Man of Aran, one of the most acclaimed and controversial Irish documentaries ever made, arrives on DVD in the UK this week, at the same time as the Irish Film Institute in Dublin screens a brand new print.
Made on location on the rugged Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland, Robert Flaherty’s 1934 documentary looks at the life of Aran’s residents as they struggle to contend with their surroundings.
Although the film featured real-life islanders and drew upon factual elements of their lives, Flaherty wasn’t afraid to bend the rules to obtain the best results: the family at the centre of Man of Aran aren’t actually related and some events were re-created for dramatic purposes.
To mark this landmark DVD release, which also features 1978 documentary How the Myth was Made and two Flaherty short films, we spoke to three people involved in the restoration – Kasandra O’Connell, Head of the IFI Irish Film Archive, Karen Wall, Access Officer at the IFI Irish Film Archive and Nick Varley, Managing Director of Park Circus – to find out what was involved and why the film is still relevant today.
Park Circus: Why has Man of Aran been so popular in Ireland over the years?
Kasandra O’Connell: The popularity of Man of Aran can be largely attributed to Flaherty’s cinematography, which captures the rugged beauty of the Aran landscape and the primitive existence of its ethnic community in spectacular fashion. The predominant theme of the film, man’s endurance and determination in the face of adversity, is one that is universal and seems to have had an ongoing resonance with audiences since the film was first released in 1934.
The film prompts the audience to question their understanding of the word documentary and to query the role of the filmmaker in creating a ‘truth’. Man of Aran’s style is what we would now recognise as docudrama, a genre which audiences are now very familiar with but which Flaherty’s pioneered adding to the enduring importance of the film.
Regardless of whether the traditions depicted in Man of Aran are authentic to the era in which it was created, the perilous situations in which the protagonists are placed remain as compelling as they were nearly eighty years ago. Although Flaherty’s use of reconstruction and dramatisation prevents Man of Aran being considered a true anthropological study, it is nonetheless a stunning record of a way of life that was disappearing even as it was being filmed.
What work went into including short film Return of the Islander and Man of Aran outtakes, both supplied by the IFI Irish Film Archive, on the DVD?
Karen Wall: Once a decision had been made about which films would be included in the DVD extras we then had to look at the film formats and consider copyright issues.
For this project the original 35mm negative elements of the film Return of the Islander were professionally telecined and graded. The elements were then edited together in a post production facility here in Dublin. This was carried out in order to produce a new high quality copy of the film on a broadcast quality tape format.
As the film has a voiceover in the Irish language we had to organise for the script to be translated into English and another version of the film was generated this time with English language subtitles. This is the first time the film has been available with subtitles which means that it is now accessible to people who are not Irish language speakers.
The copyright holders of this film, the family of the late film maker Jim Mulkerns and also The Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs were incredibly supportive of the venture and are delighted it is to be included in the DVD release of Man Of Aran.
The Man of Aran off cuts themselves were not available on a tape format before now. The 35mm outtakes were compiled and again professionally telecined, creating the high resolution tape version that allowed for inclusion on the DVD. It is perhaps the first time in many years that these clips have been seen.
What condition was the original film negative in before restoration?
Nick Varley: The original film elements on Man of Aran were in surprisingly good condition. Whilst the BFI hold the original negatives we chose to work from the 35mm fine grain positive master held by ITV. The film was scanned at Reliance Medias London facility.
The picture had multiple dirt and inbuilt film damage that had to be cleaned up manually using Reliances digital restoration tools. The film also had significant unsteadiness in the picture and we were able to stablise this to a certain degree. The soundtrack has undergone clean up to remove certain interference which was inherent in the original recording.
The one challenge was to ensure the film did not end up looking “plastic”. It was shot in the early 1930’s on location and using early equipment and film stocks. This still comes through in this new restoration whilst improving the visual and sound considerably.
Thanks to Kasandra, Karen and Nick
We’ve also uploaded a clip from the film to the Park Circus YouTube Channel: