Voices from the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar
Saturday, November 18, 2017
The year was 1986. I was planning to be married in October. The AIDS epidemic was spreading, and ACT UP was forming during the second term of the Reagan presidency.
I was working for Alive from Off Center, the pioneering public television show that we created and produced in St. Paul, Minnesota. The National Endowment for Arts (NEA) funded artists, regional arts organizations, and awarded media production fellowships. I cooked my way through dinner parties with the Silver Palette Cookbook.
Video was a new medium at the Flaherty Film Seminar. In June, I was invited by programmers Linda Blackaby and Tony Gittins to present my performance video art piece, And One And One And One at the Wells College seminar.
After the screening, the projectionist approached me in the hallway. He was neither a young guy, nor an old curmudgeon. He looked like a man who enjoyed tinkering in the darkness, with light flickering on celluloid as it worked its way through a film projector, sprocket sounds ticking smoothly. He said to me in total seriousness, “Why was your video so poorly shot?”
I saw Mira Nair talking in a phone booth over in the hallway corner. I giggled nervously, which became a petulant squint, the only response I could muster at the moment. I said, “I have no idea what you are getting at. We shot the piece exactly like we wanted.” He said, “I wasn’t sure why they picked something like that for the Flaherty.”
I hated the shame and second guessing that welled up as I walked away, not getting in the last word. Any trust and confidence I had built up in my abilities as a media maker were evaporating. Who else was thinking that same thing? Why did it matter so much to me? And worse: could I face the possibility that I was an impostor and failed artist?
Later on that day, I watched Forest of Bliss , the deeply observed ethnographic documentary by Robert Gardner. When the audience gathered to discuss the film, the laconic filmmaker joined us for a Q & A session along with his moderator. People asked some factual questions about his production craft.
Then, like a small spark igniting a fire, someone made a comment questioning the filmmaker’s right to film death ceremonies along the Benares River in India. One by one, others joined in to interrogate and criticize the film’s right to exist and be shown publicly.
I was shocked listening to these speakers who were standing up to offer arguments for why this study was politically and aesthetically offensive. I do not remember whether Gardner engaged in the debate. He was the patrician stoic, who simply endured this apparently not unusual Flaherty ritual. Later, I heard the rumor that he immediately left the seminar, flying away in his own airplane.
Thirty-one years later, I look back at the 1986 program that Linda and Tony curated, containing so many new voices, forms, and styles. This banquet of works on film and video confronted power dynamics across cultural and political boundaries, and pointed far beyond the constricted lanes that had been allowed to documentary in previous years.
Participants in the seminar came as connoisseurs with decided opinions and an eagerness to discern, comment, argue, and debate this new proliferation of directions across the media arts. This was a unique Flaherty game that could not be played either in academe or in the cinematic marketplace.
At the 1986 seminar, I watched the power of programming unfold over the hours of a day and across the length of a week.
In documentary filmmaking, I record, organize, and create narratives that reckon with a life, a situation, or the puzzle of events. Contrasting this and that fragment, I stitch together a story from sensations, impressions, and lucky breaks.
During the seminar it was impossible not to realize that programming itself is the electric current and under-recognized art that gives actual, real world context and significance to the works being presented, and defines them historically beyond simple crowd-pleasing judgments.
When the curators shape a Flaherty program, they choose films and other media-based works to trigger dialogue – with the self, the community, and across global boundaries. In this hothouse environment, the dialogue grows intense, willful, hurtful, ridiculous, needless, and engaged.
The curators hold the power to direct the force of this experience, uncomfortable or enlightening as it may be. Our films are only elements in this larger performance that the Flaherty Seminar incites. What is good? Why should we take this film seriously? How does an artist make choices in the face of real and present challenges?
Documentary carves out a space for a sensory-directed philosophical inquiry. How does this practice influence how a culture organizes and makes stories out of the chaos of living in this world?
It was during that Flaherty seminar in 1986 that I confronted these kinds of questions that were pushing my own creative process forward. After my encounter there, I realized that it would be impossible to make pleasing an audience my goal, as much as it might be pleasant and rewarding and as much as I might have liked to.
I reckoned that my documentary practice would have to aspire to connect globally, remain intensely local and community-oriented, and still hold its own as an individual act of creative expression. Occasionally, my projects have reached bits and pieces of that goal.
