Voices from the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar
Saturday, August 18, 2018
I’ve procrastinated writing this piece for months.
Raking through my memories of attending the Flaherty, I’ve been looking for a compelling story that will illuminate the essence of the seminar or recount some transcendent experience that changed the way I see cinema or the world. However, rather than a glowing core, only glimmers, shards, and flashes that reflect facets of the experience come to mind.
I participated in three seminars (2005, 2009, and 2016). But it feels like so many more, partly because I had registered for two others but family emergencies pulled me away at the last moment. Both times, I guiltily hoped that they hadn’t been the best seminars.
My first seminar in 2005, Cinema and History: Piling Wreckage Upon Wreckage (programmed by Michael Renov and Jesse Lerner), was a classic Flaherty initiate experience of excitement, wonder, and exhaustion. Excitement at the thrill of what we would see next and sharing extended time with great filmmakers. Wonder at the sheer aesthetic and thematic scope of both the works and the discussions about them. Exhaustion after staying up into the wee hours engrossed in conversation at Bill’s Bar and trying to be ready for the morning screenings (and feeling guilty about dozing off during a couple of those).
That first seminar exposed me to some films that have since become lynchpins of my teaching documentary: Jean Marie Teno’s Africa, I Will Fleece You , Patricio Guzman’s Chile, Obstinate Memory , Dennis Tupicoff’s His Mother’s Voice , and the work of Peter Forgács.
One memory that has really stuck with me was the anticipation among us newbies for the “big fight” that Flaherty mythology told us would inevitably erupt during a post-screening discussion at some point during the week, exposing the fault lines of the gathered community.
But it never materialized.
I remember leaving on Saturday with a mild sense of disappointment at having missed out on a Flaherty rite of passage. Certainly, there had been localized skirmishes in the discussions and some heated personal conversations, but no big fight.
I do recall feeling incensed right after the screening of William Greaves’ masterful mockumentary Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One [1968/1971]. I got caught up in an uptight righteousness about the film’s queer representation, which blinded me to its anarchic satirical bite. I just couldn’t understand why everyone else was so in awe of it. But I listened to the discussion, then pursued more conversations about it in the bar and over meals. My flush reaction tempered and eventually I cracked a smile.
By contrast, during the 2016 seminar, Play, programmed by the late great David Pendleton, I was immediately blown away by the beauty and tenderness of Naomi Kawase’s Genpin (2010), about natural childbirth in Japan. Yet, during the full-seminar discussion, when several people questioned its gender politics, my exuberant reaction felt the sting of sharp—and reasoned—ideological critique. Subsequent conversations during the rest of the day enhanced and deepened my experience of the film, not into a clear-cut take on it, but into an understanding of my own ambivalence towards its complexity.
That is what I appreciate most about the durational quality of the Flaherty: it forces you to interrogate your immediate response to a film whether that be exuberance, anger, or indifference—and allows you to continue reconsidering it in all variety of conversations that may follow.
The ritual structure of the coffee break, the seminar discussion, and then a meal or the bar provides the security of a familiar structure tempered by an aleatory dynamic of who happens to get to speak in the group discussion or whom you happen to be standing next to as you exit the screening on the way to grab a coffee.
Unlike film festivals and academic conferences, access to others is not hierarchical. You do not need an expensive pass or a colleague’s introduction to enter into a conversation with a filmmaker. You can simply sit down next to them on the grass outside the auditorium or in the dining hall.
In the more recent seminars that I’ve attended, I’ve often heard the complaint that the full-seminar discussions are now too academic or still too woolly liberal humanist, depending on to whom I talk.
This seems to be another manifestation of the enduring tension between aesthetics and politics that constitutes one of the core threads of the seminar’s history. The discussions can certainly become frustrating as various participants seem to speak past one another in their wildly divergent discourses. Nevertheless, the seminar is one of the few spaces in which such a dialectic can still be heard—discussions at academic conferences and film festivals tend to calcify around each end of this spectrum.
Somehow, the seminar fosters a culture of respecting the holistic integrity of its conversation. Whereas I might be tempted to panel hop at an academic conference or duck out of a post-screening discussion at a festival if it begins to lag, I always feel the need to see a Flaherty discussion to the end. Like a film screening, you respect the integrity of its duration even if it ends up driving you up a wall.
Like most Flaherty faithful, I do proselytize the seminar regularly to the uninitiated, particularly my graduate students interested in documentary. I jokingly refer to it as “documentary boot camp,” in an attempt to characterize its structure, ritual, and rigor. I also warn them about its intensity.
