This film is held by the BFI (ID: 13670).


Set in Samoa, the film records the daily life of the protagonist as a ceremonial feast is prepared.

Fa'angase, a 'maiden,' and Moana's mother gather leaves; Moana collects taro root. Moana and his brothers, Pe'a and Tu'ungaita, set a snare for a wild boar; a boar is captured and dispatched. Fishing scenes follow: Moana and his brothers in an outrigger canoe; Moana dives in to spear fish. Fa'angase gathers giant clams in the shallows; Fa'angase and Moana flirt as Fa'angase eats live fish. Moana's mothers prepares a cloth garment (a 'lavalava') from bark; Pe'a climbs a coconut tree and throws the nuts down to Moana. Futher fishing scenes: Moana and his brothers capture a sea turtle, and drill a hole in its shell. Pe'a and Tu'ungaita attempt to fish along the rocky shore against rough waves; Pe'a starts a fire and smokes a robber crab out of its lair. Moana's mothers begins to prepare food - coconut custard, taro, bananas, fish, breadfruit - for the feast. At the day's end, Fa'angase anoints Moana with oils and puts flowers in his hair; they dance, but she remains off-screen. Then the ceremonial rite of passage: Moana is tattooed. The men of the village dance ("Courage to Moana!"). The tattooing complete, Moana and Fa'angase dance in public.

Notes: Filmed in the village of Safune on Savai'i island, Western Samoa, during the period May 1923-December 1924. Premiered in New York at the Rialto Theatre on 7 February 1926 as Moana: The Love Life of a South Sea Siren.



Moana: A Romance of the Golden Age, the picture that is often said to have inspired the first use of the noun ‘documentary’ in relation to cinema (Grierson, 1971, 25), was Robert Flaherty’s second feature film, and his only encounter with Hollywood finance. The commercial and artistic success of Nanook of the North, Flaherty’s instantly canonical 1922 epic of Inuit life, awakened the interest of Paramount’s Jesse Lasky, and in 1923 Lasky offered Flaherty a blank cheque to make another film (‘Go anywhere you want in the world… All you have to do is bring us back another Nanook’ (Flaherty, 1960, 19; Rotha 1983, 51-2). A friend of the Flahertys, Frederick O’Brien, had recently published a romantic account of the Marquesas Islands, White Shadows in the South Seas (O’Brien 1919), and Robert Flaherty’s wife Frances Flaherty attributed the location choice of Western Samoa (right down to the village: Safune, on the north side of Savai’i) to the suggestion of O’Brien (Flaherty, op.cit.). The Flahertys – Robert, Frances, their three children, and Robert’s brother David – arrived on Savai’i, the easternmost of the two islands that composed Western Samoa, in May 1923; sixteen tons of equipment had preceded them. 

Flaherty had arrived with dreams of a tropical Nanook: another film which would pit man against nature, with the rigours of the Arctic exchanged for the giant octopi and man-eating sharks of South Sea legend. As Frances Flaherty later wrote, it was not to be – the conflicts and creatures that they had hoped to find ‘simply were not there’ (ibid., 20-1; Murphy, 1978, 12-13). The film was finally built around a different, equally romantic idea: that the Samoa of yore was disappearing, and that the beauty and delicacy of the old customs might be captured in all their drama and simplicity on film. It was little matter that most of these ‘fabulous old Polynesian ways’ (Flaherty, op.cit., 21) were no longer practised, and despite some local opposition the Flahertys pushed ahead with a manufactured vision of Samoan life, requiring that their actors wore ‘clothing that had long since been replaced by Western dress, affect longer hairstyles than those in fashion, and submit one of their young men to the almost defunct ritual of tattooing’ (Barsam, 1988, 32). Filming was completed toward the end of 1924, and in December, with 240,000 feet of film shot, the Flahertys left Samoa.

1923, the year of the Flahertys’ arrival, saw Western Samoa enter a period of political crisis. Taking the reins as administrator, Brigadier General George Spafford Richardson determined to mould the ‘splendid but backward’ Samoans into an industrious nation, and to this end began to apply in earnest the Samoan Offenders Ordinance of 1922. This law granted to the administrator the power of banishment, the highest sanction in traditional Samoan law, and also granted him the power to remove ceremonial titles from the chiefly classes. The Ordinance was liberally and cynically applied, and a reservoir of ill-feeling was quickly built up. In October 1926, at a town hall meeting in Apia, a coalition of Samoans and local Europeans came together to begin the process of non-violent protest and civil disobedience which became known as the Mau. The Mau rebellion would eventually see the granting of significant political concessions by the administration, and would pave the way toward Samoan independence (Meleisea, 1987, 126-54; Field, 1984, passim). 

When Flaherty delivered the final cut of  Moana to Paramount, he received a less than enthusiastic response. After almost being shelved, the film received a limited release in just six cities, with Flaherty himself doing special promotion through targeted mail-outs. These releases were moderately successful, but still Paramount did not wish to risk a general release, opting instead for limited run in New York. Misleadingly advertised as ‘The Love Life of a South Seas Siren’, Moana opened at the Rialto Theatre, Broadway on 7 February 1926. Despite critical plaudits, the film was ultimately a commercial failure, losing Paramount over $40,000 on a cost of around $260,000 (Murphy, op.cit., 15-16, 62-4; Rotha, op.cit., 71-3). Flaherty would not deal with Hollywood again. 



