The film is unquestionably a great one, a poetic record of Polynesian tribal life, its ease and beauty and its salvation through a painful rite. Moana deserves to rank with those few works of the screen that have a right to last, to live. It could only have been produced by a man with an artistic conscience and an intense poetic feeling which, in this case, finds an outlet through nature worship.

Of course, Moana being a visual account of events in the daily life of a Polynesian youth and his family, has documentary value. But that, I believe, is secondary to its value as a soft breath from a sunlit island washed by a marvellous sea as warm as the balmy air. Moana is first of all beautiful as nature is beautiful. It is beautiful for the reason that the movements of the youth Moana and the other Polynesians are beautiful, and for the reason that trees and spraying surf, soft billowy clouds and distant horizons are beautiful. And therefore, I think Moana achieves greatness primarily through its poetic feeling for natural elements. It should be placed on the idyllic shelf that includes all those poems which sing of the loveliness of sea and land and air – and of man when he is a part of beautiful surroundings, a figment of nature, an innocent primitive rather than a so–called intelligent being cooped up in the mire of so–called intelligent civilisations. […]

Moana, which was photographed over a period of some twenty months, reveals a far greater mastery of cinema technique than Mr. Flaherty’s previous photoplay, Nanook of the North. In the first place, it follows a better natural outline – that of Moana’s daily pursuits, which culminate in the tattooing episode, and, in the second, its camera angles, its composition, the design of almost every scene, are superb. The new panchromatic film used give tonal values, lights and shadings that have not been equalled.

The film traces pictorially the capture of a wild boar by the youth Moana and his family, the capture of a giant turtle, surf ridings, the preparation of a native meal (made fascinating by clever camera technique), and finally winds into the already talked of tattooing episode. Here, as a tribal dance proceeds, a fantastic design is pricked by a needle onto Moana’s glossy epidermis. It is a period of intense pain for him, but as the sweat pours off his face he bravely bears it, for, as the subtitle has it, “the deepest wisdom of his race as decreed that manhood shall be won through pain.”

John Grierson1


“Courage to Moana,” they cry, “Courage to Moana!” Among them are the young man’s little brother Pe’a. Days before they had played together on the coast of their island, collecting coconuts and hunting crabs. But now the older brother writhes in his parents’ arms and the younger dances and dances in his honor. For days the tapping continues, then weeks. But when the tufunga finally finishes his work, when the intricate patchwork of tattoos circle his legs, flanks, and torso, Moana will finally be a man. But for now, he collapses, exhausted, into the lap of his mother, his body heaving from the shock and torment. The father offers the tufunga – the ceremonial tattoo artist – his thanks and a cup of kava. He accepts, drinks, accepts a second cup, and pours out a draught for their gods.

Soon there will be more singing, more dancing. But this time Moana will be among their number. He will dance in the sand by the surf with his lover Fa’angase, the two bending and swaying in a rite of betrothal. And back in the hut, little will Pe’a sleep the sleep of the young under the watchful eye of their father. And so life goes on in Savai’i, a Polynesian island untouched by civilization and the ravages of time.

All this is, of course, a lie.

All of it. By 1926, the people of Savai’i had been Westernized by Christian missionaries. They no longer wore the tapa cloth clothing of their ancestors; the young women didn’t walk about topless; the young men didn’t wear waist cloths. The practice of ceremonial tattooing had also died out – notice how none of the other men have the full body tattoos seemingly essential to their rite of manhood. And most shockingly, Moana’s family weren’t an actual family. Instead, they were a group of unrelated yet properly photogenic locals assembled by pioneering director and proto–documentarian Robert J. Flaherty for his film Moana. Attempting to follow up the massive success of his first film, the similarly fictionalized quasi–documentary about the Inuit entitled Nanook of the North (1922), Flaherty arrived on Savai’i with 16 tons of filmmaking equipment and dreams of an unspoiled primitive paradise. When he found the island and people thoroughly modernized, the horrified Flaherty spent the next two years with his wife and daughters living among the native Samoans and reconstructing their indigenous culture. Though suffering many humiliating set–backs – in one incident, Flaherty accidentally poisoned himself by drinking water contaminated by the silver nitrate in his film stock – the resultant film was an astonishing work of compassion, curiosity, and shimmering beauty. [...]

But perhaps the main thing one notices watching Moana is the room Flaherty gives his characters to simply be human. Far from regarding them as impersonal insects under a microscope, he fills the film with scenes of them laughing and playing, more often than not of Moana and Fa’angase flirting and courting. One of the first scenes sees Moana chop a giant vine and drain the fresh water within into Fa’angase’s giggling mouth. These are not Hollywood savages or anthropological specimens: they’re actual human beings with hopes and dreams and loves and desires. And despite being filmed over 90 years ago, this affirmation of their basic humanity feels like a revelation among a film culture still trapped by so many ancient prejudices. 

For decades the only way you could see Moana was in its original silent state, but in 1975 Flaherty’s youngest daughter Monica set out to work a miracle. Returning to the island of Savai’i, she painstakingly created an audio soundtrack for her father’s film, complete with ambient nature sounds, dubbed dialogue (including lines provided by three surviving cast members), and, most importantly, native folk songs. The new soundtrack premiered at the Cinémathèque française in Paris in 1981, but since the original negatives no longer existed, they were paired with a ratty 16mm copy. But now, over thirty years after the premiere of Moana with Sound, a 2K restoration has given us a print worthy of Monica’s soundtrack. [...] Barring the vision of Polynesia nestled in Flaherty’s mind when he first arrived in Savai’i, this new restoration is the closest we may ever get to Moana as it was originally intended. It may be a collection of meticulous lies, but they’re lies that bring us closer to a fuller understanding of the beauty of the human condition in one of the most far–flung corners of the planet.

Nathaniel Hood2

  • 1John Grierson, “Flaherty’s Poetic Moana” (1926)
  • 2Nathaniel Hood "The Beautiful Lies of Robert J. Flaherty's 'Moana with Sound'", MUBI (2017)
UPDATED ON 01.06.2018