Voices from the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar
Tuesday, February 13, 2018
Although I never met or knew Robert Flaherty, he has always been one of my professional and academic heroes.
I cut my teeth on Nanook of the North  and Louisiana Story  at the University of Wisconsin, which in turn inspired my dissertation on the Why We Fight [1943-1945] series.
So, when the opportunity came to host the renowned Flaherty Seminar for a long weekend at Ithaca College in the fall of 1997, as Dean of the Roy H. Park School of Communications at the time, I jumped at the opportunity.
Accepting the invitation was easy, but the logistics of hosting so many eminent scholars and artists was daunting. Fortunately, Professor Patty Zimmermann was on the Park faculty and the process was delightful and successful.
That seminar was entitled “Explorations in Memory and Modernity.” Patty programmed it with Michelle Materre, who at the time was the Executive Director of the Flaherty Seminar in New York City.
The coming together of internationally acclaimed academics and artists to engage in thoughtful and critical discourse about the discipline of documentary practice and study was a natural fit for the Park School. I saw the school’s mission as covering three domains: advancing the discipline of communications—in this case, the specific field of documentary practice and study; probing the intellectual foundations of the documentary discipline; and expanding the discipline through thoughtful and critical discourse.
Thankfully, we had the financial resources necessary to host the Seminar, primarily through the James Pendelton Endowment, established by a long-time friend of the Park School.
Because of this resource, we were able to bring to campus such renowned figures in documentary and experimental film as Barbara Van Dyke, Erik Barnouw, Scott MacDonald, Branda Miller, Timothy Murray, as well as our distinguished alumnus, video and installation artist Daniel Reeves (Class of 1977). We were particularly happy to have Reeves serve as a role model for our students.
We screened Dan’s monumental and moving single-channel video on war, family, memory, and reconciliation, Obsessive Becoming , a distinguished work that combines documentary and experimental modes. The seminar enabled us to honor him for his superb work and career at the vanguard of experimental video.
As with any enterprise of this nature, the devil is in the details. Thankfully, Dr. Zimmermann and I shared a passion for “getting it right.” So no task was too small or insignificant. I distinctly remember us working well into the evening alongside Dan, putting rocks on the floor and on monitors, to build his installation, Eingang: The Way In, in the College’s Handwerker Gallery.
The seminar was one of the first media arts events in the US to feature CD-ROMs as documentary and experimental work. It also mounted a new media salon in a classroom where seminarians could explore these works on computers.
This programming fit precisely with the stated premise of that weekend Seminar, which was to “probe the dialectic between historical and new formations of independent media and how each navigates memory and modernity.”
There were many highlights that weekend, but the one that stands out for me was the four Dan Reeves installations, projects that filled the gallery and even spread across the windows. It was a groundbreaking and breathtaking exhibition about history; images, old and new; technology, memory, and modernity.
As I reflect on my twenty-three years as Dean of the Park School, hosting the Robert Flaherty Seminar ranks at the top of a very short list.
To bring distinguished academics and artists to the College and to the Park School for thoughtful and sustained dialogue about the most important questions facing the discipline was a reflection of the Park School’s central mission. To be able to show off the school, its students, faculty, staff, alumni, and facilities to these scholars, artists, and programmers was truly special.
I only wish Robert Flaherty had been there!
Tuesday, February 13, 2018
It will be thirty years ago this August that my first feature film, Lightning Over Braddock—A Rustbowl Fantasy , led off the Flaherty Seminar at Wells College on the banks of Cayuga Lake in central New York State.
For years, I’d wanted to go to the Seminar, but never seemed to have the time. I was doing freelance work in Pittsburgh and working for George Romero on feature films. I was also making my own films. Because I paid for these films out of pocket, I could not afford to lose a paycheck. However, in 1985 I received a Guggenheim Fellowship, so I could relax a bit.
