Voices from the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar
Sunday, June 17, 2018
Many years before I decided to attend, I was aware of the Flaherty Film Seminar. I first went as an observer in 2007, and then, in 2008, as a panel moderator. By that time, I had found a groove, both active and contemplative, within film culture. I had worked as a programmer at Outfest Los Angeles, and as a programming consultant and documentary funder at the Sundance Institute. And in 2007, I was Director of Programming at the Morelia International Film Festival in Mexico.
I had experienced many international festivals, but not the Flaherty, which sported a reputation as a sustained, concentrated intellectual environment where cinema could be approached in the company of passionate colleagues committed to spading around in the fertile ground of moving image culture.
(My first mind-blowing encounter with Robert Flaherty’s films and his impact on documentary had occurred years before, in a class at Ithaca College taught by Patricia R. Zimmermann. That class posed many questions: Why should there be films? Who are we to make them? What illusions do they create? Which of them are revealing and worthwhile?)
Back to the Flaherty Seminar. More than once, I’d heard that besides analytical tools, I should bring along some boxing gloves. Contentious debate loomed as a seminar hallmark. Voices would be raised. Participants would divide into ideological camps. Filmmakers would depart with bruised egos and psyches.
At my first Flaherty, at Vassar College, and the next year at Colgate University, I met luminaries of my field: specialty exhibitors, museum curators, university professors, industry representatives, authors of books and monographs, and media practitioners.
And I got my first chance to consider the famous post-screening discussions between new and veteran attendees. The discourse here differed from behind-the-scenes conversations at film festivals about how a programmer ought to burnish the reputation and career of a guest filmmaker, and it differed from the typical festival-audience questions of how to raise money, attract name talent, market films, and get a foot in the door of the industry.
Guest filmmakers at the Flaherty were asked discomfiting questions. One guest was challenged about the content of his film with the opening proclamation, “How dare you!” Another guest terminated a conversation that seemed to him like a pointless exercise. Many of those present felt collateral damage.
But this experience was more than theater. The Flaherty Seminar participants’ comments tended toward the theoretical and the cultural, and often tilted into the ethical and the moral. Why cinema? Who are we to participate in it? Which of our illusions is useful? Or perhaps less than useful?
The no-holds-barred debates gradually awakened another possibility: that the moving- image artifacts we were seeing needn’t be framed only as filmmakers’ accomplishments or as genre embellishments. Individual works and their makers were subjected to ideological torques and abrasions that produced meaning through sometimes uncomfortable encounters among diverse participants with a shared mission. The Flaherty experience modeled a critical engagement with media that film festivals, publicity launches, awards shows, and even some academic conferences deliberately purge.
At the screenings there were moments of discovery, exhilaration, and humanistic thrall. The works of Khalo Matabane, Ximena Cuevas, Oliver Husain, and Renee Tajima-Peña displayed widely divergent but potent formal strategies for communicating cultural discomforts and dislocations.
A special moment in 2008 was the archival screening of The Exiles  by Kent MacKenzie, which depicted late-twentieth-century Native Americans eking out a living in urban Los Angeles. Then unknown to most Flaherty attendees, the film wowed the audience and has become a repertory standard.
An intimate, emotional Q&A session via Skype with Kurdish-Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi at the 2008 seminar, following a screening of his A Time for Drunken Horses , stays with me even now. Due to the difficulties in traveling to the USA from Iran, he was unable to attend in person. Ghobadi's commentary on the film’s microcosm of Kurdish experience enacted by orphaned children overwhelmed me and his candid conversation with the audience ended by bringing us to our feet.
After both seminars I attended, I found myself caught up in the headiness of the experience. Leaving the seminar felt as strange as arriving—a shuffling between dimensions.
The Flaherty had generated a unique dialectic between the rarefied experience of being removed from the outside world and immersed within the seminar’s traditional routines.
The unrelenting immediacy of going head-to-head with colleagues and new friends created exciting opportunities to bring the rapid pace of ephemeral media culture into sharper focus.
