Voices from the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar
Monday, September 18, 2017
I attended my first Flaherty Seminar at Pine Manor Junior College in 1977. That was forty years ago! It was a momentous event for me for many reasons. Part of it had to do with something no one could have foreseen: a film community known for its often heated debates came together in mourning over the sudden and unexpected death of one of its much loved participants, Sol Worth.
Still in shock, I soon discovered that the women’s movement was still being hotly debated at Flaherty: gender politics challenged the power dynamics of discussions, which surfaced most conspicuously around the work of Swiss filmmaker Alain Tanner. I remember it well because I cut my teeth as a media critic by summoning my courage to take Tanner to task for his cavalier representation of women in his films. Laughed down by some audience members, I persisted with my critique, winning Tanner’s fury and my self-confidence in speaking up for women’s voices.
Not surprisingly, given all that was going on that year, no one challenged the conspicuous absence of video at the Seminar. This upstart, unprofessional medium was dismissed by an old guard who considered film the only medium worth looking at; video didn’t even rate a debate.
If memory serves, it took the Seminar’s most revered elder statesman to overturn resistance to screening video. In 1982 Erik Barnouw programmed what was for many of us our most memorable Flaherty seminar at Camp Topridge in the Adirondacks. It was a glorious site that had once been the summer home of Marjorie Merriweather Post, owner of General Foods and long reputed to be the wealthiest woman in the United States. Ms. Post also owned Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, which was later purchased by you-know-who.
Post considered Camp Topridge a “rustic retreat” situated on 300 acres in God’s country. It contained numerous buildings including a Russian dacha that proved essential to this story. Topridge was a stunning location for the Seminar; the main lodge featured a huge, circular, windowed room surrounded by sofas and a plethora of animal trophies mounted along the walls. Post-screening discussions looked out over a sparkling lake, and each day fabulous meals were prepared by students at a local culinary school.
Arguably the best thing about the place, though, was the dacha, a charming Russian cottage dedicated to screening video. Several large-screen monitors were scattered in the vaulted but cozy central hall where videotapes by Daniel Reeves (Smothering Dreams, 1980), Edin Velez (Meta Mayan, 1981), and Minneapolis public TV producers Deanna Kamiel, Ken Robbins and Tom Adair were shown. Passionate discussions about the relationship of video to television and the documentary tradition were conducted there.
I do not know what it took for Erik to persuade IFS naysayers to give video a chance, but whether it was the spectacular sunsets on the lake, the superb dinners or the eerie stag antlers on the walls, video arrived at Flaherty with panache and seemed to please most everyone; video was no longer an oddity at Flaherty but a partner with film.
The following year tapes by video artists and documentary activists like Bill Viola (Hatsu Yume,1981; Chott el-Djerid, 1979; Ancient of Days, 1979-1981), Skip Blumberg (Pick Up Your Feet: The Double Dutch Show,1981) and Paper Tiger Television were shown. Emboldened by the success of single-channel tapes, Flaherty programmer D. Marie Grieco boldly decided to present the first video installation in 1984. Bill Stephens, one of the first African American video artists to be featured at the Whitney Museum in New York, showed Belief Sandwich, Relief Gauntlet (1981) which proved challenging to stage. Cornell University was not equipped to handle an outdoor display like this, but the Seminar’s adept technical staff pulled it off.
Bill Stephens was not the only video practitioner that year; also featured were works by Michelle Parkerson (Gotta Make This Journey: Sweet Honey and the Rock, 1983), Ed Emshwiller (Sunstone, 1979), Cecilia Condit (Possibly in Michigan, 1983), Max Almy (Perfect Leader,1983), and Dan Reeves (Amida,1983). Presenting innovative work by so many talented video makers made it clear that video had become a Seminar staple.
More tapes were featured the following year by artists like Louis Hock (The Mexican Tapes: A Chronicle of a Life Outside the Law, 1986), David Schulman (The Race Against Prime Time,1985), and Kirby Dick (Private Practices, 1986). Soon any differentiation between work shot on film or tape receded, and all those doubts raised about the video medium and its professionals subsided.
