It started in 1923. Robert J. Flaherty (the director who became famous in 1922 for the groundbreaking documentary Nanook of the North) took his family to the Samoan island of Savai’l to capture silent footage of waning cultural practices. The reels sat untouched, degrading, until Flaherty’s daughter Monica returned to Savai’l 50 years later. At that point, she not only made audio recordings of dialogue and music, but also the sounds of life—knives scraping against a taro root, warthogs screeching in fear and pain, and so on. However, when Monica put the audio and visual elements together, the product was subpar; the film had lost too much quality over the years.
Now that the picture has been restored, the sounds of, say, a coconut being ripped open by hand or the quiet lull of the ocean punctuated by gleeful splashing are set against images with impeccable clarity and contrast. The footage occasionally skips and jumps, but it’s easy to ignore as you find yourself absorbed.
The narrative, like the film itself, is layered and heavily constructed. While it feels like a documentary, the story has a lot in common with reality television. Flaherty arranges and rearranges real people, relationships, and customs to create the most dramatic, involving story possible. This includes both his practice of casting and costuming (only the hot young things bare their breasts) and his resurrection of old traditions, like the painful process of Samoan tattoo, in order to document their existence before their eventual disappearance. (There’s also an element of well-meaning bigotry and exoticization that continues undisturbed in this new production.)
Flaherty set out to preserve and record a moment that had already passed. Monica did the same, looking back toward her father’s project. Don’t go into Moana with Sound expecting an accurate anthropological depiction—just look forward to the drama and intergenerational negotiation of reality and fiction.