Discussing Robert J. Flaherty, who was hired in the early 1900’s to document the vanishing lifestyle of the Eskimos in Alaska.
Upon his return to America and the release of his movie, the film enjoyed great success with audiences. However once people learned certain facts about his filming technique, there was doubt as to his integrity as a documentarian. The controversy surrounding his film was due to the fact that he had staged most of the action, as opposed to simply “documenting” what he saw. Audiences loved the film when they thought that it was observational. But they balked when they learned what Flaherty had in fact done. Flaherty, for his part, defended himself by explaining that he was actually trying to document events farther in the past, events that represented the vanishing lifestyle of the Eskimos. He self identified as belonging to an anthropological movement called “salvage ethnography” which had as its romantic goal the preservation of human practices on the verge of becoming obsolete. Essentially, what Flaherty had done, was massage the footage (some would say deceptively) in the service of an ideology (salvage ethnography). While this may have been a worthy cause, what was revealed was the power of film to advance a given ideology, and people began to realize the ethical ramifications of this fact.
– from the upcoming book “How to Film the Truth: The Story of Documentary Film As a Spiritual Journey” to be released in the Summer of 2018 by Wipf & Stock