentary aspects of Flaherty’s films include that they were shot on location, used locals as cast members, and incorporated footage of traditional activities (like seal hunting with harpoons in Nanook) into the storyline. Never mind that the hunts were staged or that even in the 1920s, seals in the Arctic were hunted using rifles because who’s going to pay to see that? Filmgoers wanted to see noble savages, and that’s what Flaherty gave them.

The need for a documentary to tell a satisfying story is as relevant today as it was in Flaherty’s time, and it’s not necessary to stage events in order to create a story where none might in fact exist. He who edits the film decides what story will be told, and it’s all too easy to shape a mass raw footage into a conventional story line, the better to connect with audience members.

So Flaherty dealt with issues that are still relevant to filmmakers today, and A Boatload of Wild Irishmen could well be used to spark discussion of some of those issues in film classes. It’s less satisfying than it might be, however, and has the uncomfortable, collage-like feel of a film whose form was determined by the availability of archival materials rather than by any unified vision of the filmmaker. Things move fast in the film world, and while this type of documentary used to be common, today it feels like something that might be screened by your local PBS affiliate than a film meant for theatrical release. It’s telling that the most captivating bits of A Boatload of Wild Irishman are the clips from Flaherty’s films, and maybe watching it will send more viewers to seek out the originals. If that happens, then this documentary has done its job. | Sarah Boslaugh

A Boatload of Wild Irishman is distributed on DVD by Icarus Films. Extras on the disc include an extended interview with British documentarian Richard Leacock (31 min.), extended interview clips from various subjects (including former BFI director Sir Denis Forman, filmmaker Nick Broomfield, and Paul Henley of the University of Manchester) discussing Flaherty and the documentary (13 min.), and an extended interview with J.C. Boudreaux, the boy featured in Louisiana Story (10 min.), plus an illustrated booklet including an essay by Brian Winston. 

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply