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Man of Aran (1934)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Man of Aran (1934)
Co-photographerRobert Flaherty
Production CompanyGaumont-British Picture Corporation
PhotographyRobert Flaherty
Production CompanyGainsborough Pictures
ScriptRobert Flaherty
ScenaristJohn Monck

Cast: Colman King (a man of Aran); Maggie Dirrane (his wife); Michael Dillane (their son); Pat Mullen (member of shark hunting crew); Patch Ruadh (member of shark hunting crew)

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A group of people living on a desolate island struggle to survive.

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Robert Flaherty made films in the naturalist tradition. That is, he wanted to record the conflict of man and nature using real subjects, or the "raw materials" as his focus. In order to achieve this in Man of Aran he spent months living with the Aran Islanders, getting to know them so that his film might be as "truthful" as possible. This style heavily influenced the British documentary movement and was much admired by John Grierson, its leader.

Many writers have criticised Flaherty though for this film's lack of realism. Although it shows clearly the harshness of the Aran Islanders lives simply in terms of their battle with the elements, the film contains a strongly narrational structure imposed by Flaherty himself and in many ways does not reflect the real lives of the islanders at all.

For example, shark hunts had not been carried out in the way that the film suggested for several generations, as hadn't the potato planting, but Flaherty felt the romantic nature of his study, and his desire for the audience to understand the harshness of the Islanders lives, would be enhanced by recreating the old ways. This combination of fiction with fact plainly reveals the flaw in Flaherty's vision and justifies the term "poetic realism" which is often applied to it.

Despite being well known for his epic film Nanook of the North (1922), which looked at the harsh lifestyle of Eskimos, Flaherty struggled to gain funding for his study of the Aran Islanders. Finally, Michael Balcon at Gainsborough agreed to provide a small budget. This lack of funds meant the film was shot as a silent and the sound track was laid on afterwards. This led to the film being criticised further as the experimental nature of the recording detracted even more from the film's realism. Writers such as Paul Rotha, while praising his "pioneer spirit" have also pointed out Flaherty's lack of reference to the social and political situation on Aran and generally in Ireland in that period.

Lou Alexander

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Video Clips
1. On the cliff (2:55)
2. Shark fishing (3:03)
3. Mother and Son (2:05)
Production stills
John Taylor: BECTU Interview Part 4 (1988)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Caller Herrin' (1947)
Whaling Afloat and Ashore (1908)
Flaherty, Robert (1884-1951)
Taylor, John (1914-1992)
Gaumont-British Picture Corporation