Patricia Zimmermann

Patricia Zimmermann

Professor, Media Arts, Sciences and Studies
Faculty, Culture and Communication
Faculty, Cinema and Photography
Faculty, Documentary Studies and Production

Flaherty Stories

Flaherty Stories

Voices from the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar

Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 10:46AM   |  Add a comment
caspar and gabrielle

How many times have we had imaginary debates after animated discussions, when the issues discussed have remained unresolved? There is hardly ever a satisfying time frame for discussion, which is a considerable frustration at mass conferences, world festivals, and other hectic public gatherings.

As a viable alternative, many of us escape from these big bustling events and move to safe havens. To outdoor screenings under the night sky of Temenos, Greece. To the mountains of Portugal. Or to the island of Harakka, Finland. For many of us, the Flaherty Seminar is also an island and maybe the mother of all mind-bending film-seminar experiences. Once you’ve witnessed a Flaherty, an experience during which time stands still and thoughts, debate, and dialog are carried onwards from one day to the next, it is almost impossible to accept any other form of public discussion about film.

In 2014, we had the honor to be invited to program the 60th anniversary Flaherty.

We titled our seminar “Turning the Inside Out,” with the intention to start an in-depth study of the current state of the documentary form.

We began our research with the emergence of the so-called “documentary turn” —a term that emerged with the documentary works presented at Documenta10, curated by Catherine David back in 1997. One aspect that distinguished the “documentary turn” from conventional non-fiction filmmaking was its interdisciplinarity. Many of the documentary art projects presented at Documenta10 materialized not only as films, but also as sculptures, installations, performances, or public interventions.  

The Flaherty Seminar has a rich history of experimentation within the documentary genre, as well as a continuing focus on avant-garde cinema. Although the new documentary impulses emerging from the fine arts have been recognized at the Flaherty, we felt they had been underrepresented. So we decided to make this the foundation of our research for the seminar.

During the curatorial process, we focused on the potential of self-reflexivity that enables a continuously shifting relationship between author and subject. This reminded us of a radical set of questions recalling Mao and Godard: “Who speaks and acts, from where, for whom, and how?” To which we added another question: How effective is a chosen form?

Over many decades, political engagement within artistic practice has offered filmmakers the potential of developing radical aesthetics. Yet, only in rare cases does this happen in a fine-tuned equilibrium that “neither sensationalizes aesthetics nor spectacularizes the ethical” (Okwui Enwezor).

Our research on the experimentation with form brought us to the outer limits of the documentary genre, and to the insight that criticism and social awareness can also be inscribed in the formal aspects of an audiovisual work We discovered radical accounts of political commitment in uncompromising forms. As filmmakers ourselves, we realized that our fascination with these strategies had unconsciously underpinned our own concepts, long before we could verbalize them.

The artists and collaborative groups invited to the 60th seminar—Eric Baudelaire (USA/France), CAMP (India), Duncan Campbell (Ireland), Jill Godmilow (USA), Cao Guimarães (Brazil), Johan Grimonprez (Belgium), Jesse McLean (USA), Karen Mirza and Brad Butler (UK), Lois Patiño (Spain), Raqs Media Collective (India), and Hito Steyerl (Germany)—revealed specific qualities of interdisciplinary experimentation with documentary.

We found that, almost more challenging than selecting the artists, was programming the seven days of the Flaherty.  We knew that every dialogue between two, three, or four artists was going to determine the discourse of the day and of the days that followed.

What happened at the seminar surpassed our imagination.

Our guest artists provoked thought trajectories that moved the discussion topics beyond what we had anticipated. Fundamental philosophical arguments about life, love, consciousness, bio-politics, humanism, and post-humanism emerged. A discussion on the history of airplane hijacking was itself hijacked into questions of the reconstruction of subjectivity in contemporary media. And Sengupta from Raqs elaborated on how the word “human” can etymologically be traced back to “burying bones in soil.” 

