PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 September, 2005, 12:00am

Louisiana Story

Starring: Joseph Boudreaux, Lionel Le Blanc, Frank Hardy

Director: Robert J. Flaherty

The film: Pioneering documentary filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty travelled the world during the 1920s and 30s, to places as far flung as the Canadian Arctic (Nanook of the North), Samoa (Moana), India (Elephant Bo), and he Atlantic coast of Ireland (Man of Aran). But for his last and, some say, best film, he visited a Louisiana bayou in his native US to film a docu-drama about an oil rig coming to a small Cajun community.

Flaherty's striking imagery saves Louisiana Story from being the dull film it would most likely have been in anyone else's hands. More openly manipulative than most of his other work, it features credited performers who were all taken from the local, mostly Cajun community. The results are far from those achieved by neorealist directors who used similar casting methods, and the performances are wooden at best. The images of the bayou and the building of the oil rig, on the other hand, are some of the most luminous ever put on film.

Also worthy of mention is the traditional music, by Virgil Thompson, which has the distinction of being the only film score to have won a Pulitzer Prize for best composition.

If the locals seem oddly enthusiastic about a massive oil derrick suddenly arriving on their previously idyllic doorstep, it's because the film was sponsored by the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey. The story location, the Petit Anse Bayou, surrounds Avery Island, the birthplace of tabasco sauce.

The extras: Louisiana Story runs to only 79 minutes, but there are 100 minutes of extras. These begin with a conversation with Flaherty's wife and collaborator, Frances, who gives some rather confused accounts of her husband's filming methods and philosophy. A 20-minute excerpt from a 1941 Flaherty film The Land shows farmers made homeless by land erosion and immigrant labour, and is shocking in its vivid portrayals of poverty and hunger in America.

Hidden and Seeking is a 1971 documentary that features Frances Flaherty in more coherent mode, discussing her husband with a group of young filmmakers.

The most interesting extra is a selection of letters written by cinematographer Richard Leacock from location to his wife in New York. These audio readings reveal as much about the film as commentary would have done, had it been included on this disc.