Both times, I left the Flaherty without lasting intellectual or psychic “bruises.” The experience presented a rare chance to consider film and media art outside the parochial concerns of professionalism and commodification.
Monday, June 11, 2018
By the year 2005 the Robert Flaherty Seminar had acquired the reputation of being a whipping post where avant-garde filmmakers were subjected to rigorous criticism. So, after being invited, I attended the seminar with my claws out, expecting cruel and unusual punishment. But that was not what I found there.
Offered on the beautiful campus of the Claremont Colleges, the 2005 experience was a real treat. I was showing some of my Central American films: Los Angeles Station , a short made in the banana plantation train station of Quiriguá, Guatemala, and Paradox , a documentary essay made in the same location thirty years later.
My recollections, however, are not only about my experience attending the seminar under Margarita de la Vega Hurtado’s enthusiastic and delightful leadership, but mostly about Olivier Debroise, a French and Mexican writer, curator, and filmmaker who was also invited to the seminar.
I had met Olivier a few years earlier in Mexico, together with other members of the group Curare—Karen Cordero and Cuauhtémoc Medina—but this time, through the bond of the Flaherty experience, we became good friends: an unusual surprise when you are older and have decided that you love every living being—except people!
We were housed in a four-unit graduate apartment with shared bathroom and showers. Every morning, a neighbor, possibly a participant, would spend extended periods of time naked in front of the mirrors applying talcum powder and admiring his rather unsightly body. Olivier and I regarded this narcissistic ritual as “an American experience,” a comical and trivial attempt at sexual liberation.
In small groups of participants we marched across the Claremont campus towards distant buildings for different events. In these walks, under the strong maternal leadership of Margarita, Olivier and I would engage in strangely passionate conversations, jumping from art to politics to filmmaking in weirdly intelligent somersault associations.
Olivier was presenting his Un banquete en Tetlapayac , one of my favorite films—an extraordinarily audacious failure conceived on an assumption many of us make, that intelligent people may also be good actors…
Un banquete en Tetlapayac is a reconstruction of the time Sergei Eisenstein spent making Qué Viva México. For his film, shot in the hacienda where most of the filming had taken place 67 years before, Olivier gathered a group of contemporary artists, filmmakers and intellectuals to recreate the conversations Eisenstein may have had during a famous banquet.
Between screenings and discussions, Olivier and I would cross the drought-tolerant Claremont gardens, observing a large hawk piercing the field from a tall tree in search of his next meal, and in the process we’d discuss Eisenstein’s persecuted sexuality, Latin-American contemporary art, and the vain, decades-long attempts to define it.
I saw Olivier many more times in Buenos Aires. He would stay in my studio, burn the edge of tables with abandoned cigarettes, have sips of The Famous Grouse scotch for breakfast (I still have the bottle), while we engaged in unforgettable talks about art and social change. Olivier died on the eve of his next Buenos Aires trip, on May 7th 2008 at age 56. What a loss! His presence and his voice over the course of a decade that defines global culture persist through his essays, curatorial work, and books.
The 2005 Flaherty–with the amazing collection of works assembled by Jesse Lerner and Michael Renov–became what must have been one of the most interesting among the fifty-one held to that date. And the reasons are simple: Olivier + Margarita + Claremont desert gardens + Jesse Lerner + Michael Renov + the great Peter Forgács and El Perro Negro  + Juan Carlos Rulfo + Jean-Marie Teno and the discussions about the options between armed struggle and Christian philanthropy + OMG!
The films, the discussions and the unusual West Coast surroundings all contributed to a splendid gathering of souls.
Thank you, Margarita, Jesse, Michael, for including me in such a fantastic seminar!
Tuesday, May 29, 2018
The 1986 Flaherty Seminar at Wells College in Aurora, NY, stands nearly equidistant between the first Flaherty Seminar in 1955 and the present.