By the end of the week, a well-known Flaherty phenomenon was occurring.  

The intense routine of screenings and discussions was producing an experience of collapsing time and space. The seminar seemed to be taking us everywhere at once. We found ourselves in Raqs’ night of the worker in an industrial New Delhi landscape, and at the same time on the gushing seashores of Patiño’s Galicia and Flaherty’s Aran, in Baudelaire’s unrecognized state of Abkhazia, in Mirza/Butler’s Deep State, on CAMP’s Indian trade ships in Somalia, with Cao Guimãrae’s ants after the Brazilian Carnival, and most of all, in Hito Steyerl’s free fall.

Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 10:47AM   |  Add a comment

Cinephilia is not antithetical to epistephilia. The love of documentaries interlaces with the pleasures of knowing more about the real world.

I think I knew all this before I came to the Flaherty seminar. I’d read extensively in documentary studies, particularly the writings of Michael Renov, who attributed the pleasures of fiction to documentary as well. My week at the seminar in 2014, however, provided me with a lucid illustration that documentary grants us an excursion into the unconscious and the irrational, and that cinephilia for art documentaries is absolutely alive and kicking.

Of all the work presented, the short films of the American artist Jesse McLean, whom I had never heard of, lingered with me the longest after the seminar was over. They provided a perfect example of how the Flaherty offered a site to practice collectively, as opposed to individually, the documentary gaze into the unconscious.

McLean creates hypnotic collages from found footage materials with mysterious thought-provoking texts. Difficult to categorize, her work drifts somewhere between video, documentary film, and conceptual art. On the big screen, it was immediate, sensual, and emotional. McLean’s short films, which can be viewed online, dismantle the complex relationship viewers have with mass culture and popular media. McLean explores how television, Hollywood cinema, or music can, on the one hand, unite us all almost mystically, but on the other hand, manipulate, confuse, and contribute to loneliness and alienation.

McLean never drifts easily into a critical position of the blinding power of popular media. Instead, she creates a dynamic tension between a critical standpoint and a special interest in the emotional impact of popular media. In her world, mass culture has a commercial and cynical side, yet also fosters a directly affective, difficult-to-evade audience connection. McLean’s oeuvre explores how a viewer responds emotionally, sensuously, cognitively, and actively to cinematic or television material. It questions what establishes an ultimate viewing experience and how individual spectatorship differs from collective viewing. 

In Magic for Beginners [2010], McLean probes the mythologies of fan culture by interweaving personal stories. A woman tells us about her obsession with the film Titanic [1997]. A young man speaks of a special experience he had while watching Tron [1982]. Another describes an emotional and spiritual journey he had while attending a rock concert by Oneida.

Summoning the legacy of experimental cinema, McLean uses found footage material modified via Photoshop to examine the impact of media. I felt a theatrical screening was the only proper way to experience Magic for Beginners. McLean draws the viewer in, invites a tactile reaction to the screen, and turns the viewer into a participant.

The central scene summons a trance-like state with flickering images very rapidly playing to the Oneida experimental rock band’s monotone sounds. An experiential homage to the avant-garde’s “flicker films” tradition, my watching was an intense experience, both physiologically and psychologically. Collaborative viewing amplified the hypnotic impact.

Some images at the Flaherty were incredibly beautiful, sometimes in quite disturbing ways. I was not aware that Johan Grimonprez’s Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y [1997], screened on the first day, was such an important art-documentary classic, first shown at Documenta X.

Grimonprez’s film celebrates new possibilities for avant-garde documentary filmmaking in the digital era, obscuring boundaries between thinking and action. It outlines the genealogy of airplane hijacking by building contradictions into its use of archival material. Its strange mix of disco music and images of catastrophe and disaster results in a viewing experience oscillating between fascination and recoil, desire and rejection.

Incredibly jet lagged after a long flight from Israel, I struggled not to fall asleep watching this enchanting film. After an hour or so, the jet lag hit hard. I dozed off for what seemed a few moments, only to wake up to the end credits where the gripping disco music of Van McCoy accompanies images of an airplane crash, an unforgettably sublime experience of the tension between beauty and disaster.