But more importantly, early in my development as an artist, the Flaherty seminar gave me the framework in which to realize that this aspiration could be real, and it has always been worth the struggle.
Saturday, October 28, 2017
How does one extract the highlights of a cultural phenomenon that meets, exceeds, undermines, and sometimes thwarts expectations?
How does one parse an intensely subjective experience that defies easy description and begs for critique?
How does one describe the ways in which the polemical and the personal intertwine in inextricable, indistinguishable, and sometimes identical ways?
The Flaherty Seminar touches all these questions, and invites many more. I think of it as acomplex system, somewhat like a knitted thing constructed of varying stitches: a platform, aretreat, a conference, a school, a cult, a family, a haven, a coven, a privilege, a vestige of the past, a beacon of the future, a happy holiday.
So far, I’ve experienced four iterations of the Flaherty seminar.
Of course, I feel the ever-pressing obligations to write about the incredible films presented, the moderated conversations with the creators, and the conversations with esteemed academics in documentary film studies. Many others have written about the films, the people, the programs.
I want to dive into a different pool.
In my heart, the Flaherty Seminar feels like an intuitive and subjective experience. It unfolds with many sets of lived revelations, almost unbearable shudders, and shining moments.
Thanks to the advice and encouragement of my friend, archivist and historian Carolyn Tennant, I attended my first seminar in 2004 at Vassar College. I was fairly new to the job of film programmer. I was living in Buffalo, New York, working as media arts director at Hallwalls, the nonprofit arts center. This provided me with a magnificent and substantial hands-on education in arts management, arts funding, fundraising, curating, criticism, archiving.
2004 celebrated the 50th anniversary of the seminar. Susan Oxtoby curated. Perhaps because it served as an introduction to generations of makers whom I encountered in person, I remember this seminar the most clearly.
At that seminar, I hung out with filmmakers Eve Heller, Phil Solomon, Julia Meltzer, David Thorne, Janie Geiser, and Louis Klahr. I was as inspired by their work as I was by their warmth. A month or two before, my father had died, and in sharing that loss with them I felt both comforted and bolstered.
As I staggered across a field with my head spinning from excitement and agoraphobia, Ricky Leacock, the legend of direct cinema, steadied me. Scholar Eric Barnouw’s widow Betty Barnouw told me that she would always knit in movie theaters, occasionally slipping stitches in the dark. I frequently found myself sitting alongside fellow knitter Ruth Bradley, who ran the Athens Film and Video Festival and edited the journal Wide Angle at Ohio University.
In 2006, I returned to Vassar for Steve Seid and Ariella Ben Dov’s program entitled “Creative Demolition.” The Buffalo contingent (Carolyn Tennant, Caroline Koebel, Stefani Bardin, and myself) was in full force that year. Many people remarked at how much we seemed to like each other. A surprising observation. Of course we did!
Sharon Lockhart, Jacqueline Goss, Adele Horne, Patty Chang, Zoe Beloff, and Vittorio De Sita screened films and videos. Fridolin Schönwiese’s moderated conversation with Kathy Geritz about It Works  stays with me. The conversation was a revelation because it is so difficult to find adequate words to describe the workings and meanings of sound in film. Here were two brilliant people doing exactly that with inspiring generosity.
And, at the 2006 seminar I knit a fine-gauged, green gossamer cardigan—my “Flaherty sweater.” On the last night, I finished it in my single dorm room, enjoying the self-imposedisolation. In contrast to its intense camaraderie, the seminar also affords moments of solitude even while it does not openly encourage them.
In 2010, Dennis Lim was the programmer, exploring the theme of “Work.” I attended on a professional development grant and worked for the seminar. I poured wine at Bill’s Bar. I attended workshops. I communed with other fellows. There was no time to knit.
The late Austrian documentarian Michael Glawogger relentlessly put himself in harm’s way for films like Workingman’s Death  and Whore’s Glory (2010). Experimental filmmaker Naomi Uman, a dear friend from the 2004 Hallwalls Artists’ Residency Project, shared her Ukrainian Time Machine . During a post-screening discussion, she spoke with the Mexican filmmaker Eugenio Polgovsky who died this year, another premature loss.
