This epic film on the harsh lives of the Aran Islanders remains controversial. With dramatised scenes, expressionistic photography and innovative sound, it pushed the boundaries between art and documenting.
The revered US documentary pioneer Robert Flaherty spent two years making this controversial film. Winner of the Venice Film Festival 1934, it was applauded by some as a masterpiece but derided by others as ‘reactionary worship of the heroic’ – ignoring the Islanders’ contemporary bitter struggle for survival, and reconstructing a ‘romantic’ vision from the past.
As in Nanook of the North, Flaherty collaborated with the Islanders to construct a narrative that told their story. In innovative ‘expressionistic’ black-and-white images he asked the Islanders to dangerously re-enact sequences for the film, presenting the daily life on the inhospitable Aran Islands on a grand scale. The film still divides opinion today as to whether it is a masterpiece or a ‘romanticised’ distorted view of the Islanders. Whatever your opinion, this is a poetic film that stretched the definition of documentary, a work of art that inspired documentary and fiction filmmakers for generations to come.