Today, a generation that calls everything “film” probably knows little about the battles that once raged between film purists and video iconoclasts determined to defend the distinctive features of this outlier electronic medium. I suppose this struggle to include analog video at the Seminar seems strange today. But it took leadership from influential figures like Erik Barnouw and George Stoney to usher reluctant trustees and snooty filmmakers to accept the “new media” called video as part of the Flaherty.
Once I stepped down as an IFS trustee, I attended far fewer seminars, but I did travel to Riga, Latvia, in 1990 for a terrific cross-cultural Seminar where the audience was surprised less by media than by the clash of confused expectations about the Other. The Americans expected the Soviets to make political films like Vertov, and the Soviets thought the Americans would offer up “heros” like Flaherty.
Instead of a cozy capitalist dacha, we enjoyed the generous appointments of a spa retreat for Soviet artists. No one was particularly interested in video, especially since the Soviet filmmakers were just beginning to use portable 16mm cameras instead of 35mm. Asked to introduce “guerrilla television” to colleagues who knew nothing about video, I got nowhere fast: we hadn’t understood that our new friends were just beginning to experiment with their brand of cinéma vérité.
Several decades later and back in the states I decided to see what was happening at the Flaherty Seminar. I attended the 2009 Seminar at Colgate University, which was brilliantly programmed by Irina Leimbacher. I was delighted to see the sophisticated presentation now given to video installations. Amar Kanwar’s multi-channel work was beautifully installed on several walls in a room of its own where participants could spend as much time as they wished to fully appreciate it. The Seminar had come a long way in recognizing the seriousness and artistic excellence of the now digital medium of video.
Looking back over all this time, I am pleased to have been a participant-witness to the early days of video at the Seminar and to have known many of the people—videomakers, programmers, technicians, trustees, and Seminar participants—who helped this history unfold. Many of them are gone now, and I am honored to bear witness to their varied contributions to making the Seminar new-media friendly, inclusive, and illuminating to this day.
Thursday, September 14, 2017
My personal highlight at the 63rd Robert Flaherty Film Seminar in 2017 was meeting the theorist and artist Trinh Minh-ha.
Trinh has loomed large over my writing and my conceptualizations of the moving image ever since I was introduced to her work as a graduate student some fifteen years ago. Her influence is so immense that I would have had the same feeling meeting Dziga Vertov or James Baldwin or some other titan of international arts and letters.
It seems fitting she is such a diminutive woman with a soft voice and a modest, inviting manner of speaking and relating to people.
At first it seemed a slight disappointment to see her Reassemblage  projected in a low-quality digital version. Then again, I do not think I’ve ever seen this work on celluloid. At least for me, a degraded Reassemblage is better than no Reassemblage at all. No deficiency in image quality can mask the poetic and political resonance of this film. Furthermore, hearing Minh-ha speak about Reassemblage was worth the sacrifice in technical quality. Perhaps that is also fitting.
As she recounted to the assembled audience, when she was invited to the Flaherty more than thirty years ago to present Reassemblage, she was given stiff rebukes about the technical (and by implication artistic) qualities of her work.
Seminarians attacked her use of silence, as if silence is not an essential component of music! They questioned her use of black frames, as if the cinema is not also an art of absence and as if Reassemblage is not embedded in black experience. They complained that “this is not a film,” as if that is not among the highest compliments that can be paid to any artist that works to dismantle and decolonize ‘their’ notions of what a film is, of what ‘they’ stand for, and what ‘they’ subject Others to.
The grand old founding fathers of our discipline in attendance at that screening must have felt their hegemonic tradition of quality being chopped down to size, then set on fire.