The 1986 Flaherty pivoted the seminar to align with exciting new contributions to documentary filmmaking.
The powerful social and political movements of the 1960s and 1970s increased access to filmmaking for women and people of color. The African-American Civil Rights Movement crested with the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 and the resulting civil unrest in major urban areas. Black Power reflected black self-identification and a more militant stance. Resistance to the unpopular US war in Vietnam, especially on college campuses, took demonstrations into the streets to burn compulsory draft cards. Women became more self-assured, refusing subservient and unequal treatment. These upheavals fostered emerging voices, new stories, innovative forms, and fresh perspectives. Filmmakers began to explore identity issues and challenge accepted social mores.
The films we programmed in 1986 reflected the issues of the times: life in the developing world, the long struggles in the US against racism and for equal rights, the experience of searching for roots, the long reverberations of Brazilian dictatorship in Brazil, and indigenous, immigrant, LGBTQ, and other communities that had rarely been heard from before in documentary or highlighted at the Flaherty.
As community-based media organizers and film programmers, we had been deeply involved with creating platforms to showcase politically engaged work. We brought our commitment and background to using film to the Flaherty Seminar. We wanted to curate new voices into a meaningful, cogent program.
Esme Dick, the Executive Director of International Film Seminars, the organization that presents the Flaherty Seminar, invited Tony to program the 1986 seminar. At the time, Tony was a Flaherty board member and professor in the Learning Resources Division of the University of the District of Columbia in Washington, DC. He also founded and directed the university’s Black Film Institute.
“Everyone else on the board has programmed the seminar and you should have a turn,” noted Esme. Tony was the first person of color to program the week-long seminar.
Tony invited his long-time colleague and Flaherty attendee, Linda Blackaby, to co-program with him. At the time, Linda was Director of the Neighborhood Film/Video Project of International House in Philadelphia. We collaborated to conceptualize and mount the program.
Frances Flaherty’s principals of non-preconception and exploration guided us.
The traditional seminar structure consists of screenings and discussions. For filmmakers and media workers, the Flaherty Seminar offers a special experience, a movie camp filled with film watching and discussion by day, socializing and more discussion by night. Spectacular meteor showers over Lake Cayuga illuminated some of the nighttime discussions.
We wanted to create an inclusive and diverse seminar experience where filmmakers, films, and participants represented many ethnic, racial, gender, class, and sexual orientations.
We wove identity politics and independent cinema with countercultural and alternative views of social issues. We connected some of the new ways video, TV, and public media addressed the audience and innovated new storytelling methods and structures.
Most importantly, we brought rising star filmmakers of color to Wells College to present and discuss their work: Henry Hampton (with a preview of his American epic public television series on the civil rights movement, Eyes on the Prize [1987-1990]), Mira Nair (Mississippi Masala  India Cabaret , Monsoon Wedding , Queen of Katwe ), and Trinh-T Minh Ha with Naked Spaces: Living is Round. 
Native American video artist Victor Masayesva insisted that his Itam Hakim Hopiit  be screened without subtitles in order to assert the dominance of Hopi, his indigenous language.
LGBT filmmakers presented their work. Peter Adair came with his and Rob Epstein’s The Aids Show . Richard Fung showed his more theoretical Orientations . Andrea Weiss and Greta Schiller screened their International Sweethearts of Rhythm . Lucy Winer and Paula de Koenigsberg brought Rate it X .
We also invited international filmmakers who worked in different styles of documentary and experimental film.
