How the Myth Was Made: Man of Aran


Kate and Peter Faherty with their friend Colin Tom (center), whose parents worked with Flaherty, watch scenes from family life on a battery-powered 9" monitor. Photo by George C. Stoney, Fall 1976


George Stoney is the legendary pioneer of documentary filmmaking and the son of an Aran islander.

An acclaimed professor of film at NYU University, his insightful documentary How the Myth Was Made: A Study of Robert Flaherty's Man of Aran  exploded some misconceptions about America's famous filmmaker.

By going back to interview islanders who took part in the orignal documentary he was able to unravel how Flaherty had played fast an loose with the facts to make his tale of the islanders even more heroic and dramatic.

Now an acclaimed professor of film at NYU University. Stoney, was also director of the National Film Board of Canada's Challenge for Change project and is considered to be the father of public access television. He is also the director numerous documentary films including All My Babies and The Uprising of '34.
 See his speech below on the importance of filmmakers working honestly with their subjects.

Stoney, was director of the National Film Board of Canada's Challenge for Change project and is considered to be the father of public access television. He is also the director numerous documentary films including All My Babies and The Uprising of '34.

now read on after the jump

Stoney says he has dumb luck. His grandfather was the doctor on Inis Mor, where Flaherty, shot his film. So Stoney's film, exploring
the effects Flaherty's film had on the island and its people, is
digging into his own roots as an individual while simultaneously
studying the work of his intellectual mentor as a producer of
nonfiction films.

Robert Flaherty's 1934 classic MAN OF ARAN
chronicled fishermen's struggle for existence on Ireland's bleak Aran
Islands. Stoney revisits the islands and interviews surviving locals
about their memories of the original film - and their reactions to
making this one. It includes excerpts from the original documentary.

says, "HOW THE MYTH WAS MADE illustrates what I believe to be a common
truth: the filmmaker always leaves his mark on the places and the
people he films."

Here are some words that Professor Stoney shared with the audience after a screening at American University in Washington DC in 2006

A Documentary Filmmaker's Relationship to Their Subject

think the first thing to take into consideration is: Why are they in
the film in the first place? What's in it for them? And can you
persuade them that what you want is also what they want? And is that
strong enough so that when they see the film with other people they can
deal with that audience's response. Filmmakers say, "Oh, well we showed
them the film before it was released." But did they see it with an
audience? Did they know the resonance afterwards?

good example is one from a program I directed called Challenge for
Change at the National Film Academy. It was a program designed to be a
bridge between government agencies and people in need. Before I got
there, they made a beautiful film called Things I Cannot Change.
Tanya Ballantyne made this beautiful, beautiful film about an Anglo
family in a Montreal slum; a multi-problem family to quote the social
workers. The husband was somewhat of an unemployed drunk and they were
having a crisis (it was a verite film, so you always have to have a
crisis) and the crisis was that the mother was going to the hospital to
have her tenth child and the father was looking after the family. So it
was the story of the father and the new baby coming. When you first see
that family you think, "Oh my god- they need another child like they
need another hole in their heads!" But by the time the baby is brought
back by the mother, the family has become so warm in anticipation that
you offer applause.

that family saw that film for the first time on television! The
neighbors called them up and said, "You're on television!" So they had
to move out of the neighborhood --partly because they were Anglos in a
French community but also because they were ashamed of what had
appeared in the film.

remember writing in our Challenge for Change Newsletter, "This will
never happen again." So Ballantyne (the director) came in and I said,
"Did you ever talk to the family about why the film was being made?
They were prejudiced and backdated, but perhaps if you had explained to
them why you were making the film they would have become more willing
participants. In addition, you could have shown them the film early on
and garnered their support. You show it to them as a rough cut, as a
final cut and then you have them see it with their family and they get
used to seeing the images on the screen, it's not a shock."

When someone photographs you and you see yourself, how do you feel?

[student answers that they feel awkward]

But if you see it over and over again you get used to it. First they
get used to it...then you say, "Ok, who would you like to have see this
film?" They call friends and neighbors and it becomes a public
screening. Next thing you know, they are part of your advocacy group.

of documentary filmmaking has a seductive quality, I mean the director
or producer's got to be a seducer of some kind. But when does seduction
become lovemaking? When the other party is really participating
perhaps?...I hope that's not too graphic for American University!

Documentary Ethics in Practice

am often asked to lecture about documentary ethics. Documentary ethics
is not something that's written down - it's something you feel. You
learn ethics when you've shot some great material, but you realize that
your subject is a real person, and begin to question the ethics of how
you got these shots, and whether you see the resonance of life. That's
when you really learn about ethics, when you have to put it into
practice. That's why I don't like to lecture about ethics. I like
students to experience filmmaking. I think if you're making films about
real people and real situations, you have an obligation to do no harm.
That's very different from the dramatic director whose hired actors.

example of an ethical documentary is a film that was just recently
released about a writing and drama group at Sing Sing prison- it's
called Getting Out.
It's a film that both the filmmakers and the subjects are very proud
of. The prisoners would love to have their families come and see the
film because it shows them as real human beings. But you won't see it
on PBS. I showed it to POV, (where several of my films have been sold)
and before they looked at it they asked, "what are they in for?"
I answered "you know they're felons but that's not the point of the film."
"Won't work," they said, "you've got to start with that."

showed it to Frontline--"What are they in for?" I responded the same
way, claiming that the reason for their sentences was not the point of
the film. I got a five-minute lecture from the executive saying, "You
are denying people the facts that they need for their own safety." They
want to label these people. Thank God it's out to post-incarceration
organizations- they're using it because they find that even though you
know these people are felons, you see them as human beings. It changes
the audience's mind about people in jail.

