Sami van Ingen, Mika Taanila • Directors of Monica in the South Seas
“We took this big pile of material and ‘massaged’ a film out of it”
by Marta Bałaga
- The directorial duo combine two films and two stories, following a woman attempting to return to a past that never was
In the 1970s, Monica, the daughter of Robert J Flaherty, decides to return to Samoa, where he shot Moana in 1926. While trying to record sounds that could accompany it now, she is also recalling her childhood – or at least one version of it. We talked to Sami van Ingen and Mika Taanila, the directors of Monica in the South Seas [+see also:
interview: Sami van Ingen, Mika Taanila
film profile], which has screened at the Tampere Film Festival.
Cineuropa: Why did you decide to combine these two films and two stories?
Sami van Ingen: When Monica died in 2008, she left no descendants. As a family member, I went to clean up the house, and among all the clutter, I found these materials: not just film reels, but boxes and boxes of cassettes, letters and photographs. I knew there was a story there, even though it was chaos, just like her project. I spent several years going through them and told Mika about it. He was a bit of an outsider in this whole thing, but I was personally involved. Together, we were able to build it into something coherent.
It sounds like a proper investigation.
SvI: I’ve always enjoyed archival footage – as well as Agatha Christie [laughs]. It was an investigation, yes. We took this big pile of random material, which was not organised in any way, and we “massaged” a film out of it.
Through these two movies, by Monica and her father, you show the kind of filmmaking that’s no longer acceptable: white filmmakers going somewhere to capture “exotic” cultures.
SvI: We made our film independently of Moana – it’s a coincidence that now, everyone wants to show them together [as was the case at IFFR]. Ours is a film about Monica’s fantasy of her parents, her childhood; it’s her attempt to “fix” her own story. So much has been written about these films, and about Nanook of the North, too. About all the fakeness and other problematic issues. We felt this discussion was ongoing, and we didn’t need to say the same things. I have no reason to defend or justify her actions: we are just investigating what she was trying to do. We were amazed that she actually managed to do anything at all! Not to mention that it was back in 1975, so a long time ago.
Mika Taanila: The most obvious way of approaching the themes of colonialism and exoticism would be to add a voice-over and criticise what the Flaherty family was doing. But our idea was to really trust the viewers to come up with their own theories. It’s not about stating who the bad guy is.
What makes it even more complex is that she is returning to the world of her childhood. When we do that, we tend to rewrite history.
SvI: She is returning to the fantasy of her childhood, which never existed! The Flaherty family used to talk about their films as para-cinematic projects. Now, when you see Monica’s mother telling these stories, she is clearly acting. Then, Monica goes back and continues this “filmmaking propaganda”. She wants to do the right thing: she wants to give something to the community, and be an anthropologist or a researcher. But she creates all this chaos instead.
There is something sad about it, as you see an adult literally recording the sounds she remembers from when she was a child.
MT: I am glad to hear this film pulls at some heartstrings. I think it surprised us, too. I don’t know why this sadness became such a strong theme. Maybe it’s because it’s so universal, this urge to go back to your childhood? It’s a portrayal of someone living in the shadow of a famous person: Flaherty is considered one of the big pioneers of documentary film. What I also found interesting was the way Monica used technology to remember things – by looking at photographs and talking about them. It serves as a memory aid.
SvI: Maybe this melancholy has something to do with the traditional songs featured here. Monica keeps saying her father expected her to sing them. It was her justification for everything, in a way – her way back into this world. But the words are made up! She and her sister didn’t know the Samoan language, of course. Then we have Samoans singing them, too, turning this film into a kind of musical.
You really show all the tricks that memory can play on you.
SvI: All written history is someone’s fantasy. Here, it’s just condensed into a tale about one person going to an island and fantasising about how it should be. We wanted the audience to be a bit confused because Monica’s entire attempt was confusing. She tries to resuscitate her father’s film, even though she has never made one before.
In the end, the locals decide to honour her during this absurd ritual. Everything feels off in that scene.
SvI: When we started working on this, everything looked bizarre and awkward, and so wrong in so many ways. But it’s more complicated than that because we bring our “educated white people’s approach” to it. Someone else could view it differently. It’s an important part of her journey, as it shows how others dealt with her there.
MT: Also, there is the question of money – both in that scene and in other scenes. It felt interesting to emphasise these dynamics of exchange. They are together in this ritual that’s purely staged; everyone is acting. But it’s important for her and for the community. Everyone gets something out of it.
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