The great Brazilian documentarian Eduardo Coutinho screened one of his first feature-length works, A Man Marked for Death/Twenty Years Later . Ghanaian filmmaker King Ampaw showed Kukurantumi: The Road to Accra , one of sub-Saharan Africa’s first feature-length films. Taieb Louhichi from Tunisia presented Shadow of the Earth . Chilean Jaime Barrios offered Somos + , as well as a work he codirected with Gaston Ancelovivi, Memories of an Everyday War . And we screened French ex-pat Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Routine Pleasures 
The seminar also highlighted US indie films. Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon came with To Taste a Hundred Herbs , the third film in their landmark trilogy chronicling rural China. Lisa Hsia attended with Made in China: A Search for Roots . Tony Buba screened Braddock Food Bank . Indie feature films included Keva Rosenfeld’s All American High , Ross McElwee’s groundbreaking and hilarious Sherman’s March , and John Hansen’s Troubled Waters .
We enjoyed programming shorts by Jim Blashfield, Cathey Edwards, Jan Krawitz, Dean Parisot, Joanna Priestly, and Osamu Tezuka.
Our seminar was the first to embrace video as a format equal to film. Rather than relegating video works to a sidebar, we deliberately presented them in the theater space.
We showcased Marina Abramovic, Jon Alpert and Downtown Community Television (DCTV), Helen De Michiel, Joan Logue, Victor Maseyesva, Dan Reeves, and Jeffrey Skoller. Karen Ranucci brought the video collection Latin American TV and Martha Wallner presented Paper Tiger TV’s Central America Comes to Middle America [1985-1986].
Since our 1986 seminar, the seminar has regularly featured works by filmmakers of color.
In 1987, the year after our seminar, Tony founded the Washington, DC International Film Festival, now in its 32nd year. He also served as the Executive Director of the Washington, DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.
In 1992, Linda founded the Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema. She co-programmed the 1998 Flaherty Seminar with Barbara (Bobbie) Abrash. Later, she was Program Director of the San Francisco Film Festival.
Looking back, it feels as if the most powerful meteor showers of the 1986 seminar were in the screenings, discussions and participants’ reflections where alternatives to dominant cultural narratives from independent and international media artists lit up the media scene.
Monday, May 28, 2018
Before leaving Singapore in the 1990’s for graduate school in the US, my film diet was mainstream, linear, and fictional.
Although we had the excellent Singapore International Film Festival, many kinds of film could not be seen due to our nascent film culture. Though the country was economically prosperous, the arts were looked upon as a hobby. For example, our local universities did not have fine art, music, or film degree programs. I had a burgeoning interest in film and longed to see films I had read about in magazines like Sight and Sound that circulated at the British Council Library. Going to “the west” seemed to offer me the best chance to see these titles and learn the craft of filmmaking.
While in the MFA program at Northwestern University, my course mate Laura Kissel told me about Flaherty Seminar. She had heard about it from her former professor at Ithaca College, Patricia Zimmermann. With the help of grants from International Film Seminars [the nonprofit that produced the annual Flaherty Seminar] and Northwestern, I was able to attend.
I arrived at the 1999 Flaherty Seminar bright eyed and eager to watch films. The seminar’s policy to not announce what was to be screened was perfect for me—I was the perfect blank slate.
I attended two seminars back to back: the 1999 edition programmed by Richard Herskowitz and Orlando Bagwell with the title “Outtakes are History” and the 2000 edition programmed by Kathy Geritz, called “Essays, Experiments and Excavations.”
Those two short weeks at the Flaherty showed a young Singaporean filmmaker what was possible. My worldview widened and the ground softened.
Twenty years later, I vividly remember the programming, the directors, and my awe of their post-screening Q&As. I remember the mental and physical exhaustion that endured for weeks after the Seminars ended. I suppose these feelings and memories reflect what the Seminar’s public relations mean by “the Flaherty Experience.”
Many films at Flaherty influenced my work. In Singapore, I’d wanted to make fiction films. I returned from the USA a director taking on an essay approach, a style I continue to work in.
The 1999 Duke University edition screened Martin Arnold, Bruce Conner, Arthur Lipsett, and Scott Stark. All worked with found footage. I remember the shock of seeing Martin Arnold’s Alone: Life Wastes Andy Hardy  for the first time. Unsettled, I thought if such high order work can be mined from found footage, most film shoots are redundant—a scary idea for someone just starting out.