The following day we watched Lois Patiño’s Montaña en sombra (Mountain in Shadow) [2012], a contemplative look at a snowy mountain and the skiers on it. The vastness of space contrasted with the almost invisible small people. This screening too had a dreamlike tactile quality as the image gradually became flat, pictorial, unreal, hypnotic. Was it a “tactile vision”? I think so.

The opening titles of Chris Marker and Alain Resnais’s Les statues meurent aussi [1953] led to enthusiastic applause of a kind I never expected to hear from an audience watching a black-and-white essay film about colonialism and African statues. I overheard participants whispering self-congratulatory remarks to their companions such as “Hey, this is the Resnais and Marker short, do you know it?”

The film felt remarkably fresh. While Marker’s overtly poetic commentary is delivered by a voice not his own, the film’s self-reflexivity becomes increasingly layered. The audio-visual montage passionately engages in more-relevant-than-ever anti-colonial, anti-racist, and anti-capitalist thinking. Half a decade after its original screening, Les statues requires us to ponder our complicity not only in the events it alludes to but also in everything that has occurred thereafter.   

Loud praise ensued as the opening titles for Jill Godmilow’s What Farocki Taught [1997] appeared on the screen. A perfect replica in color and in English of Harun Farocki’s black-and-white German film Inextinguishable Fire [1969], Godmilow’s homage is an agit-prop challenge emphasizing immediate and unmediated direct address.

What Farocki Taught starts with black-and-white footage from the original, and could easily be mistaken for it. Was the audience applauding Farocki’s work, a chilling gesture made only a month before his sudden death in Berlin, or was it showing explicit approval for Godmilow who sat with us in the theatre?

Gazing into the historical world rather than into fantasy, my week at the Flaherty fascinated me. Consciously, I devoured the epistemological value of documentary images. Unconsciously, I could never escape their delirious, ecstatic, and tactile properties.







Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 7:23PM   |  Add a comment

My history with the Flaherty Seminar began in 2001, years before I went to the event in person. It began when I first went to the DocsKingdom International Seminar, held in Serpa, a little village in the south of Portugal.

The DocsKingdom sessions were organized around films made by filmmakers from different parts of the world, shown within an atmosphere circumscribed by the small town. Discussions were motivated by the “clash” of films shown during each session. These clashes made the discussions fascinating.

At that 2001 DocsKingdom seminar I learned that the primary model for DocsKingdom was the Flaherty Film Seminar. The Portuguese seminar was organized by Apordoc, the association of documentary film founded in 1996 by a group of Portuguese documentary filmmakers and programmers—none of whom had actually been to the Flaherty.

In the following years, I continued to follow DocsKingdom—sometimes participating as guest director and intervening in discussions at Apordoc around the seminar format, which underwent adjustments and modifications every year, some more successful than others.

Always on the horizon lay the Flaherty Seminar, so close to our thinking, and yet so distant.

Exactly ten years after my first visit to Serpa, I received an invitation to be a guest artist at the Flaherty. I have no words to describe the enthusiasm I felt when I realized that I would have the privilege of showing my work in a context I was sure would be highly stimulating. It was Josetxo Cerdan, programmer of the 2012 Flaherty, who reached out and invited me to participate in “Open Wounds.”

Writing this text almost six years later, I can evoke my Flaherty experience with two words: thought and community.

Thought was instigated by the confrontation of visions. In the context of the seminar, films are presented in such a way that they directly interact with each other, harmonizing or clashing, often in dazzling encounters/collisions.

In a certain sense, I’d encountered a similar sensation when I first went to the Staatsgallerie in Stuttgart many years ago. There as in most museums, art works are arranged either chronologically or thematically. However, in a room full of depictions of medieval angels, there was a smaller depiction of an angel dating back only to the early twentieth century: an angelus (in this case the militans) of Paul Klee—a disturbing intrusion into the medieval system of representation. Klee’s vision of an angel was so powerful in this context that it created a fracture in that space, which quickly sent me beyond the physical.

