Moana + My Crasy Life
Fri 23 Mar 2018, 20:00
KAAP, Bruges, Ostend
  • Followed by a party

Monokino zet voet aan wal bij KAAP in Oostende: met de Noordzee op de achtergrond programmeert Monokino een double bill. Naast Moana with Sound, toont Monokino ook een recentere blik op Samoa: in My Crasy Life uit 1992 kijkt en luistert filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin naar een Samoaanse straatbende in Los Angeles. Beide films belichten een gesloten gemeenschap met eigen regels, rituelen en taal.


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

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

“These gangsters, Jerry. Do they hold as much mystery for you as they do for me?”1


“I don’t like the word ‘documentary,’ which tends to position reality in a static relationship to the filmmaker. I like the word ‘investigation’ because it stresses the effort of the filmmaker, the struggle with a reality that one experiences as problematic. There is an inherent drama for me in any attempt at thinking about anything and it is the pace of this ‘drama’ I am after. Thus the speculative nature of my films; the fact that they pile questions upon questions and tend to disqualify any answer as temporary; that they are full of false leads; that they are investigations which wander away from their own stated premises; that they proceed in fits; that, at their core, there is the stop-and-go motion of a mind trying to figure ‘it’ out. An ‘it’ which is always problematic, always shifting as the investigation progresses.”

Jean-Pierre Gorin2


“Motherfuckers are in the wrong fucking place. Fuck Margaret Mead. That’s M-E-A-D. BBC. PBS. All that National Geographical bullshit. I’ll tell you where it’s at. West Side S.O.S. Sons of Samoa, 32nd Street. That’s Long Beach, where the beaches are long. That’s where you go if you wanna make a movie. You go out toward that way.”3


“We don't believe that a film tells anything. A film is the telling. At a certain point in the film the transformation that you are focusing on should transform the film. Film history is full of films on madness, films on love, films on politics. But there is a considerable lack of mad films, love films, political films – where the subject of the film is being transformed into the flesh and blood of the film.

Take schizophrenic people: they are haunted by history, and so were Artaud and Bataille. They are driving back history on their own bodies. They are always in the process of tattooing history on their white skin, and when we make a film, the screen is only a white skin to tattoo.”

Jean-Pierre Gorin4


“The oil-and-water formula of Jean-Pierre Gorin’s new film, My Crasy Life, is only part of what makes it so provocative. Flippantly described by Gorin as ‘Robert Flaherty meets Sam Fuller,’ [...] the film’s significance runs far deeper than the debate over whether it’s fair and proper to script scenes in a documentary. My Crasy Life, which was financed by the BBC in association with FR3, seeks to empty itself of moral judgments about its subject: gang life. Since it does not present gangs as a social ‘problem,’ the film consequently poses no ‘solutions’ [...].

In discussing My Crasy Life, Gorin repeatedly mentions not a documentary but Luis Buñuel's fiction film Los Olvidados as a touchstone. That film is about Mexico City street kids and was based on stories Buñuel drew from reform school records. Los Olvidados is a film that Buñuel argued had a social argument but made no moral judgments. Likewise My Crasy Life departs from moral grandstanding. There are no good guys or bad guys. In this sense, the film is closer to how gangsters think about their own lives. ‘They think tragedy,’ says Gorin, ‘we think melodrama, with morality. They don’t judge their lives or indict the system; they just live them. I want a fiction disengaged from melodrama.’

Daniel Marks, one of the film’s producers and an anthropologist, adds that people never realize how normal gangster life is for gangsters. And yet despite the film’s absence of melodramatic framing, the film is not dispassionate. Says Gorin, ‘When you’re on the inside, you feel the warmth, the community. You don’t feel the violence.’ But there is violence aplenty, as the film indicates through its inclusion of police homicide photos showing some bloody hits. ‘The film avoids violence,’ Gorin noted at Sundance, ‘yet it gets to 99 percent of what their lives are about – which is young men talking like old guys who see the end of their lives coming up. ‘How old was so-and-so when he died?’ ‘Fourteen’; That’s the tragedy.’”

Barbara Osborn5