Documentary giant Ricky Leacock, who shot for Robert Flaherty, DA Pennebaker, and Robert Drew, was among the 1999 guests. He stood up and protested the experimental works. Big divides tore through even the margins of film culture at the Flaherty. Leacock may have found more comfort in the epic, humanistic works of Armenian Artavazd Peleshian: Seasons  and We ; and Johan van der Keuken: Amsterdam Global Village .
At the 2000 seminar, I was introduced to Harun Farocki’s oeuvre with Images of the World and the Inscription of War  and Workers Leaving the Factory . His films are precise, intelligent, and painfully ironic. During the seminar, a few of us transformed into Farocki groupies. We hung out together at his presentations. We still keep in touch.
We saw films by Santiago Alvarez, Peggy Ahwesh, Chris Sullivan, and Jean Painlevé. It is a testament to the thoughtful framing of the Flaherty Seminar experience that I still remember these very different films. From the agitprop of Alvarez, the liminal works of Ahwesh, and the jittery hand-drawn animation of Sullivan, the films flowed from each maker’s personalities and curiosities. One could feel the sustained focus of each director.
At that edition, I decided to skip the discussion with Paper Tiger Television, a public access TV organization that challenges corporate control over the broadcast medium. Back then, I didn’t understand the organization’s politics. I wondered why their projects were not more polished, and why they’d been included in the seminar.
In retrospect, I realize their works were grassroots efforts produced with volunteers who wanted to reclaim the media for themselves. Their productions reflected a democratic perspective: it wasn’t about the films as objects as much as it was about access to the mass media. I should have given Paper Tiger a chance even if I didn’t understand the context.
In 2011, programmer Dan Streible invited me to present my films at the Flaherty. I’d met him at the 2000 Flaherty, and I was happy to make contact again. I showed Moving House , Singapore GaGa , Invisible City , as well as The Impossibility of Knowing . These films question and probe the idea of Singapore as a contested terrain.
In a lovely coincidence, Laura Kissel was also a guest, presenting her work from the Cotton Road series. This series followed the journey of a commodity—cotton—from South Carolina to China, exposing the global labor behind our cotton clothing.
At this Flaherty, my circumstances were different. I was no longer a graduate student. I’d moved back to Singapore. I now worked in the trenches of independent film. And I could now appreciate the robust DIY ethos of Lillian Schwartz, Helen Hill, Jodie Mack, and Melinda Stone.
My goal was to be as generous a guest as previous guests had been to me.
Across the three Seminars I attended, the eloquence of some filmmakers struck me deeply. They avoided being defensive or pretentious. They were knowledgeable. I came to understand their attempts to connect with their own visions and also with the communities they sought to find through their work. I learned so much from them, and wanted to find out more. They’ve made me a more thoughtful and conscientious filmmaker.
At my three Flaherty Seminars, I learned the art of asking questions.
Generosity binds all my Flaherty experiences together. The audience listens and watches with open hearts and minds. The guest filmmakers and programmers share ideas and stories. Generosity impels the best questions from the audience.
Monday, May 14, 2018
The Flaherty Seminar gave me access and exposure to many of my cinematic, cultural, and intellectual “firsts”: first viewings of experimental and avant-garde film, a first immersion in documentary and non-fiction, first encounters with militant cinema, film collectives, and microcinemas.
Generally, the filmmakers I had studied in school were too lofty or distant to engage with in person. But once the Flaherty came into my life, my timid self was able to work up the courage to describe my response to Eve Heller’s Glint  and Her Glacial Speed  to the filmmaker herself. This foray rewarded me with the many conversations that followed, both with Heller and other filmmakers. Those conversations, surrounded by the murmur of constant revelation and the chorus of dissonant and searching voices, became the foundation of my engagement with the world of film.
My first exposure to the Flaherty occurred in the fall of 1996, three weeks into my first semester of graduate school at Cornell University.