As we see an image of a burning field, Minh-ha asks, “What can we expect of ethnology?” Her film answers: the charred remains of the natural world. Reassemblage refused to submit, refused to play by the rules, and refused to “speak about.” Her film indeed speaks nearby. It must miss the mark of the totalizing quest of meaning, offering instead a chance to reassemble the world of ethnographic representation in a more humane and generous manner.
Cut to 2017 and the post-screening discussion of Reassemblage. I sit in the back of the room taking notes, curious to observe the effect of the film on new audiences in this new century. History repeats itself. The film is attacked for its representation of Africans and African culture, for its perceived incoherence, and again for its technique. All these years later the film has not lost its avant-garde edge, its ability to stir bodies and souls, the sincere insolence of its documentary refusal.
Still, whether or not I consider it an impeccable chef d’oeuvre is beside the point.
The fires that Minh-ha lit under the false assumptions of the documentary right of representation must also lick at the edges of her own project. But like a crafty arsonist, Minh-ha knows how to get in and get out, how to pick the right spot at the right time.
I was warned that Flaherty seminarians can be ruthless and can sometimes even break careers. But Minh-ha’s film is fireproof.
I plan to present a 16mm print of Reassemblage in a screening I am organizing. When I discussed this idea with Minh-ha over lunch at the Colgate University café, I felt very much like that student who first encountered her monumental work.
Maybe that is the secret effect of the Flaherty. It disarms while simultaneously empowering both audience and artist. It is something like speaking both nearby and far away, from a place that is both familiar and estranged.
Wednesday, September 13, 2017
This is my first blog post so I am not sure how to this but will do my best.
Dear Flaherty Seminar:
I love you!
I love you!
I love you!
There, I’ve said it.
Who am I? And why do I feel that way? I will try to be brief—though I rarely am!
My name is Linda Lilienfeld. I have been a film and picture researcher for forty-five years, specializing in history and science. I work in documentary film, PBS-type series, features, books, and museum exhibitions.
Years ago, I started to work with Peggy Parsons at the National Gallery of Art film program in Washington DC. This allows me to travel to film archives around the world, where material has not been digitized, and look at all kinds of films. The National Gallery of Art shows a sampler of each year’s Flaherty program.
In 1992 I worked on an exhibit about climate change for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The companion book was written by Andy Revkin. It was so compelling that it changed the course of my life. Climate change: what the f..k was that? I mean, I’m from Brooklyn, what do I know about plants and animals?
But I realized it was a very important and complex subject.
So I started a project known as Let’s Talk About Water (www.letstalkaboutwater.com) where I bring scientists together in a panel discussion after a film showing connected to water, and do my best to instigate a dynamic interaction with the audience. I try to get the scientists to speak more simply and clearly and let people feel comfortable to ask “stupid” questions—there are no stupid questions. I try to make it fun. I work with the Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science (CUAHSI) cuashi.org. We do events all over the world.
Water knits it all together and is a great point of entry for conversation about climate change.
So, why do I love The Flaherty Seminar?
Years ago, a colleague of mine, who is very reticent, had just come back from The Flaherty (whatever that was!). He told me it was a week-long seminar where people watched film together, morning, noon, and night. After each program, they would talk about it as a group and continue talking over dinner and into the wee hours of the morning. They argued, fought, and agreed. They deepened each other’s insight into the films—and in some cases changed each other’s opinions of the film.
Each year when we would meet after a “Flaherty,” he could not stop talking—this person who barely said a word!
So he invited me to attend a Flaherty in 1976. Now, in 2017, I have attended between twenty-five to thirty Seminars. How crazy is that?
My first time speaking to the group was utterly terrifying. I was clammy and hyperventilating. But I said my piece. When I’d finally made public contact with the group, the experience deepened.
What is more amazing is how sad I was when it ended and I had to leave the “Flaherty family” and reenter real life.
Afterward my mind kept racing. It was hard to talk to friends who had not been at The Flaherty.
Shards of images continued to flash through my mind, along with connections between the films, the genius of the programmer, why one film sits near another in the sequence, the way those interconnections opened deep reflective thinking about beauty, love, conflict, process, change. And what the filmmakers, who also attend the The Flaherty, had had to say.