As I look back on these experiences, the key wonder of the seminar resides in the post-screening discussions. Their intensities and reflections compound the Seminar’s great wealth of screening experiences and opportunities for connection. Listening and choosing to be involved in the discussions (or not) and remembering that they are only one of the opportunities for exchange is vital. Some of the most valuable insights are rendered during chats with others between screenings and discussions, colliding in the dorms, sharing meals, or raising a glass at the bar.
2013 was my most recent seminar. I went to take in colleague Pablo De Ocampo’s program called “History is What’s Happening.” Of all the seminars I’ve attended, this was the most overtly political. Sadly, my detailed notes are illegible today, the handwriting not keeping pace with the hand knitting.
The films of Sara Maldoror – the brilliant Guadeloupian director of African descent – still resonate with me. A cameo from one of her films appeared in Chris Marker’s San Soleil , an overt yet accidental, unmistakable connection across time, lives, makers, and states of being. This concept of cinematic excavation also reverberated across the films of Eyal Sivan, Basma Alsharif, Sirah Foighel Brutmann and Eitan Efrat as well as the Otolith Group, all makers invested in the fine gauges of historic memory.
Complexity. There is no one Flaherty seminar experience. Each seminar is distinct. The other attendees and one’s own stage of life inform each experience as much as the films programmed. One’s willingness to open up and remain present might be most important in navigating the somewhat unusual experience of not choosing the films you experience.
To exhaust the knitting metaphor: the common thread to my four seminars so far, unraveled and reworked, remains this maxim--“only connect.”
Saturday, October 28, 2017
Since 2003, I have attended eleven Flaherty Seminars!
I have moderated my share of discussions. I was a featured filmmaker in 2009. I served as a board member from 2006-2008. At this point, I see the seminar as a well-oiled machine with a schedule we can count on.
Yet each seminar has been profoundly different. How to sum that up in five points? I keep coming back to the films and the five ideas that return to me year after year as key constituents of the Flaherty’s unique zeitgeist.
What is cinema? What constitutes a cinematic experience? I have seen the gamut at the Flaherty, from essay films, expository films, experimental, non-fiction, fiction, musicals to installations and video games and Benshi performance. And each Flaherty shows work that expands my notions of cinema in wonderfully surprising ways.
Years before the GoPro and drone cameras, Leonard Retel Helmrich filmed a man walking over a narrow railroad trestle 1000 above an Indonesian Valley in Stand van de Maan (“Shape of the Moon,” 2004). The view was from above via a homemade bamboo-pole mount and it was terrifying. Helmrich filmed other scenes in the film with his own invention called steadiwings. He calls his filmmaking process “one-shot cinema” because he edits more for camera movement than framing or photography.
Another example of craft at the seminar was Laura Poitras’s Risk . Through her camerawork looking up at Julian Assange, she shows the egotistical anarchist to be as self-conscious as a People Magazine star even as he functions as an important historical figure in our time.
I have started wonderful and enduring friendships at the Flaherty. I met longtime heroes and heroines—Scott MacDonald and Trinh Minh-ha--and found them incredibly down to earth.
Beyond these moments of connecting with people you admire, there are also those more awkward moments reminiscent of junior high school when you emerge from the cafeteria food line with your tray, scouring the dining room for a seat. My most wonderful meals have been those when I’ve plunked myself down with people I’ve not met before: students, established filmmakers, critics.
At the 2012 “Open Wounds” seminar curated by Josetxo Cerdán, I remember a great meal with Susana de Sousa Dias from Portugal and Laila Pakalina from Latvia. Their work had not shown yet so I had no idea they were featured filmmakers. We talked about traveling, family, and the films screened at the seminar.
Later, I was completely blown away by de Sousa’s beautiful and horrific 48  featuring an incredibly adept use of archival mug shots woven with interviews with ordinary citizens arrested under the 48-year dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar in Portugal.
I was mesmerized by Pakainiŋa’s gorgeous cinematography, measured pace, and dry humor portraying men and nature—especially riparian birds—in Three Men and a Fish Pond . I also loved fellow seminar attendee and filmmaker Robb Todd’s jilting imitation of the film-star birds’ during the discussion.
I confess that at times the quantity of images and ideas truly overwhelms. I feel the need to remind myself what I love about film. Of course, it is the ideas, but it is also the sheer pleasure I get from seeing truly beautiful images that transport me out of the room and under water in the Caribbean Sea, in Alamar  by Mexican Pedro González-Rubio and into the air in Teddy Williams’ The Human Surge  in 2017.