I’d arrived at Cornell with the intention of specializing in the literature of Francophone North and Sub-Saharan Africa. I hadn’t even heard of Robert Flaherty. I enrolled in Tim Murray’s film seminar, my first film course ever, and was brought over the hills to Ithaca College, where I met Patty Zimmerman and found my way through a weekend of Flaherty programming.
Several years later, in June 2004, I accompanied Patty to the Flaherty Seminar at Vassar College to participate in a special program designed for the 50th anniversary of the Flaherty Seminar, titled “Arctic Requiem.” This experience served as the other bookend of my Ph.D. studies, which launched a career as a professor of French and Cinema Studies.
The 2004 Seminar began with Michel Brault’s Pour la suite du monde/For Those Who Will Follow , which took us to the Lower Arctic region of Canada where a French-Canadian village reconstructed the tradition of a whale hunt. With Richard Leacock in the Flaherty audience, cinéma-vérité and cinéma direct assumed expanded texture and resonance for me.
The film history books and theoretical texts I’d absorbed during the Ph.D. process stayed on the shelves of my brain as the Seminar brought me up close, personal, and political with the real people and real stuff of film. I learned about Jennifer Reeves through her films, Fear of Blushing , He Walked Away , and The Time We Killed . After watching Killer of Sheep , I felt honored to be in the presence of Charles Burnett.
I’ll never forget the generosity of Scott MacDonald, who spent an evening reconstructing the critical context of certain interventions that had troubled me that day. I learned about specific histories shared by specific individuals in this community—sometimes harmoniously, sometimes not.
For the “Arctic Requiem” performance, Patty Zimmermann directed a team of musicians and scholars in an event that included a ritual screening of Nanook of the North, this time in dialogue with performances by violinist Ritsu Katsumata and vocalist Louise Mygatt, combined with theatrical and lighting effects by Phil Wilde and Ann Michel, and contributions by fellow professor Anna Siomopoulos and myself.
Patty paid special homage to the Seminar’s history of relationships between the critical and the artistic, as well as between the scholarly and the performative. We performers invoked Frances Flaherty and infused the experience of Nanook with our shared feminist sensibility, so that it would honor the traditional aspects of Robert Flaherty’s film and Francis Flaherty’s seminar, yet see them anew.
Many seeds were planted that June.
Most importantly, who knew then that I, at the time ensconced in auteurism and French national cinema, would be working today on militant cinema and feminist video collectives in a book project on actress-agitator Delphine Seyrig, who forged new definitions of the political actor and rejected the role of the female muse in male auteurist cinema of her time?
Who knew I would be visiting with Ulrike Ottinger, also there at the seminar in 2004, for a week in Berlin during October 2017? Ottinger was the last filmmaker to work with Seyrig.
It took me a decade to fully appreciate the Flaherty’s imprints on my work and life. It exposed me not just to actual filmmakers, but to avenues beyond the disciplinary apparati of my fields.
For me there would be no more hiding in disciplinary bunkers after the Flaherty, where participants simply did interdisciplinarity without wearing it as a banner. I’ve often wished that such ease and seamlessness could more fully characterize what we call “interdisciplinarity” in the academy.
Ultimately, the Flaherty is about cinema, not cinema studies. What a gift to take with me into the first of many semesters of a teaching career that has been driven by the motivation to learn and relearn the life practices of empathy, engagement, embodiment, and community.
I’ll be forever grateful for the Flaherty training in seeing anew, according to what Frances Flaherty called “nonpreconception,” as I/we continue to grapple with the ever-evolving relationships between the pragmatic and the utopian, the documentary and the experimental, the indexical and the imaginary, the dream and the struggle.
The Flaherty “finishing school” for graduate students, as Patty Zimmermann sometimes calls it, was the beginning of so much. Yet if I’ve learned anything from the Flaherty, it’s that there is no single beginning and no single ending to anything.
Multiple beginnings and endings—the Flaherty is all that for me.