The smorgasbord of films and ideas upon which we feasted would express a visual idea so compelling as to be breathtaking. I wanted that feast again and again.
The idea of leaving the real world behind, watching films all day long, spending time with wonderfully bright people to THINK, TALK and REFLECT about life—the good, the bad, and the ugly—is just so gratifying, challenging, and fulfilling.
The programmer has complete freedom—no censorship—to program what she or he wants. But we never know what it will be until the actual show.
No preconception. What is that? RARE! In today’s world, everyone knows too much about everything before experiencing it.
Currently, we are housed on the beautiful and welcoming campus of Colgate University in Hamilton, New York. Due to excellent administration of the event, we glide seamlessly between dorm rooms, not-so-bad cafeteria meals, walks to the screening room, breaks, discussion, happy hour… We float through the magic as film upon film, day after day, unspools and chat after chat washes over us.
As a group, you become (which in fact we all really are) one big organism. You pass people in the hallway. You might never directly talk with them and yet somehow you miss them when it is over. It is the way they said hello, or the fact you met at various intervals in a mysteriously synchronous way. At the Flaherty, I’ve also made friends for life.
But the most amazing effect is how the Flaherty experience enriches my real life and my work—especially my work.
One of the most important challenges of our time is why people are in denial about climate change. How can it be that scientists, geoscientists in particular, and hydrologists especially, know so much—and we know so little. How can anyone call climate change a “hoax?”
I think the problem and the solution is communication between scientists and the public, with universities as the conduit.
I took what I absorbed from The Flaherty and created the Let’s Talk About Water project.
I serve as moderator in many of the panels or as a consultant to the host university team. But I strive over and over again to recreate the life, the light, the warmth, the energy, the conflict, the resolution, the clarity that I have experienced at The Flaherty.
The process of The Flaherty gives me confidence to work against the grain of the quiet, reserved scientific community and to push them gently into The Flaherty Way.
We try to convey the power of an image, the many ways it can be read, and the ability to open minds with information, experience, context, and emotion to help us communicate our way out of oblivion.
Thank you, dear Flaherty Seminar. As I said at the beginning, I love you.
Sunday, September 10, 2017
When I was at Columbia Journalism School, Willard Van Dyke, then curator of film at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), told me to stay connected to the independent film community by joining the New York Film/Video Council (NYFVC)—I was headed toward a career in television. Why didn’t he suggest that I attend the Flaherty Film Seminars? I don't know, but he was involved with both.
So were others I came to know, like Bill Sloan (Bill’s Bar is still a Flaherty mainstay) and George Stoney, whose All My Babies  had been shown at the first Flaherty Seminar.
I’d seen All My Babies in a documentary course that George taught at Columbia University before he went to Canada, then came back to become a legendary professor at NYU. Both Bill and George were past presidents of the New York Film/Video Council of which I was a board member for seventeen years and president for eight.
The NYFVC was a non-profit that had been serving the independent media community since 1946. It programmed all forms of visual media. I never thought of TV and film as separate pursuits but many did. Other distinctions abounded: narrative vs. documentary; film vs. video; and one that always disturbed me, journalism vs. documentary. Often at Flaherty I heard filmmakers say, “I’m not a journalist.”
The first informal continuing professional education I experienced before Flaherty was at INPUT: the International Public Television Producers Conference in 1992 in Baltimore when I was Executive Producer of Listening to America with Bill Moyers [1992: 26-part TV series] on PBS. I would go on to other INPUTS in Fort Worth, Halifax, Rotterdam, Aarhus, Barcelona, San Francisco, and Lugano.
Law, medicine and many other professions have continuing education requirements; journalism and documentary filmmaking have none—though within each area non-profit organizations like the Flaherty informally make continuing education possible.
For me the Flaherty Seminar has been a condensed form of graduate school with a diverse group of students who share similar interests. Lifelong friendships are formed.