In graduate school at Ohio University, I’d heard a lot about Flaherty, and about the notorious “Flaherty moments,” from visiting filmmakers and other guests who came to the Athens Film Festival. And for years, two Philadelphia friends, programmer Linda Blackaby and filmmaker Louis Massiah encouraged me to go.
So, in 1985 I took the plunge.
I’d heard about how grueling and tiring the week would be, but I thought, how tough can it be to watch films and listen to filmmakers all day long?
I had judged film festivals. At the Ann Arbor Film Festival, Ruth Bradley made the jury look at every film in competition all the way to though the credits. I remember viewing Ed Pincus’ Diaries  at the Athens Film Festival in one sitting.
So I thought I was prepared.
I was not.
The week started off fine. People I knew were there: Emily Calmer, who had just taken over the Athens Film Festival; Manny Kirchheimer, Linda Blackaby. I got to meet other filmmakers, like George Stoney, and programmers, like Bill Sloan from the Museum of Modern Art who I knew by reputation. The seminar even screened a film by David Sutherland that I’d done some audio and assistant camera work on: Paul Cadmus: Enfant Terrible at 80 .
Like I said, I thought I was prepared. But it wasn’t even mid-week before I was getting exhausted. The seminar was unrelenting, with films, discussions, then more films, and more discussions from 8:00 or 9:00 a.m. until late at night. Around midnight, a bar operated by Bill Sloan would magically pop up. People would party until 2:00 or 3:00 a.m., then run down to the dock and plunge into the lake for a swim, go to bed, and be ready to go in the morning.
I’m a lightweight. I was never much of drinker, so I joined the group that liked to go outside and get a smoke, if you know what I mean. The only problem was—the munchies. There was nowhere to go to get anything to eat. One night, we raided the school cafeteria. We ended up repeating this subversive activity on several occasions.
We were in the town of Aurora, but I still don’t know if the town of Aurora really exists. I never saw it. I just saw Wells College and the lake. And I only saw the lake; I never went in for a swim. I didn’t have a bathing suit.
At the beginning of the week, Manny Kirchheimer screened We Were So Beloved . The film was good and so was Manny. Manny answered the hard and insightful questions honestly. He was never defensive.
I saw a lot of films. Some I liked, some I didn’t. Some got me questioning why the film was even made, but the discussions after the films were always interesting.
The days blur, but I do remember that a film about the Amish was the last to be screened before lunch on a Wednesday or a Thursday. For some reason, the Amish and Mennonites were hot film topics in the mid-to-late 1980s. The film was okay, though not my type.
Over lunch, everybody starts talking about the film. There’s a definite buzz and it’s not about the ice cream missing from the cafeteria. The discussions are drilling into the use of telephoto lenses in the film.
We go back into the theater.
The moderator calls the producer and director to the stage. Then it begins: a barrage of questions about the use of long lenses. Did the filmmakers have permission to film the people in these shots? How many Amish knew they were being filmed? The audience aggressively questions the integrity of the filmmakers.
Finally, the producer admits that some of the people in the film did not know they were being filmed. Then he says (I’m still not sure if he was upset and heckling the audience or if he was telling the truth) he’s negotiating with McDonald’s because they want to use some of his footage in one of their hamburger commercials. You can imagine the audience response. I now knew what a “Flaherty moment” was.
That seminar reinforced my belief that the filmmaker’s intentions when making a film do not matter. What’s important is how the audience reads the film.
I left the Flaherty inspired.
Within days of returning home, I made a five-minute silent film, Braddock Food Bank , based on some discussions that had taken place at the Flaherty. It screened at the 1986 seminar.
So now we’re back to 1988. Lightning Over Braddock, the film I was working on when I went to the Flaherty in 1985, is finished. I’m getting ready to screen it and I’m nervous because I have no idea how the audience will respond.
It was so hot that night that the projectionist had to stop the film several times so the projector could cool off. Maybe I caught a break because the projector was stopping and starting or because it was the first film screened. For whatever reason, the audience response was positive. There was no Flaherty moment.
