Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Home Vision Entertainment steps firmly into Criterion territory with this exemplary edition of
Man of Aran, one of the most famous documentaries of all time and a staple in cinema and
communications classes. The excellent transfer of the film itself is topped by a few carefully-chosen
extras, including a key docu that serves as an extension of the film, made 42 years later.
The hard life of survival for the poor residents of the wind-swept Aran islands off the
West coast of Ireland is chronicled. We follow one family that finds ways to grow potatoes on patches
of naked rock. The young boy fishes by throwing his line over a cliff hundreds of feet high. And the men
brave outrageously dangerous seas in flimsy boats to harpoon giant basking sharks.
It's just a movie made with an old wind-up camera, where one simple shot follows another, but
Man of Aran's considerable power is related more to poetics than to documentary ideals. Bold
fishermen and farmers are composed against violent seas and noble skies, but the reality of their
hard life is more than just dramatized pictorialism. American Robert Flaherty wowed 'em with his
Nanook of the North 12 years earlier, and this elemental look at an impossibly rugged way
of life continued the filmmaker's quest.
Made over the course of two years, Aran shows a series of events but has no real story. We see
fishermen chasing the giant sharks, and trying to get their boats ashore on a coastline that is
all jagged rocks. The boats appear to be made of wooden slats and tarred cloth, and are as delicate
as flower petals against the might of the crashing waves. Finely-judged editing keeps a brisk pace, and
breaks up into rapid montages with arresting jumpcuts, as in the shark hunt sequence. There's an
excellent score as well.
Except for the bounty of the sea, the movie makes Aran look like an uninhabitable place.
The most shocking segment shows a family cultivating its farm. Since there is no soil per se, the
farmers dig for dirt in the craggy rocks that cover the island, and fertilize it
by mnaually hauling seaweed up from the shore. To survive in this manner, there's
little time to do anything but work like dogs - we can easily imagine a week's backbreaking labor lost in
a windstorm, or the spunky 12-year-old son losing his life by working all day on the edge of a precipice
as high as a skyscraper. The intertitles (there is sporadic recorded non-sync dialog, much of it difficult
to hear even in this clear presentation) stress that these aren't primitives but instead people who
have chosen to live here for the independence it gives them. Watching the daily effort required to
scratch out a living, we get a new perspective on the concept of work & commitment ... living such a life
certainly can't be called a 'lifestyle choice' as we know it now.
The frightful conclusion depicts a single boat fighting its way to the rocky beach in
the middle of a gale. The high seas look murderous, and the exertion needed to row the tiny craft
exhausts us. At one point the heroine has to be hauled out of the surf by her hair, a detail
that lets us know the events may have been staged, but are certainly not faked. The waves are
beautiful and all-powerful; when they do land, finally, we certainly 'get' the idea that the forces
of nature dominate all, and the humans are completely at their mercy.
HVe's DVD of Man of Aran presents the docu in fine shape, with a very clear picture and track.
I've never seen school 16mm prints, so I don't know how much of an improvement this is. A 1976 docu by
George Stoney, How the Myth Was Made returns to Aran with some of the filmmakers (Flaherty
died in 1950) and examines the film and its heritage from all angles. We see leading lady Maggie
Dirrane, a hearty woman in 1934, transformed into an adorable old lady who waddles about singing
with a smile on her face. An assistant explores a shack used to develop the film on location (!) and
finds all the
equipment still stored in a loft, 42 years later. And producer Michael Balcon characterizes the project
as an inexpensive yet risky economic gamble.
The docu explains what film school non-fiction courses have taught for years, that Man of Aran
is a poetic representation of a way of life, not a true documentary. The family were non-related actors
and all events were staged. The Aran islands have their share of farmland, owned by a few rich
landlords, and there were plenty of islanders making a living just as we are shown. Also, religion
is strong in the area, a major force in people's lives.
Flaherty chose to limit the scope of his show and to simplify everything to what could be explained
visually. It's a technical cheat to show a village on naked stone and say there are no farms, when a pan
to the left would reveal cultivated acreage. Flaherty omitted the politics of economic inequity and
religion from the show. Stoney's followup docu shows islanders reacting to the movie with some spirited
(that's Irish for near-belligerent)
discussions of what in it is accurate and what is not. One man says it's shameful that the filmmakers
would entice the fishermen to go out in such dangerous seas, that it bordered on exploitation to make
men risk their lives for a few dollars. Flaherty's widow and collaborator explains that
the filmmaker was a driven man who took risks himself. His philosophy was to leave out everything but
the hand-to-mouth basics of living, so that the film would not
become dated. As a poetic account of subsistence living in the 20th century, Man of Aran is a
success, but it needs this follow up, with the 1976 islanders changing to electric power and living off
tourism, to become a true documentary.
Also included are filmed and television excerpts with Robert and Frances Flaherty, and a gallery of
photos. Like Nanook, Man of Aran was a big success, as shown by photos of the giant
marqee in New York City in '34.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Man of Aran rates:
Video: Very good
Sound: Good (I assume we're not meant to understand all of the dialogue)
Supplements: 60 minute followup docu from 1976, tv interview Frances Flaherty, a short
docu on ARAN with Frances Flaherty, filmed interview with Robert Flaherty, photo selection
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 15, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson