Robert Flaherty film re-discovered at Houghton Library

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A film by pioneering director Robert J. Flaherty — which film historians believed to have been lost — was rediscovered at Harvard’s Houghton Library. The short film “Oidhche Sheanchais” (“A Night of Storytelling”) was created by Flaherty in 1935 during the production of his now-classic film “Man of Aran.” The nitrate print of “Oidhche Sheanchais” was identified by Houghton curators during a cataloging update, and is the only copy known to exist.

“Oidhche Sheanchais” captures Seáinín Tom Ó Dioráin, a famed seanchaí (storyteller), telling an ancient tale as the cast of “Man of Aran” looks on. The film was commissioned by the Irish Free State, which offered a modest budget to Flaherty for the production of an Irish language “talkie,” which would enshrine a vital element of the national heritage on film. “Oidhche Sheanchais” is Flaherty’s first work in direct sound and the first “talkie” in the Irish language. It was filmed in the same London studio where the “Man of Aran” cast had already gathered for the recording of post-synch sound.

Robert J. Flaherty (1884-1951), considered by many to be the “father of documentary film,” produced the first commercially successful feature-length documentary film “Nanook of the North” (1922) after spending more than two years in Canada’s Hudson Bay region, where he lived and filmed its indigenous people. He contributed to the development of docufiction — a technique he deployed by casting local Aran Islands occupants to portray fictionalized roles and dramatic recreations in “Man of Aran.”