I loved the crazy, playful, imaginative Rube Golderg creations of Israeli artist/filmmaker, Mika Rottenberg in Squeeze , and in Cheese  where seven ethnically diverse sister/ maidens prattle and poke about an enormous wooden contraption, part farmhouse, part animal barn, part milking machine, part cheese churn, making cheese, yes, but also washing, combing, and styling each other’s impossibly long, Rapunzel-like hair. The experience was mesmerizing and hilarious.
Even the most wrenching of Flaherty Seminars has its moments of intense humor. In the midst of films about the tragedies of Minamata disease caused by environmentally-induced mercury poisoning, revealed by the Japanese documentarian Tsuchimoto Noriaki at the 2003 Flaherty, we saw Israeli Avi Mograbi’s hilarious and ominous films, Happy Birthday, Mr. Mograbi , August: A Moment Before the Eruption , and Wait It’s the Soldiers, I’ll Hang Up Now , which provided scathing views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When programmed together, they traced people’s reactions to Mograbi’s camera and the mounting distrust in the streets leading into the Second Intifada.
Ah, the moments of outrage.
I have been guilty of sharing in some of the politically-correct indignation over who gets to represent whom and how. And I have also been mildly piqued at the tremendous amount of time we devote to such debates, seminar after seminar. One memorable debate happened at my first seminar, “Witnessing the World,” curated by John Gianvito in 2003. In the post-screening discussion of Holly Fisher’s faux travelogue about Myanmar, Kalama Sutta: Seeing Is Believing  participants questioned Fisher’s right to represent the Burmese. At my most recent seminar in the summer of 2017, the debate was over Dominic Gagnon’s depiction of Inuit people in of the North . But the issues were different: if Inuit post images of themselves on the web that some feel reinforce negative stereotypes, what responsibility does a filmmaker bear if he uses them?
Of course, if we don’t keep asking ourselves those difficult questions, if we don’t demand that filmmakers create their work with a sense of purpose and responsibility, then there isn’t much to talk about. It’s why I go to the Flaherty—to see those non-commercial films I cannot see elsewhere and to talk about them with people whose varied perspectives provoke, enlighten, delight, and yes, sometimes outrage me!
Wednesday, October 18, 2017
If you took a film studies course at a university, you’ve met Bill Sloan.
If you teach film at a university, you’ve met Bill Sloan.
If you ever have borrowed a DVD of an independent film from a public library, you’ve met Bill Sloan.
For decades, Bill Sloan served as the film librarian/curator for the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) Circulating Film and Video Library. He was appointed in 1980, after decades at the New York Public Library film collection His wide-ranging vision of independent cinema, documentary, and experimental film populates MoMa’s landmark collection.
He knew which films were significant and which ones were breakthroughs. The library collection Bill built constitutes one of the major building blocks of the discipline of cinema studies.
With his hair and beard engulfing his always-smiling face like white cumulous clouds, Bill always seemed one of those special wizards of cinema who operated in some wry meta-mode that knew where you needed to go before you got there.
In 1980, very early in my scholarly career, I met Bill at the Flaherty Film Seminar. He served as president from 1974-1977. Until I met Bill, I suffered under the bizarre delusion that the holy trinity of films, filmmakers, and programmers defined film culture.
Bill gently opened me up to the idea that librarians at museum collections and public libraries who collected, bought, and showed films sustained the infrastructure of independent cinema. Due to his advocacy, many librarians attended the Flaherty.
Graduate school transformed me into a partisan fighter defending the form of cinema I felt mattered the most—documentary. In contrast, Bill’s view of the cinematic revealed a more expansive galaxy: he was curious and open about all films, all genres, all periods. He found something marvelous in all that he saw.
His pluralist view of cinema materialized in his programming with Nadine Covert, another legend of the film library world, of the landmark 1972 Robert Flaherty Film Seminar. In their heterogeneous program, film combinations provoked combustion of ideas between filmmakers such as Les Blank, Liane Brandon, Yasujiro Ozu, St. Claire Bourne, Ousmane Sembene, Marcel Ophuls. In 1979, he programmed again, featuring radical documentary filmmaker Joris Ivens.