August 1988 turned out to be a great month for me: I screened at Flaherty; I got married to Jan; and I got into the Toronto Film Festival, thanks to Debra Zimmerman who shared Lightning Over Braddock with Kay Armitage.
When we got married, the justice of the peace had said, “The family that goes to Flaherty together, stays together.” In 2015, I returned, with Jan, to the Flaherty.
The seminar felt a little different at Colgate University. Some people did not stay the whole week. There was an actual town you could walk to if you did not want to go to a screening. But the intensity was still there. It was just as exhausting, maybe more so because of our age.
The next time I go to the Flaherty, I will bring my bathing suit. And before I come home, I will go to Wells College, take a plunge into Cayuga Lake, and see if Aurora really exists.
Sunday, February 11, 2018
My first encounter with Robert Flaherty was in 1962, the spring of my first year at Bennington College.
Totally by chance I happened to see a handwritten announcement on a chalkboard on the stairs going to the top floor of the Commons, saying that Frances Flaherty would be screening Robert’s films. I had never heard of Flaherty. But something compelled me to go.
The following fall, I wrote to Arnold Eagle, who had worked with Flaherty on Louisiana Story , inquiring about an internship. I never heard back from Mr. Eagle. But years later in the 1980s, I became his student at the New School, taking courses in 16mm production and subsequently using his studio as a place to work.
One day, when he was cleaning out his files, Arnold happened to find my letter. It stated that Frances had screened Flaherty’s Man of Aran  and Louisiana Story. I sort of remember her doing it in two visits. In any event, I was blown away. I’d never seen anything like these films.
After college, I embarked on a career as an arts administrator. I worked primarily for the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA). My last position there was as Deputy Director for what was then called the Division of Communication and Visual Arts, where I supervised funding for film and media organizations.
Although I loved being part of something I believed in, I’d always wanted to work on the creative side of film and media. So I left NYSCA in 1981. Fortunately, by 1982, I found the Flaherty Seminar. I was hooked forever.
My first Flaherty was in 1982 at Topridge in the Adirondack Mountains in Northern New York State. The film and media historian Erik Barnouw programmed it. Barbara Van Dyke was helming the organization as executive director and coordinator of the seminar. The projectionist was Murray Van Dyke. Located deep in the woods on a lake, with its many historic buildings intact, Topridge was the former “rustic retreat” of Marjorie Merriweather Post.
At this seminar I felt such gratitude to find a community of people with whom I shared goals, dreams, and mission. And, as an aspiring filmmaker, I found this seminar experience and the many, many more to follow extremely helpful in giving me the courage to pursue my own creative path.
As I became more and more familiar with the organization and its people, I discovered what I would call Flaherty godmothers and godfathers, people who came almost every year.
As I said at his recent memorial, Bill Sloan was one of these treasured people. He first attended the seminar in 1964, which means he knew Frances Flaherty. With Nadine Covert, he programmed his first seminar in 1972, another one in 1975 with Barbara Van Dyke, and then worked solo to put together the 1979 seminar.
When I read the program Bill Sloan created with Nadine in 1972, I know I would have been totally blown away. They showed The Sorrow and the Pity . Does that mean Marcel Orphuls was actually there? They showed a film by Ozu, several films by Claudia Weill and Eli Noyes, and of all things, Greed  by Erik Von Stroheim. They also screened many titles by filmmakers I’m sorry to say I do not know.
My overall impression of their program is one of great variety and richness. I understand from Patty Zimmermann and Scott MacDonald’s recent book about the history of Flaherty [The Flaherty: Decades in the Cause of Independent Cinema], as well as from Nadine herself, that variety was something they worked hard to accomplish and promote as a programming goal.
Bill served on the Flaherty Board of Trustees and as its president from 1974-1977. I believe he continued on the Board over subsequent years in various capacities. He established Bill’s Bar. To this day, it persists. The best conversations about film take place at that makeshift bar.