I felt the presence of Walter Benjamin’s angel of history and suddenly the angels ceased to be in the past and in a dialectic flash, the past became “now”—throwing into question the temporality of art works, and of history and its images.

At the Flaherty, we see films coming together under the same general topic but interacting and opening up, coming into dialogue, colliding or entering into consonance with one another. We confront different understandings of what documentary is; we participate in ardent and sometimes almost incendiary discussions around particular films. And we take a stand. Not just against or in favor, not just around A or B, but regarding what goes on in the world.

And maybe because of this, one of the strongest impressions I had during “Open Wounds” was the sense of community. Vibration, strength, energy. Discussion, controversy, irritations, elective affinities. All of this is part of the Flaherty. Even moments of seclusion are part of the seminar—if we want to stay in our rooms to think about what we have seen and heard, or if we want to wander reflexively through the expansive Colgate campus.

Our meetings can be around a small table, or in a wide circle facing each other in a big room, or under a tree. These meetings can be both organized and informal. They can be both serious and playful.

I remember when someone brought a ball. It was already late at night, but I found myself playing a game reminiscent of my childhood, with Sylvian George, John Gianvito, and some really tough guys who held out until dawn. Later, someone was looking at a picture of this event and asked, incredulously, “Do you play games at Flaherty?” Yes, we play at Flaherty. We allow ourselves to be open to the “now,” even to the pleasurable and childlike time of a game.

We intertwine in small connecting threads, in a community that is constantly widening. There are people I met at the Flaherty who I’ve never spoken to again—but I feel I can go back to them if the right situation comes along. And there are many others with whom I’ve maintained regular contact.

From the profusion of people I met at the seminar in 2012, a few were re-encounters, such as Patty Zimmermann and Scott MacDonald, whom I already knew from the Visible Evidence conference. Others who I met for the first time allowed me to expand my American experience, including Kathy Geritz and the much missed David Pendleton, who I later met up with at Harvard, then in Lisbon.

Others, I’ve met again recently: Ruth Somalo and Aily Nash—at the time Flaherty Fellows, part of the scholarship program coordinated at that time by Jason Livingston. Another Fellow was Nuno Lisboa, who later that same year would become director of DocsKingdom and the first organizer of the Portuguese seminar to have attended the Flaherty—an experience that would prove to be transformative for DocsKingdom.

It’s amazing how many Flaherty veterans I’ve met as I’ve crisscrossed countless countries and several continents during the last six years.

This sense of community was, for me, symbolically sealed on the day of the last session when Ben Russell’s energetic performance was followed by a nocturnal party where we all, dancing frantically to the sound of vibrant music and illuminated by psychedelic lighting, drank vodka from the same crystal skull—as if we were celebrating a vast, eclectic brotherhood, united by the creative and transforming need to work with moving images.



Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 10:42PM   |  Add a comment
Photo credit: Jean Ko, Canadian Embassy, Seoul

For years I’d organized experimental cinema programs from the Arabic-speaking world. Once the Vancouver free newspaper paper Metro joked about my new program: “Did you wake up this morning thinking, gee, I don’t have enough Arab experimental cinema in my life? Well this program is for you!”

But most filmmakers from Arab countries told me they really disliked being categorized as Arab. They wanted their works received as cinema, with their own immanent aesthetics and politics. I wanted to find a way to present some of these works at the Flaherty to allow the audience to appreciate the filmmakers for what they were doing, rather than treat them as spokespeople for the Arab world, fielding questions about Israeli-Palestinian politics, the Syrian war, Hizbollah, the veil, etc.

I promised the filmmakers that the 2015 Flaherty would give their work the most generous and thoughtful reception. I promised they’d get high-quality discussions about the aesthetics and particular qualities of their work. I promised that their films would not be instrumentalized.