The second film they're making called Staying Out,
which follows several of these fellas who have been released and we see
how these talented people do after they are out. I wanted to make my
point explicit, so I talked to the superintendent of the Sing Sing
prison. We wanted to conduct an interview with him, but he's so much
under the thumb of Albany and the state government of New York that it
took three months to finally get clearance. I said I wanted to
interview in a place that speaks to this. Well, Sing Sing is in
Ossining, New York, which has a tourist board because tourists are
interested in Sing Sing. They can't take people to Sing Sing because
it's a maximum-security prison, so they actually built a little museum
in the town center where they have so-called typical cells. They have
the old electric chair. They have pictures of the worst of the
criminals. They have a display of knives created by the prisoners and
so-forth and that's just what the public wants to see. So I had the
superintendent of Sing Sing sitting in front of one of those cells, and
in effect, this is what the public sees. No matter how these guys
prepare to get out, they're all guilty. That's what we're trying to say
with this film. 

Active vs. Passive Audience Members

when you're dealing with a subject like that, remember that there is a
resonance if your film's any good; if your films actually get shown. So
often we make films, they get shown in festivals, the more and more
they get shown at festivals, the more and more the audience formed
becomes us and maybe you hit PBS and then get five phone calls. What I
try to do now--that I have a university salary so I can afford to do
this, I don't have to make my money out of filmmaking--is to make films
that mean something so that when shown in groups, they have some
effect. Give me ten people who are interested in my subject matter or
want to do something about it and throw them in the audience. Ten
people who will talk after about what we do and I'll swap that for a
thousand people coming into the theater and seeing it passively. That's
the kind of filmmaking I want to get involved in.

Michael Moore

from the audience] You mentioned reflexivity being symptomatic in the
seventies but I think we've come full circle where you have
documentarians like Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock with these big
oversized personalities and what they're really filming are people
reacting to them. Do you find that your students at NYU are drawn to
that kind of documentary filming, where they've got a strong central
personality and they're the star? [George Stoney responds] Well it's
popular to have contempt for Michael Moore. I remember when I first saw
a Michael Moore film at 10pm showing in a crowded theater where I knew
a lot of young people would be. I think my companion and I were the
only people over thirty in the audience. He really carried the place.
We like Michael Moore because he thumbs his nose at things we'd like to
thumb our noses at. That's cheap and easy. People ask what I think
about Michael Moore and I have no initial reactions. He's a pretty
clumsy filmmaker but I'm glad he's on my side. I just wish he were a
little more careful with his facts, but by the time he made Columbine
he was. That's a pretty strong film. And of course what it did for the
people who watch the box office, people were much, much more willing to
consider the documentaries after that.

Flaherty and Poetic Filmmaking

[Question from the audience]
It said in the film(How the Myth Was Made: A Study of Robert Flaherty's Man of Aran)
that Flaherty was a poet of the screen. It actually said that he was
the first and last. Could you describe the details in what separated
his films from the vast majority of others to classify it as poetry?

[George Stoney responds]
see fewer and fewer films where the beauty of the scene is part of the
essence of the film. Most verite films don't use composition, they
don't use lighting, framing, all of those kinds of things to enhance
the subject matter. They think subject matter doesn't need it. All too
often, and I've done this so often recently, we just have a well lit
interview...but where do you go from there? How do you get the essence of
life around people? I think a good example of the best of that is in a
new Canadian film called Shameless .
It's a reflective film because the director (Bonnie Sherr Klein) did it
herself (she's severely handicapped by a stroke). Each of the
characters is gracefully introduced and it's very beautifully
constructed. I recommend it very highly.

But as for Flaherty- I think it's explained beautifully in a DVD of the Louisiana Story,
Flaherty's last film. Ricky Leecock, the young assistant to Flaherty at
the time, describes how they went out and shot a cobweb and how long
they looked at that cobweb and how many times they photographed it to
get it just right. You should get hold of that DVD because that makes
it very clear what that is. He had a poet's eye.

Great Filmmaking

about the image on that screen causes us to have an emotional response.
If it doesn't, it's not worth doing. In journalism you're using words,
you're using verbal metaphors. The best of film uses visual metaphors.
But we don't recognize what limited a medium it is and how challenging
it can be. For example, it's a two-dimensional medium for a
three-dimensional world. So you're constantly having to use angles,
constantly using shadows, you have to get a feel for it. It's a two
sense medium for a five sense world�To excite touch and smell and
taste, that's part of the artistry of making a film, to get all of life
up there- and this is an essence of great filmmaking. It's to give you,
the audience, that completely extraordinary experience. That's why it's
worth it and that's why it's so much fun to do. And that's why we keep
going back and back and back to the screen.

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