As I look through the various seminar programs during those years, I regret I was not there. The 1970s seem like the Flaherty’s golden age of film programming.
I served on the Flaherty Board twice, once in the 1980s and again in the late 1990s. For two years in 2000-2001, I was the president. Like most nonprofits during both those periods, Flaherty was working to transition into a more professional and stable organization. A lot of our focus centered on a need for an office and a paid director, first part-time and eventually full-time.
There were of course a number of rocky years along the way, but Flaherty always seemed to bounce back stronger than before. I’ve come to think of the Flaherty as an organization with a soul. It's never lost its reason for being.
I attribute this clarity of purpose to the Flaherty “godparents”: Dorothy Olson, Paul Olson, Bill Sloan, Erik Barnouw, Jack Churchill, Barbara Van Dyke, Tom Johnson, Nadine Covert, George Stoney, and many others. With their unique charismatic presence, these godmothers and godfathers operated as spiritual guides to film and media. Forgive me if I wax too metaphysical.
After taking a break for a few years, I came back to The Flaherty for its 60th anniversary in 2015. I was hooked again and have returned several times. I’m astounded by the community of people that the seminar attracts, a group that has become more and more international. The word is out: this year the seminar sold out in less than twenty-four hours!
I’m proud of all the time I contributed to help the Flaherty to develop and flourish. I see my work for the organization as a chance to give back some of the good the seminar has given me through the decades.
A Flaherty godparent passed away in 2017 at age ninety-nine: Dorothy Olson, a journalist, arts administrator, filmmaker, former Flaherty trustee, and mentor to many in the film and media world. In my last conversation with her, she talked about never forgetting and never recovering from seeing The Sorrow and the Pity at that 1972 Flaherty.
The Flaherty is an organization with a soul. It always seems to find a way to continue, and, I like to think, evolve.
Tuesday, February 6, 2018
“The Camera Reframed” was the first Flaherty Seminar with an explicit title and theme.
The idea evolved out of my fascination with what was then called “the information superhighway.”
As a child, I witnessed how the emergence of video drastically impacted my father, a documentary filmmaker. He had a business developing 16mm dailies for national broadcasting stations airing the evening news in the Philippines. Video killed my father’s film processing business.
So, reframing the camera, now positioned at the intersection of changing media technologies, seemed a most pressing question. What would happen to analog visual culture?
Through robust brainstorming and conversations with my co-curator Bruce Jenkins, “The Camera Reframed” emerged from my desire to launch into a historical examination of the camera, not merely as instrument of the historical gaze, but Camera As Subject.
We unpacked this idea by curating self-reflexive documentaries, looking for works that interrogated the camera as a vehicle for interpreting, conveying, shaping, even manipulating the histories and stories we tell.
August 1995 also coincided with two very significant historical events: the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the death of Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead.
To commemorate the anniversary of the bombings during the second World War, I selected Rea Tajiri's History and Memory , a video about the internment of American citizens of Japanese descent. Tajiri’s title and complex artistic process spoke to how media makers of color create alternative histories.
History and Memory declares a dialectic between what we are taught to remember as a function of control and what we are expected to forget—and therefore what we are forced to hide in safekeeping through memory.
History and Memory opens with representative images of what Tajiri thought was a childhood memory. The black-and-white Library of Congress archival footage of the Japanese-American internment camps shows lines of Japanese American families with their suitcases in hand, lining the sidewalks and staring at the camera with perplexed eyes. This footage represents the permitted institutional memory.
In contrast, Tajiri reenacted a scene representing what she thought was a memory: a woman (perhaps her) drinking from a water pump in an internment camp. In filming the re-enactment, Tajiri realized that this “memory” could not have happened. She was born years after the Japanese-American internment. This revealed personalized memory: that is, repressed or imagined images of fear, uncertainty, exclusion—images that evoke realities more personally palpable than the institutional footage.
In History and Memory, memory resides in the mind’s hidden camera. This camera bears the burden of censored history. It identifies what we were told not to see and recreates what we were told to forget.