A romantic portrait of Samoa as a natural and social idyll, Moanais structured as a ‘day-in-the-life’ narrative which follows the eponymous Moana and his family as they prepare for a feast and dance. These ceremonials are to celebrate a coming-of-age ceremony – the tattooing of the hero, and his implied union with ‘the highest maiden in the village’ (title card), Fa’angase.

The action begins with Fa’angase and others gathering leaves and taro root; subsequent scenes see Moana and his brothers capture a wild boar, take to the sea for turtle and fish, catch a large crab, and gather coconuts. His mother makes cloth from mulberry bark and paints it for the traditional item of clothing, the lavalava, and we see the feast being prepared: fish are wrapped in leaves and placed on hot stones with green bananas, coconut custard and taro. The climactic scenes see Moana practice the sivadance with Fa’angase (who remains off-screen) before submitting to the painful attentions of Tufunga, the tattooist. Finally, Moana and Fa’angase, dressed in full regalia, dance the siva in public.

Much has been written about the beauty of Flaherty’s cinematography, and the depth and clarity of his images. Flaherty himself has spoken of the extensive use of a telephoto lens for close-ups in the filming of Moana (Flaherty, 1971, 97), to which he attributes not only the elimination of self-consciousness on the part of his subjects, but also the creation of ‘a stereoscopic quality that gave the picture a startling reality and beauty’ (ibid.). John Grierson, anonymously reviewing Moana in 1926 (‘Moana is lovely beyond compare’; Grierson, op. cit, 26), drew attention to the tonal depth created by the use of panchromatic film stock and praised the ‘superb’ camerawork of the film, and though such compliments contributed to Moana being lavished with ‘the highest critical praise’ on release, Murphy notes that the film’s reputation on these matters and others has significantly declined (Murphy, op.cit., 66). Nevertheless, the significant influence that the film had on Grierson himself should be recalled when examining the British documentary movement he developed under the aegis of the Empire Marketing Board from 1927 onwards.

Barsam has written that the film’s major failing is that where Nanook rendered the unfamiliar life of the Inuit as a series of human universals with which an audience could identify, Moana offers no such satisfaction: ‘there is virtually nothing universal in the experience’ of the protagonist (Barsam, 1988, 37). This may well be so. However, the narrative structure is nonetheless powerfully involving, on the psychological if not on the thematic level, as it accumulates a series of minor successes or interesting processes (hunting, fishing, cooking, flirting) which all anticipate future pleasures (principally food and love).

Yet, far from the denouement illustrating the fruit of these various labours, the final scenes present the viewer with a graphic record of real pain as Moana is tattooed. We do not get to see the fish and breadfruit removed from the firestones, the new skirt put on, the feast consumed, or the hero married, and while the final siva dance provides an implication that there will be some sort of consummation, in fact its meaning is unclear. During the tattooing scene, a title card indicates that what we see is taking three weeks (in fact the process took six: Barsam, op.cit., 37), and the chronology of the film is suddenly scrambled. The whole drama abruptly becomes sacred and obscure: the entire village dances; Moana’s brother appears to enter a trance; the tattooist declaims a silent oration at a kava ceremony. 

This final frustration of audience expectation – Grierson dimly registers it, saying that the lack of a ‘pictorial transcription of the sex life of this people…mars [Moana’s] completeness’ (Grierson op. cit.) – and the sudden disruption of comprehensible narrative order give the film a strange aftertaste. The idyll it tries to display is made wholly alien; everything is suddenly suffused with magic and ritual. After the painful intensity of the initiation process and the heightened states of the participants, the dance does not bring Moana and his companion down to earth again. Instead Flaherty abandons them in a state of trance-like excitation without release, suspended forever in an endless dream that documents his own filmic vision of a Samoan society more imaginary than it was real. It is a vision that harkens back to the most venerable European fantasies about island life in the South Pacific, and in many ways Moana can be seen as an elaborately staged rendering of these fantasies, newly burnished to a convincing and seductive shine by the authority with which Flaherty handles his medium. 

Francis Gooding 


Works Cited

Barsam, Richard 1988 The Vision of Robert Flaherty: the Artist as Myth and Filmmaker (Bloomington: Indiana University Press)

Field, Michael J. 1991 [1984] Mau: Samoa’s Struggle for Freedom (Auckland: Polynesian Press)

Flaherty, Frances 1960 The Odyssey of a Film Maker: Robert Flaherty’s Story (Urbana: Beta Phi Mu)

Flaherty, Robert 1971 [1934] ‘Filming Real People’ in Jacobs ed. 1971: 97-9

Grierson, John  1971 [1926] ‘Flaherty’s Poetic Moana’ in Jacobs ed. 1971: 25-6

Jacobs, Lewis ed. 1971 The Documentary Tradition: From Nanook to Woodstock (New York: Hopkinson and Blake)

Meleisea, Malama 1987 The Making of Modern Samoa: Traditional Authority and Colonial Administration in the Modern History of Western Samoa (Suva: University of the South Pacific)

Murphy, William T. 1978 Robert Flaherty: A Guide to References and Resources (Boston: G. K. Hall & Co.)

O’Brien, Frederick 1919 White Shadows in the South Seas (New York: Century)

Rotha, Paul (ed. Jay Ruby) 1983 Robert J. Flaherty: A Biography (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press) 



  • MOANA (Alternative)
  • SEA (Alternative)

Technical Data

Running Time:
77 minutes

Production Credits