In 2003, the year I went to INPUT in Aarhus, Denmark, I attended my first Flaherty Seminar, at Vassar College. It was curated brilliantly by John Gianvito. Lucy Kostelanetz, a neighbor and member of the NYFVC and the Flaherty Board, had recommended that I go because the topic was “Witnessing the World.”
Two films by Canadian filmmakers fascinated me: Zyklon Portrait  by Elida Schogt and Seeing Is Believing: Handicams, Human Rights, and the News  by Peter Wintonick and Katerina Cizek.
Avi Mograbi’s Israeli films were incisive and humorous, especially Happy Birthday, Mr. Mograbi . The entire audience at Vassar seemed appalled by Holly Fisher's Kalama Sutta  because she’d made an experimental, artistic film in Burma — a place and subject that cried out for documentary reporting. I’d never before seen an audience erupt in such disapproval.
Tran Van Thuy’s Vietnam documentaries were a special gift. The British filmmaker Franny Armstrong showed McLibel: Two Worlds Collide ; it was critical of McDonald’s before Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me .
Franny also showed an impressive film she’d made in India, Drowned Out . I recommended it to Thirteen/WNET’s new international series Wide Angle, which commissioned her to make a shorter, more journalistic version for broadcast. Marlo Poras’s Mai’s America  stayed with me and I screened it for documentary students years later at Columbia.
At my first Flaherty, Marcia Rock, who runs the NYU journalism documentary program, asked me if I’d like to teach Documentary History and Strategy. For the next three Spring semesters, I taught at NYU and then, after raising enough money to complete production on my work-in-progress, Nam June Paik & TV Lab: License To Create, I co-taught and mentored students at Columbia Journalism School. A student filmmaker I met at Flaherty, Alana Kakoyiannis, shot second camera when I interviewed Paik’s widow Shigeko Kubota, a video artist in her own right.
In 2007 I saw two versions of Natalia Almada’s Al Otro Lado (To the Other Side), one at INPUT in Lugano, the other at the 53rd Flaherty Seminar, “South of the Other,” programmed by Mahen Bonetti and Carlos Gutierrez, at Vassar. Almada’s film focuses on drug trafficking and illegal migration between Mexico and the United States and highlights narco corrido music. I subsequently went to MoMA to see her next film El General [ 2009]
Dan Streible, of Orphan Film Symposium fame, superbly curated the last Flaherty seminar I attended in 2011, "Sonic Truth.". George Stoney showed A Reunion of All My Babies  and we saw the 1906 film A Trip Down Market Street Before the Fire. Most powerful for me was Tan Pin Pin’s Singapore Gaga . I’ve followed her films since.
Caroline Martel’s Wavemakers  was an intriguing work-in-progress and I later went to the Museum of the Moving Image to see a completed version.
Sam Pollard showed some of his work with Spike Lee, and I was introduced to the animated films of Jodie Mack, whom I later ran into on Main Street in Hanover, NH during a fall mini-reunion at Dartmouth.
I met Lillian Schwartz and learned that she had worked at the TV LAB at Thirteen/WNET, the subject of my nearly finished documentary. Dan showed her earlier experimental work at Bell Labs.
For me the highlight of “Sonic Truth” was my friend Jane Weiner, who came from Paris to show her documentary On Being There with Richard Leacock . I later drove her to interview Robert Drew in Sharon, CT.
When organized well, there’s no better introduction to remarkable films and significant filmmakers than the Flaherty Seminar.
Friday, September 8, 2017
Breakfast, screening, discussion, lunch, screening, discussion, dinner, screening, discussion, dancing, repeat.
The more I read about the Flaherty Seminar, the more I was reminded of the description I’d heard applied to my BFA conservatory: hippie bootcamp. I applied for a graduate-student fellowship, cobbled together the remaining half of the subsidized registration fee and bus fare from my university, and found myself in June, 2013, at Colgate for the 59th Flaherty.
