As of late, I have a growing fascination with the boundary between documentary and fiction. Robert J. Flaherty is a known documentary filmmaker. Nanook of the North is considered to be a hallmark of early documentary filmmaking. Louisiana Story was nominated for an Oscar in the catagory of best documentary. It won a BAFTA for documentary filmmaking. However, watching the film, nearly 60 years after it was produced, the film does not look and feel like a documentary.
The grist I’m milling over:
5 Random Thoughts
1) The non-actors are obviously acting, in that they are asked to play parts. None of the family members are actually related. They are obviously being given lines to say or at least lines to work off of, and this cuts into whatever naturalism one might hope for when using non-actors. They are creatures that exist in a realm between authentic and bogus. In a religious way, it feels like watching creatures not motivated by free will, but by the divine power of Robert Flaherty.
2) Standard Oil funded this film and it obviously smacks of a pro-oil message, but there is a false humility in a ‘minor’ oil spill. The inclusion of this episode in the film feels like a penance. More striking is how the admittance of a harsh truth about the negative environmental impact oil drilling can have on a region is diminished to a minor, manageable problem. Who is speaking here?
3) The young boy in this film is curiously positioned between his father and the men on the oil rig. He is the bridge between the primitive (his father) and modernity (the oil rig). Were one to read further (or sillier) into this triangle, one could certainly make some Freudian argument, what with the boy watching gleefully as the large drill pushes deeper and deeper into the Earth and with last few images boy clinging to a phallic pipe emerging from the bayou waters. Get to his doctoral candidates, get to it!
4) Is there a difference between the facts and the truth? Flaherty feels more interested in capturing the feel of a location and a sense of the its people than hard facts about them. The men on the oil rig and the Cajun family are not individuals, but rather types. Flaherty is generalizing, even more so than he did with Nanook, who at least has a name, even if it wasn’t his own. In Louisiana Story Flaherty has created to types of people, now interacting, in one of the most classic examples of narratives – someone comes to visit. As the titles announce this is a Louisiana story; a general truth
5) If truth is beauty is beauty then truth? The reason I so deeply appreciate this film is the stunning beauty of Louisiana. A tip of the hat goes to Ricky Leacock’s camera work. What his camera captures are moments of great beauty plucked from the bayou. There is a poetic truth to the visuals, that unfortunately calls into question the dramatic editing and stuffy acting. One might be just enough to balance the other. Here artifice and actuality compliment each other is equal portions almost as if to remind us that all cinema, even the most real and truthful is constructed. As if working backwards, with a script and actors, and a small mission from the oil company, Flaherty seeks out the true beauty of his given setting; its true heart. To me, it is a small wonder that Flaherty, the man who brought narrative to documentary filmmaking ends his career by bringing documentary to a narrative film.