Ultimately, I enthuse most about the unique time and space of the Flaherty, which trains us in the practice of a critical humility. One that resists certainty and singularity precisely because it embraces openness to alterity. Not a difference between one way of engaging the world or another, but an endeavor to imagine many more ways.
Saturday, August 18, 2018
I do not remember how it really came about, but it happened that in 1964, the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar that took place in Vermont every year had invited me to come and screen Jack Smith’s film Flaming Creatures  as a special event of the Seminar. Earlier that year I was arrested in New York for screening it. So I figured they wanted to find out what the fuss was all about. I agreed to come.
Our little gang, consisting of Barbara Rubin, her friend Debbie, Ken Jacobs and Flo Jacobs—both of whom were also arrested that same evening with myself—we drove to Brattleboro, Vermont, with a print of Flaming Creatures.
The screening was announced for 10:30 p.m. We, New York City folks, we thought that was a perfectly good time for closing an evening with a movie.
We arrived on time—actually half an hour early. We drove into the Seminar grounds and we were a little bit surprised to find it totally empty. As we were wandering about it, someone came to us from the half darkness. I recognized the man: It was Louis Marcorelles, my good friend from Le Monde, Paris. “Where is everybody?” I asked. “They are sleeping,” said Marcorelles.
At that point, a young man appeared from the dark and introduced himself as a man in charge of the screenings. He asked us not to be so loud, people were sleeping. “How come,” I said, “What about the show?” So the guy says, “This being the country, the sleeping time at the Seminar is ten o’clock.” “But our screening was scheduled for 10:30,” I say. “How come?” “Oh,” says the guy, “We told everybody about the screening. We put it on the 10:30 slot because of the controversial nature of the movie. We have the projectionist ready for you.” “But we have nobody here to see it,” I say. “I want to see it,” said Marcorelles, “I came specially for it from Paris.”
“Let’s screen it!” we all said enthusiastically. And so we did. For Louis Marcorelles.
It was a cold night in Vermont.
After the screening we were ready to crash. So we asked our host to take us to our rooms. “No,” says the guy, “All rooms have been filled. Sorry guys.”
“OK, sorry to hear that,” we said, ”We’ll be OK. Don’t worry about us.”
We managed. Some of us slept in our beat-up van. I slept among brooms and pails in an abandoned open country truck I found on the grounds.
No, we didn’t sleep well that night.
We all got up early.
We were surprised to see a Vermont morning emerge over the landscape. It was beautiful. It was very peaceful and serene. We stood there, still half-asleep, looking at the morning, almost in ecstasy. Then Ken and myself, we pulled out our cameras and we began to film. We had to do it, we had to film; we were filled with the ecstasy of cinema. We felt we were the monks of the order of Cinema.
Then we got into our beat-up van and we began our journey back to New York. We looked at the Seminar houses. Everybody was still sleeping. We thought we had a most perfect screening. We drove singing, happy, as the day was opening around us, a beautiful Vermont day.
From Jonas Mekas, A Dance with Fred Astaire (New York: Anthology Editions, 2017), 261-262. Posted with permission from Jonas Mekas.
Friday, August 17, 2018
It’s rare that I’m “impressed” by art.
I put that word in quotes because I mean impressed in its deepest sense: when something strikes you so hard it leaves an indelible mark.
The Flaherty Seminar impressed me, permanently imprinted my very being.
I first heard about The Flaherty as the program officer for media at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Various filmmakers we funded asked if I had ever attended. Discovering my cluelessness, they described the Seminar with what seemed to me a rather odd reverence.
I had a background in television. Although that world includes independent film as a small part of its complex ecology, my knowledge of independent media was limited. I began to ask myself, what is this thing called The Flaherty?
I attended my first Seminar in 2000. Kathy Geritz from the Pacific Film Archive programmed.
Experiencing film through Geritz’s careful curation and experiencing the intensive group discussions affected me in a way that was beyond my imagination at the time. I came away from that seminar with one simple question: “What is documentary film?”
Robert Flaherty’s films raise questions. Was he a documentary filmmaker? Was his approach to filmmaking cinéma vérité where the camera records actual people and events without directorial control? Is there even such a thing as a documentary film?
Kathy programmed Hidden and Seeking , where Frances Flaherty explains Robert’s challenges in setting up shots. This film screened with multiple takes of the Lumière brothers’ Workers Leaving the Factory . Then we saw Harun Farocki’s meditation on the Lumière films, also called Workers Leaving the Factory .
Although staged, these “documentaries” depicted authenticity.
