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Flaherty, Robert (1884-1951)

Director, Producer, Writer

Main image of Flaherty, Robert (1884-1951)

Widely regarded as the inventor of documentary cinema, Robert Flaherty approached filmmaking with an ethnographer's eye. Generating ideas 'in the field', he would shoot a vast footage - in his own words, photographing what the camera wanted him to photograph - and distil ideas and material from this. Flaherty is credited with eight films, all distinguished by an instinct for finding lyrical images. He made three of them during his eight-year stay in Britain during the 1930s.

The eldest of seven children, Robert Joseph Flaherty was born in Iron Mountain, Michigan on 16 February 1884. Having received little formal schooling, he briefly attended Upper Canada College, Toronto and the Michigan School of Mines (where he met his wife and collaborator, Frances Hubbard). He spent the years between 1910 and 1920 prospecting for iron ore in north Canada, where he gathered material for his first film, Nanook of the North (1922).

In 1931, Flaherty came to Britain at John Grierson's behest to make a documentary for the Empire Marketing Board: this was to be a study of craftsmanship in Britain's major industries. After some weeks travelling around the country and shooting a great deal of 'test' footage, the EMB's limited film stock and funds ran out and Flaherty was taken off the film, which was completed by EMB personnel. A sound version of Industrial Britain, incorporating some of Flaherty's footage, was released in 1933 for distribution to commercial cinemas.

For his next assignment, Man of Aran (1934), Flaherty and his crew spent over a year on the island of Aran, off Ireland's Galway coast, shooting the film and absorbing Irish life. Again, the production, financed by Gaumont-British, overran and the shoot was closed down: this time, however, Flaherty took part in editing the film which, despite charges of inauthenticity (the islanders re-enacted long-abandoned fishing practices for the camera), was enthusiastically received and garnered many awards, including Best Film of 1934 at the Venice Film Festival.

In 1935, Flaherty was commissioned by Alexander Korda to film Elephant Boy in India. This was a big-budget production by comparison with Flaherty's earlier work, and he was unable to complete it: after two years of shooting, the film was finished at Denham Studios by Korda's brother Zoltan. A "wretched piece of cinema by all standards," was Paul Rotha's verdict, "but it does contain some fine examples of Flaherty's work."

When Flaherty returned to London, no further projects were forthcoming, and in 1939 he and Frances returned to the USA, where he spent the remainder of his life, completing two more films. Robert Flaherty died in Dummerston, Vermont on 23 July 1951, of cerebral thrombosis. His work continues to be commemorated at the annual Flaherty Seminar, inaugurated by his widow in 1954.

Although his best work was done outside Britain, the single-minded, ungovernable Flaherty's sojourn here delivered a stimulating culture shock to the relatively staid men dominating the British film scene. More significantly, the scenes Flaherty shot for his British-made films remain among the most beautiful in the history of documentary cinema.

Murphy, William T., Robert J. Flaherty: A Guide to References and Resources (Boston, Mass: G.K. Hall & Co, 1978)
Rotha, Paul, Robert J. Flaherty: A Biography, Jay Ruby (ed.) (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983)
Ruby, Jay, 'A Re-examination of the Early Career of Robert J. Flaherty', Quarterly Review of Film Studies v. 5, n. 4, 1980, pp. 431-457

Annette Kuhn, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Elephant Boy (1937)Elephant Boy (1937)

Korda Kipling adaptation that made an instant star of Sabu in the title role

Thumbnail image of Industrial Britain (1931)Industrial Britain (1931)

Classic documentary record of British industry at its peak

Thumbnail image of Man of Aran (1934)Man of Aran (1934)

Romantic and poetic portrait of the harsh lives of the Aran islanders

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Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Grierson, John (1898-1972)Grierson, John (1898-1972)

Producer, Director, Executive