Many knew Bill from the Flaherty Seminar’s Bill’s Bar, the jerry-rigged speakeasy-like bar assembled from a folding table, an ice bucket, and a glass jar for donations for libations. I realize now why he always worked the bar: literally and figuratively, he loved serving the next generation of independent cinema.
Bill’s generosity impacted me profoundly as I researched Scott MacDonald’s and my The Flaherty: Decades in the Cause of Independent Cinema. I interviewed Bill four times. He conjured a boiling brew of films, people, debates, board decisions, the 1960s and 1970s and beyond.
A wizard of independent cinema, Bill was the man behind the screen who coaxed us all into a wider, more exciting cinematic world we never could have imagined—or gotten to—without him.
Thursday, September 28, 2017
I first attended the Flaherty Seminar in 2017 as a University of Rochester Fellow.
One week prior to that, I’d passed the qualifying exam of my PhD program. However, I did not feel a sense of relief.
Six months into Donald Trump’s presidency, I was emotionally ravaged.
The symbolic disturbance caused by the election of a tycoon as the President of the United States trickled down more violently and quickly than I had expected. The nation is divided, communities fractured, allies have turned against each other, and discourses are broken. Ever since the Democratic primary, the meanings of “identity politics” have been corrupted and foreclosed, as if the political pursuit for multiple subject positions has come to a dead end.
In times like this, it is perhaps natural to withdraw from potential conflicts, to shut up and mind your own business, to huddle with those just like us. But silence and self-seclusion are never easy. The desire for discourse and community erupts in every solitary moment of this crisis.
For a godless person like me, I thought maybe cinema would be the place where a sense of communion could still be found.
I’ve always liked the feeling of walking into a theater, saying “hi” to the person next to me, settling down in my seat and waiting for the first beam of light from the projector to hit the screen. For however long a film runs, our times are synced and our bodies connected.
Despite the Flaherty Seminar’s cult reputation, I already knew that it is not exactly a house of prayer. There is no singular God bathed in Light at the altar. On the contrary, I knew that antagonisms and arguments are engineered, sometimes quite heavy-handedly.
Indeed, heavy-handed is the word that one of the fellows used to describe Nuno Lisboa’s programing at “Future Remains.” Canadian filmmaker Dominic Gagnon’s of the North  was a programing choice that many in attendance argued that the Seminar could have done without. Composed of found footage from YouTube, the film shows Inuit people in vulnerable conditions, and many felt that the film reinforces degrading stereotypes of Canada’s indigenous northerners.
The rage ignited by the questionable ethics of Gagnon’s film in the community arena of the Flaherty discussion room and the more sympathetic reactions to the film that many shared with me during private conversations afterwards are especially revealing of the division that fractures today’s Left.
The differing opinions about Gagnon’s film did not happen in a vacuum. At the center of this division reside people’s differing opinions about “identity politics.” The term originated in the social movements of the 1970s and was critically revisited in Leftist discourses following the 2016 U.S. election.
While I did not like of the North, I’m troubled by some of the critiques of the film and Gagnon during the discussion. The audience’s repeated characterization of Gagnon’s work as “boy art,” for instance, sounds more like a personal attack on the filmmaker’s perceived failure in achieving artistic maturity or perhaps manhood, rather than a denunciation of the deafness of his tone and subject position.
Others questioned whether the filmmaker had obtained consent from his subjects, which also seems to simplify the difficult ethical questions of representation into a straightforward procedural check. After all, Gagnon recycled YouTube postings that had been made public by the posters themselves. The ethics of a film, in my opinion, is infinitely more complicated than any consent form.
Contrary to what was suggested by many people at the 2017 Flaherty, I think the complexities of the issues at hand, both at the Seminar and in today’s political discourse, will not be solved by limiting documentary filmmaking to self-representation, just as hiding from the world will not solve the world’s problems.
The idea that white people can only make films about white people is perhaps a symptom of the polarized and divided world that we are living in today, rather than its solution. Moreover, the naiveté of a politics of self-representation is also antithetical to what the camera can do—point at and film the Other. Without that, we would be left with a world of selfies.
That said, the question regarding who is behind the camera filming whom is an old one.
After the election of Trump, the timing of Nuno Lisboa’s programming provided an interesting conundrum. The meta-question regarding documentary ethics—whether filming the Other is ever permissible—has once again been raised. Let’s consider it with fresh angles.