By the time I was invited to join the Flaherty Board of Trustees, I was not only experienced in philanthropy, but also felt well-versed in independent film. I believed the seminars and the organization needed reframing to generate greater financial support.
In the early 2000s, funders saw the Flaherty as a very small specialized gathering. The number of seminar attendees was tiny compared to a film festival. Funders were unclear about the social return on an investment in what could be perceived as 150 people attending an elite film camp.
The Flaherty had not yet sold itself as a significant professional development experience for the independent media world, where intellectual, artistic, and global impressions move from the Seminar into the field and on to the public.
I knew from experience that the Flaherty changes attendees’ perspectives, ideas, and practices. It affects how they think, whether making content, or programming, teaching, or distributing it. Horizons open. Perspectives broaden. Transformation reaches innumerable members of the public through the subsequent work of the seminarians.
In 2005, at the 50th Flaherty I’d heard Russian filmmakers describe how seeing Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied  at the 1990 Flaherty seminar held in Riga, Latvia, had changed their perception of African Americans and gay men.
In 2007, at the Full Frame Documentary Festival in Durham, North Carolina, I’d seen films about Africa, but not made by Africans. That same year, Mahen Bonnetti and Carlos Gutierrez programmed a Seminar called “South of the Other.” Mahen and Carlos brought filmmakers from Africa and Latin America to the Flaherty, a major intervention into the US media arts field.
Generally, film festival discussions center on fundraising, production, distribution deals, publicity. In contrast, the Flaherty is about intense interactions about artistic perspectives, ideas, the deeper meanings and impact of media, philosophical questioning, politics. For me, The Flaherty kept provoking that important question: what is documentary?
In an age of reality television, user-generated media, and fake news, truth is ever more pressing. Everything is up for redefinition. Do we need to abandon sacred terms like “documentary”?
A few years ago, I asked a group of filmmakers whether we might use the term nonfiction film instead of documentary. I came to this idea after a conversation with a stranger who was reading a great nonfiction book I had recently finished, Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts . This stranger admitted never having thought of attending a documentary festival: that meant nature films, a perception shared by much of the general public.
A confession: I’m not a fan of what’s generally referred to as “experimental film” or “avant-garde film.”
In 2004, the year after the US invaded Iraq, Susan Oxtoby curated a seminar featuring experimental and avant-garde films. While I could respect those films as works of art, to me the programming felt utterly irrelevant in the global context. I soon left the Flaherty Board. I no longer felt comfortable asserting that the Seminar was always wonderful—as I was asked to do at the time by a few trustees.
Ultimately, I want films that help me to consider the human condition and move the audience to improve it. But although it may seem like a contradiction, I do long for films that explore new forms.
John Gianvito programmed the 2003 Seminar. Fifteen years later, the films John showed stay with me, their marks, indelible. For example, one of my all-time favorite works, Travis Wilkerson’s An Injury to One , tells the story of murder, labor vs. corporate interests, and environmental disaster in Butte, Montana. It combines music, text-on-screen, an extraordinary cinematic eye, and a unique story structure. The reviews described it, correctly, as “avant-garde”—a useful kind of “avant-garde.” Although the events in Butte happened over a hundred years ago, they remain politically and environmentally relevant. I would love to see more US nonfiction films tell their stories in such unique artistic ways.
And since the 2016 US presidential election, Raoul Peck’s Profit And Nothing But! Or Impolite Thoughts on the Class Struggle , a nonfiction (and “avant-garde”?) film from John’s Seminar, still haunts me.
I keep thinking about a sentence the film repeats: “Okay, Capitalism, you won. Now what?”
Friday, August 17, 2018
My first encounter with a Flaherty Seminar must have been in 1997 at Ithaca College.
I was enrolled in an MFA program in Electronic Arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). Along with my teacher, media-artist Branda Miller, and fellow grad student Julia Meltzer, I drove over for the weekend-long “Digital Flaherty” seminar co-programmed by Michelle Materre, then executive director of the Flaherty Seminar, and Patty Zimmermann, a documentary theorist, historian, and writer—and a professor of screen studies at Ithaca College.
I remember that I saw Measures of Distance  by Mona Hatoum for the first time there. This formally simple but beautifully complex work based on images, letters, and audio recordings made by the artist and her mother became a staple in my media production teaching at Bard College.
At that intense and compressed seminar, Patty Zimmermann’s rapid-fire lecture on Nanook of the North  served up a revelation. She staged a series of curtain draws: the fake igloo, the casting of Robert Flaherty’s Inuit lover as the wife of Nanook, the re-enactment of a walrus hunt on the ice, the fox hunt with the dead fox.