I’d attended the Flaherty about eight times—in the 1990s, and in 2004 and 2014. By 2014, it seemed that a discursive miasma had settled over the seminar, with a newly Procrustean frame of identity politics and cultural sensitivity into which the audience needed the films to fit. Alarmed, I designed an anti-discursive program. It would be about the smart and subtle ways filmmakers render perceptible latent presences—those aspects of the world most delicate and difficult to grasp.

I looked for a suggestive yet noncommittal title that worked in both English and Arabic and would have a nice-sounding English transliteration of the Arabic. I entertained:

Dhawq al-Zaman (Flavor of the Times)

Rihat al-Zaman (Scent of the Times)

Nakhat al-Zaman (Flavors of the Times—Walid Raad’s suggestion)

Rihat al-Amkina (The Scent of Places)

Rawaih al-Amakin (Scents of the Places—Mounira al Solh and Fadi el Tofeili’s suggestion, with more elegant plurals)

I find the Arabic word ‘atr, perfume, more inspiring than riha, scent. Finally, I settled on “The Scent of Places/‘Atr al-Amakin.” The title hints at the ways cinema actualizes evanescent presences.

Designing the program was a struggle, but I was very happy with the final roster.

In 2011 David Pendleton, programmer at the Harvard Film Archive, had given a talk called “Reasons to Believe in This World: The Responsibilities of a Film Programmer” at UC Santa Cruz. Drawing on Walter Benjamin and Pier Paolo Pasolini, he addressed exactly the issue I faced when I programmed the Flaherty.

David said that when programming films from other countries and cultures, it is important that “the image [be] used not instrumentally, not as information, not as communication, but as expression.” A film does give information about other parts of the world, but this is then turned into expression. The filmmaker’s aesthetic intervention “ensure[s] that these images don’t turn into pure information; they don’t get compressed or instrumentalized.”

David’s words describe my attempt to “de-Arabize” Arab filmmakers by combining them with other filmmakers with similar interests. After all, expression is also a method of perfume making. And  Spinoza said that the world is the expression of God.

In my introductory speech, I begged attendees to open themselves to the films Frances-Flaherty-style: without preconceptions. I requested that they refrain from talking about politics at the expense of the films. Then I let go of control and stayed in the background.

Many Flaherty audience members appeared to be anxious that a film tick all the correct political boxes—non-racist, queer-friendly, ever so sensitive about colonial power relations—and could not relax until it did. The Arab filmmakers tended to disconcert the seminarians, who felt they could not critique these films. Instead, they directed their umbrage toward the great Ulrike Ottinger’s Under Snow [2014], a fabulative documentary set in Hokkaido, accusing her of orientalism. Patty Zimmermann suggested to me that this mania for correct representation arises from despair, or fear, in economically perilous times.

I programmed on themes, styles, moods, and feelings. For example, the second night’s program combined works with striking cinematography that dealt with being compressed in a space. Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s fiction film Ramad/Ashes [2003]: a son returns to Beirut with his father’s coffin but without his body, the family’s pressure on him, an hours-long Lebanese wake. Tariq Teguia’s Haçla/The Fence [2003]: young men in Algiers talk about the everyday humiliation of unemployment, government repression, and nepotism, which traps them in a vicious circle. Arthur Jafa’s Dreams Are Colder than Death [2014]: framed by shimmering, subtle cinematography, powerful African-American speakers argue that Blackness is a force of creative resistance that cannot be assimilated.

And on the final morning I offered a gentle program for hung-over people, on documentary performance. Robert Flaherty’s A Night of Storytelling [1935]: an Irish storyteller addresses rapt listeners. Mounira Al Solh’s A Double Burger and Two Metamorphoses… [2011]: performing her Arab self for Dutch people, she transforms into various animals. Steve Reinke’s Afternoon, March 22, 1999 [1999]: a virtuosic nonfiction video performance in his apartment, waiting for the new millennium.