I soon learned that following the seminar organizers’ egalitarian intentions, everyone was provided with the same dormitory rooms and cafeteria meals, along with an experiment in cinephilic endurance and sleep deprivation that forced a confrontation with the art and ethics of film curation.
Upon reflection, I feel fortunate to have had my first Flaherty experience at Pablo de Ocampo’s “History is What’s Happening.” This challenging confrontation became emblematic of the struggle to talk seriously about documentary ideas, as a group, that I’ve experienced every time I’ve returned to the Flaherty—four times so far.
From Queen Mother Moore Speech at Greenhaven Prison  by the People's Communication Network, which opened de Ocampo’s program, to its repetition at the very end, so much has stayed with me: Basma Alsharif’s Home Movies Gaza , The Otolith Group’s People to be Resembling (2012), Deborah Stratman’s O'er the Land , and Joyce Wieland’s Solidarity .
I won’t forget sitting down for the first afternoon screening with no idea it would be Eyal Sivan and Michel Khleifi’s 272-minute Route 181 . The discussion of Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc’s Ca va, ca va on continue [It is ok, it is ok, we go on, 2012-13] led me to Édouard Glissant’s life-changing book Poètique de la Relation [Poetics of Relation, 1990]. And Jean-Paul Kelly’s Service of the Goods  forever marked my thoughts on Frederick Wiseman's documentaries from the 1960s and 1970s about social safety nets and institutions.
After Sarah Maldoror’s Sambizanga , I can never see Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil  the same way again, an experience that was repeated with Sana Na N’Hada’s O Regresso de Amílcar Cabral [The Return of Amílcar Cabral, 1976] at the 2017 seminar.
More retreat than a conference or festival with overlapping panels and screenings, the Flaherty’s medium is the program assembled by the curator. As the week continues, the burden is on “captive” participants to take control of the seminar through discussion sessions and make it their own. Tension builds amidst interstitial coffee breaks, happy hours, late night conversations, and small group breakout sessions, demanding some form of response in the large discussion forum. This often results in a midweek bloodletting.
In 2013, this came with a performance by the BLW collective (Rozalinda Borcila, Sarah Lewison, and Julie Wyman): A Call to the Square . Lewison and Wyman read Queen Mother Moore’s speech, then invited participants to recite Asmaa Mahfouz’s January 18, 2011, call to join the January 25 protests in Tahrir Square, demanding an end to Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak regime.
Participants were invited to re-perform Mahfouz’s address in small groups, writing down their reactions. Intended or not, the exercise rehearsed the documentary proposition of re-presenting another’s physical performance or speech and re-locating its site of communication, necessitating confrontation with this new space of reassembly. The discussion that followed voiced important criticisms about how the exercise defined the seminar participant as white colonizing subject.
The problems brought to the surface by the performance reflected a central conceit of the seminar: the principle of non-preconception, originally instituted by Frances Flaherty at the earliest seminars. Revealing the nature of each film only as the projector’s light hits the screen (program notes are supplied later) is a constitutive feature of the seminar, which recruits its audience based entirely on the desire to return to its cinematic well and on the qualifications/theme of the announced programmer.
The principle reveals two diverging understandings: the notion that one can dispose of preconceptions versus a recognition that stripping typical curatorial pre-conditioning necessitates a different kind of controlled environment and requires that the group deal with different ways of preconceiving. This challenges the group to deconstruct habitual modes of preconceiving and embrace a shared yet always uneven vulnerability in imagining a more equitable space.
More often than not, the discursive spaces generated by the Flaherty remain embattled with normative power structures and defenses scraped down to blunt candor by cycles of sleeplessness, inebriation, and waking dreams in the cinema. This leads to moments of generosity, embarrassment, cruelty, and epiphany from veterans and first-timers alike.
The yearly exercise is a reminder of what it takes to honestly approach an art object, others’ reactions, and the ramifications of refining lines of separation and/or coalescing into general consensus.