Patty’s post-screening discussion with Erik Barnouw, the author of Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film and one of the key figures in the history of the seminar, applied a strange kind of sealant to the seminar’s proceedings. She fired out a takedown of the eponymous white male “master”—and I loved it. How great it was for me to transform this complicated, flawed, but profoundly inspiring film into fuel for serious and meaningful discussions about the complexity of making moving images.
Two years later, RPI hosted another weekend “Digital Flaherty.” At this seminar, my revelation was Kevin and Jenn McCoy’s work and its connection to and deconstruction of traditional storytelling. Their reworking of a pivotal scene from Godard’s Weekend as looped media in an installation environment sparked so many ideas about ways in which narrative can unfold. Their references Vladimir Propp’s writings on folklore and fairytale became crucial to my thinking, teaching, and creative work.
In 2006, almost ten years after that Ithaca College seminar, programmers Ariella Ben-Dov and Steve Seid invited me to show my video pieces Stranger Comes To Town  and How to Fix the World  at the seminar at Vassar College. These two works use animated characters to illustrate interviews with real people. Knowing the Flaherty conventions of close scrutiny and straight-up criticism, the invitation pushed me to make my work as strong as it could be.
I realized that the two central New York weekend seminars I’d experienced operated as very small tendon stretches for the annual weeklong seminar.
My very first encounter there was Adele Horne, the director of the powerful documentary Tailenders . We were in an elevator. We eyed each other. We tried to figure out if the other was slated to present work or not. Later, Adele screened an untitled, 16mm film that was later to be called 15 Experiments on Peripheral Vision 
The mystery about, “What will we be seeing in this program?” seems deeply embedded in the seminar’s history. It is fundamentally so cool. Think about some of your all-time best film viewing experiences. I bet at least one of them was a blind date where you knew nothing at all about what you were going to watch. It’s the same for movie watching on airplanes: you do not arrive with the usual set of critical lenses. You’re open in different ways to what you might watch.
Many revelations materialized for me in 2006: Ashim Ahluwalia’s John and Jane Toll-Free , a documentary about Indian telemarketers for American companies in Bombay; Ben Coonley’s killer PowerPoint and kara-oke videos; Mercedes Alvarez’ inspiring film El Cielo Gira [The Sky Turns, 2004]; Nancy Andrew’s perfect blend of live action, puppetry, and animation in the films The Haunted Camera  and Monkey and Lumps . Andrews remains one of my favorite filmmakers ever—a witty, multi-talented craftsperson with an uncanny ability to make the best sound/image combos you’ll encounter. Totally under-appreciated and under-recognized.
We watched Vittorio De Seta’s beautiful films about fishermen in Italy Fescherecci [Fishing, 1958] and Contadini del mare [Peasant of the Sea, 1955] in a dark theater while construction workers loudly labored outside. This juxtaposition prompted a lively discussion about the romanticization of labor on the screen, but the complete dismissal of it off-screen.
These discussions where people feel safe to passionately argue and to disagree constitute the heart of the Flaherty Seminars for me. Sadly, I think these kind of honest intense conversations are becoming a rarity. We still need them, even more now, in the Trump era and what feels like the shutting down of debate.
At the Flaherty Seminar, you can quarrel with another viewer, and may walk away to grouse, but you will see the same person the next morning at breakfast. The conversation will move forward because you will be there for several more days. And there will be more movies to weave into it.
Oddly, these other screenings and discussions billow as much more salient to me now than any memory of the screening of my own work. Only one memory remains for me: Sally Berger, then assistant curator of video at the Museum of Modern Art, skipped my screening. I was crushed.
At Vassar, we watched films for seven days from 10:00 in the morning until midnight. How did we do that?
What a tendon stretch! What a gift.
Friday, August 3, 2018
I was 23 years old when I attended my first Flaherty Seminar as a fellow in 1984.
I’d never taken a cinema studies class. I was just beginning to figure out how film could become the place to bring together my love for art and politics.
With hindsight in my pocket, I can see that meeting the artists and scholars that programmer D. Marie Grieco convened that summer was one of my life’s most influential experiences.
Collage-cinema genius Bruce Conner showed his work. I saw Conner’s A Movie , Cosmic Ray , and Crossroads . Scholar VéVé Clark presented her newly published book The Legend of Maya Deren, Vol. 1, Part 1: Signatures (1917-1942), a monumental collection of Deren’s writings. And I saw Deren’s Ritual in Transfigured Time  and A Study in Choreography for the Camera: Out-takes . I was hooked. Forever changed.