I wanted my program to work as an affective composition that would gain in complexity over the course of the week. I think I succeeded. When I remember my Flaherty program, I see colors, textures, and scents wafting and moving together in a variety of rhythms. Some resisted the embargo on politics and resented the lack of Important documentaries. One questionnaire respondent dismissed my program as “eye candy.” Yet many attendees relaxed and submitted to this drug-like experience, trusting the movies and me. I felt like a silent priestess in some kind of opium cult.

Luckily, the excellent projection capacity at Colgate and the genius of projectionist Gibbs Chapman allowed the low-fi movies to really shine. We were able to play Arnait Video Collective’s 10-minute Qulliq (“Oil lamp”) from 1989, not on the original format of 3/4” Umatic video, but the next-best analog video format, Beta SP. In an old-style igloo, Susan Avingaq and Madeline Ivalu (co-director with  Marie-Hélène Cousineau of Before Tomorrow [2008]) sing about starvation and staying warm as they try to light the stone lamp. Finally the qulliq lights, in a string of flames too bright for the analog video camera to grasp. By seeing the piece in the original medium, the audience could feel the tense focus on that center of light and heat.

David Pendleton attended the 2015 seminar. He’d been chosen to program in 2016. Dear, wise David, who died on November 6, 2017, was beloved by many.


Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 3:51PM   |  Add a comment

For those of us who came up in the often parochial world of 1970s and 1980s experimental film, the American social documentary seemed like a sedimented form. Its clichéd ideas about political film were disconnected from theoretical discourses and fertile experimental practices.

For us, it was the avant-garde’s materialist, anti-illusionist rethinking about film form that continued the promise of a radical cinema that could transform political consciousness. We were steeped in Wollen’s “Two Avant-Gardes, Solanas’ “Third Cinema,” Espinosa’s “The Imperfect Cinema,” and the American avant-garde’s explosive aesthetics. We ardently tried to practice a politically radical cinema with experiment and invention at the center.

Back then, we could never have imagined that our concerns about perception, representation, and the materiality of the medium could ever find a place at the legendary Flaherty Film Seminar, viewed by many as the home of the American social documentary.

So in 1986, I was surprised to be invited to show my new work, Nicaragua: Hear-Say/See-Here [1986]. An hour-long essay, the film chronicles my travels through revolutionary Nicaragua during the height of the Contra War.

Influenced by Straub/Huillet, Trinh Minh-ha, and Peter Hutton, Nicaragua: Hear-Say/See-Here elaborated an earnest attempt to make a personal image and text film, shot with a hand-cranked Bolex. My goal was a committed political advocacy work, integrating the formal problems of representation and the subjectivities of the filmmaker exploring daily in the midst of US aggression against Nicaragua.  

This essay film form is common today. But in 1986, attacks from Flaherty Seminarians came fast and hard: “Who are you to talk about your own impressions and feelings in the face of dying Nicaraguans?” “Why would you make a film that would be difficult for viewers to sit through?”

I was stunned that my contemplative experiment in an activist medium transformed into one of the seminar’s bad objects. I slinked out.

Seminarians also pummeled Trinh T. Minh-ha, Jaime Barrios, and Robert Gardner with moral outrage, confirming my sense that the politics of form had no place at Flaherty. I did not return for thirty years.

Gradually, I started to hear about a new generation of curators such as Susan Oxtoby, Kathy Geritz, Irina Leimbacher, Ed Halter, Casper Stracke and Gabriela Monroy who were broadening Flaherty programming with formal and aesthetic exploration. They blurred the lines between experimental, personal film, and social documentary. The Flaherty had a new buzz as the place where experimentation beyond social documentary was championed.

Then, in 2015, I heard that Laura U. Marks, the brilliant theorist of experimental media who had just published a book on contemporary experimental cinema from the Arabic-speaking world, was the programmer. I thought it might be time to check back in.

Her program, “Scent of Places,” featured no conventional social issue documentary!  Instead, it focused on the ephemeral, textural, and affective experiences of cinema and place. She presented extraordinary works I had never seen by Mounira Al Solh (Lebanon), Hassan Khan (Egypt), Tariq Teguia (Algeria/Greece), and Laila Shereen Sakr (Egypt/USA) who worked beyond social documentary. Their aesthetic engaged invisible histories, affective forces, and the textures of ordinary lives.

Two years later in 2017, I had to go see the adventurous Portuguese curator Nuno Lisboa’s programming. In “Future Remains” he presented a wide range of cinematic strategies with extraordinarily diverse forms and geographies that he claimed created an archive of gestures for an uncertain future. I had never seen the formally experimental works of Filipa César and Dominic Gagnon. I took a deep dive into the ever- prolific Kevin Jerome Everson’s extraordinarily important work, and admired again Trinh T. Minh-ha’s historic films.

In 2018, I had to return for “The Necessary Image, co-programmed by filmmaker Kevin Jerome Everson and scholar Greg De Cuir Jr., the most radical departure from realist documentary forms I had experienced at Flaherty. The invited filmmakers and the attendees seemed uncharacteristically diverse for Flaherty.

Their program featured both single screen and expanded gallery installations. It emphasized complex formalist work by non-white experimental filmmakers from the US, Africa, and Asia.

I saw new pieces by Ephraim Asili, Christopher Harris, Sky Hopinka, Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, and Cauleen Smith. I listened to the filmmakers talk to each other. They created a dense critical mass that demanded rethinking American avant-garde cinema history as white and European. I was astonished to see Christopher Harris’s still/here [2001] finally received in a nonfiction context and understood as important.

The intersections of Nigerian/British artist Karimah Ashadu; South African installation artist and scholar, Kitso Lynn Lelliott; and Thai filmmaker Anocha Suwichakornpong suggested strong cultural differences in subject positions and modes of production.

The atmosphere was electric. The highly politicized forms ranged across the lyrical, poetic, structural, surreal. I asked myself, what were the formal histories and traditions of these works? The political urgency and commitment to new forms of these non-white fimmakers’ works was extraordinary. The most challenging works embodied the cutting edge of 21st century experimental cinema. 

Yet, unfocused conflicted responses and the lack of a common language to speak about aesthetic form remain pervasive at Flaherty. 

In 2015, Hassan Kahn and his extraordinary Blind Ambition [2012] was attacked for incomprehensibility. Nearly forty years after presenting Reassemblage [1982] at the seminar, 2016’s attendees still accused Trinh Minh-ha of bad cinematic technique and criticized her refusal of identity.

In 2017, the discussion of Canadian Dominique Gagnon’s of the North [2015] piled-on sanctimonious denunciations of the film, accused Gagnon of racism, and expressed outrage that the film was even shown. There was little discussion about what this problematic work exposes about emerging technologies, database representation, privacy, and the ethics of found footage films.

In 2018, Nigerian/British artist Karimah Ashadu’s films became bad objects. She was criticized for refusing to discuss her personal relationships to her Nigerian subjects. Some accused her of empty formalism and exploitation, simply making objects for the art world, thus negating the social value of her work. The differing politics of representation between the art and film worlds remained unexplored. She insisted the focus be on her work. A haze of easy moralism hung over the discussions.

At times, a collective swoon of sanctimony drenched the discussions about experimental films. Accusations of bad technique, lack of context, positive representation, and a privileging of structure and aesthetics over political engagement often smothered dialogue about experimental films. Is this inevitable? Is it possible to structure more constructive and meaningful discussions?

The Flaherty Seminar has become one of the film world’s most valuable contexts for complex and emerging radical media practices.

Perhaps the Flaherty Seminar should be renamed The Flaherty Laboratory, in order to emphasize its experimental nature and to recognize that filmmakers are not simply seers, but also experimenters, explorers, inventors. Trying, failing, and sometimes failing better…

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