The next year, I moved to San Francisco and began a one-year internship with Bruce. We drove around in his convertible looking for Geiger counters to measure the radioactivity under his home. In his basement studio, I listened to his stories about the 1960s and 1970s art-scene and growing up in Kansas, while he re-spliced his films for preservation—work I was supposed to be doing.
In 1989, Flaherty programmer Pearl Bowser invited me to screen my then-recent San Francisco State University graduate thesis film, Sermons and Sacred Pictures: The Life and Work of Reverend L.O. Taylor [1989 (https://vimeo.com/158998653)]. I was grateful—and surprised by her invitation to be part of a Flaherty seminar comprised almost entirely of African-American and African filmmakers.
As a high school student in Memphis, Tennessee, I had seen Reverend Taylor’s 16mm film archive of Black urban life. Eight years later, I returned to my hometown to reconnect with this complicated, racially traumatized city in a new way, through his images and by talking to the people who knew him.
Making Sermons and Sacred Pictures was an intense, intimate, revealing experience. I spent two months walking around neighborhoods I barely knew. I asked questions about Taylor and myself. This was my first brush with making a film about a person’s life experience outside my own.
Reverend Taylor was a filmmaker I admired like none other. He shot from the inside out, a Black minister filming his own community with his own Bolex with the intention of screening these films for the people who were in them.
I tried to deal with my own presence as filmmaker. I resisted filming my face. I always made it clear that I was the one listening and filming, hiding and exposed, in ways that only cinema makes possible. I spent a lot of time talking about this issue with my professors Trinh T. Minh-ha (who was also a Flaherty guest artist that year) and Peggy Ahwesh.
I’d had very little experience discussing my film with an audience. Film scholar Teshome Gabriel, the facilitator for that day at Flaherty, was extraordinarily supportive of the film and me. Filmmakers Marlon Riggs and Zeinabu Irene Davis, my Brown University college friend, were both there. Many of us at that seminar remained deeply connected. During the 1991 Gulf War, about twenty of us reconvened on a charter flight to Burkina Faso, where we attended the Pan-African Film Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO).
But screening Sermons at that Flaherty also brought a new awareness and self-consciousness. Some seminarians reacted to my depiction of a Black man’s life from my perspective as a White woman with a mixture of skepticism and enthusiasm. (Just before I wrote this piece, I was in touch with filmmaker Ayoka Chenzira, who attended that 1989 seminar and has written poignantly about her own feelings about these issues in her Flaherty Story.)
In 2000 I returned to the Flaherty. Programmer Kathy Geritz had asked me to facilitate several post-screening discussions of Tran T. Kim-Trang’s Blindness Series [1992-2000]: five videos exploring blindness as a metaphor.
For weeks, I threw myself into Tran’s work, watching each video many times. I took scrupulous notes. Her films are difficult in the best way: aggressive, casual, complex, discursive, irrepressible, nuanced, refined... The seminar divided between those transfixed by her cerebral magic and those insulted by her opaque point of view, aggressive editing, and her comfort with what some might consider vulgar.
Consumed by Tran’s work, I wrote a letter about the videos to my hero of all things female and body, French feminist theorist Hélène Cixous. Here it is: http://scalar.usc.edu/works/more-than-meets-the-eye-the-videos-of-tran-t-kim-trang/letter-to-hlne-cixous.
In 2011, I attended Dan Streible’s “Sonic Truth” seminar as a participant. I was struggling with the editing of my hybrid documentary Your Day Is My Night , convinced that by attending the seminar, I’d discover editing strategies to help me climb out of what I considered the disaster of my film. I saw important work by legendary filmmakers Les Blank and George Stoney, both of whom died not long after. Yet no work at that seminar sparked me.
Two years later I returned for Pablo de Ocampo’s “History Is What’s Happening” seminar. It featured astonishing films by the audacious Canadian maker Jean-Paul Kelly and by the cerebral British collective, The Otolith Group. That year, I finally realized how to take notes at the Flaherty. After every screening, I now write about the films on the right side of my journal, then I write new ideas about my own projects on the left.
In 2018, I returned again. Programmers Kevin Jerome Everson, a filmmaker, and Greg de Cuir, a curator, reclaimed the commitment to presenting the work of African and African-American filmmakers that I had witnessed in 1989. They presented an awe-inspiring collection of films by experimental makers Karimah Ashadu (Nigeria), Ephraim Asili, Kitso Lynn Lelliot,(South Africa), Christopher Harris, and Cauleen Smith. Revelations filled both sides of my journal.