In August 1995, the death of Jerry Garcia and the emergence of a new mass media represented a second historical congruence.
News of Garcia’s death coincided with the day and hour that we launched a Flaherty experiment in digital media.
Part of our curatorial intention was to observe the crux of moving-image technology at the time—the emergence of the Worldwide Web.
We invited Asian-American experimental media artist Shu Lea Cheang to talk about her cybernetic installation, Bowling Alley [1995-96]. I had previously curated it for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
The presentation was scheduled for August 9, 1995. The audience would witness Cheang’s conversation live digitally onstage and on-screen with her project partners, Kevin Sawad Brooks and Beth Stryker, in another state (no longer sure where they were). Golfball cameras (the predecessor of today’s GoPro) via the internet (an early version of Skype) were used.
The exercise failed.
At the exact time of the presentation, the ethernet blazed with news announcing the death of Jerry Garcia. And at the moment when our new technology crashed, a new form of mass media emerged. Internet traffic jammed “the information superhighway.” The connections at Wells College could not accommodate the glut of rapid communication.
Ordinary people dethroned multinational broadcast media. Accidentally, they subverted the message of our Flaherty seminar’s theme. The masses decided that Jerry Garcia’s death was the most important message to pay attention to.
Importantly, the seminar did not fail to open up opportunities for dialogue and debate between Western and Third World critics and historians about different postcolonial ideas and LGBTQ concepts, as they related to older and new technologies.
Controversy erupted. Many participants vigorously argued that Nanook of the North  affirmed the Western gaze and positioned the cinematographer as “redeemer.” Flaherty’s camera created narrative tropes for a fantasy construction of First Nations and the Third World. Filmmaker Nick DeOcampo (Philippines) asserted that “Third World Camera,” in contrast, evidenced and exposed colonial scars.
How the West chooses to see the world and the Other drives the rules of storytelling. First Nations, Third World countries, and marginalized cultures within Western cultures become the Other. At the seminar, Cheang, DeOcampo, and Tajiri disrupted the imposition of the Western gaze. They took ownership of the camera. They told their stories with their own images and likenesses.
Our 1995 Flaherty Seminar brought these image-makers together into a zone that collapsed the distances and dichotomies between colonizer/colonized, as well as the camera as the gaze and the camera as the object of the gaze. The seminar unpacked the act and the art of looking.
In the decades since the 1995 Flaherty Seminar, I’ve become a multidisciplinary arts curator and artist.
My projects now move beyond the black-box theater and the screen and into public spaces. As Program Manager for Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis, I co-curated The UnConvention [Summer 2008] with partners in the arts, media, and academia. Steve Dietz, founder of Northern Lights.mn, a Twin-Cities-based collaborative interactive media arts organization, conceived this citywide participatory art and media response to the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul.
“The UnConventional Gathering Space” transformed Intermedia Arts into a cross between an alternative-artist press center and an exhibition venue.
One gallery featured Fang Yu Frank Lin’s Political Science 101, which simulated an old-fashioned classroom, where a hacked slide projector presented graphs, tables, and pie-charts with frequently mentioned words from the presidential election. My curated travelling show, Instructions For Peace [2001-present], commissioned artists to construct interactive multimedia installations meant to engage the public toward acts of peace.
With Augmented Reality (AR), selfies, and DIY culture, my curatorial and artistic work explores moving image technology’s impact on how we view the world and shape stories through our own gaze. My current project, Living Rooms, uses AR to reveal the experiences of immigrants, refugees, adoptees, political asylees, “mail-order” brides, and dreamers impacted by DACA.
I am not done reframing the camera.
Sunday, February 4, 2018
The Flaherty Seminar is a homecoming.
But home isn’t always the most pleasant of places.
At the Flaherty, I leave behind my life as a professor, media-maker, and programmer in the Midwest, a place I’ve never really considered home.
I make the long drive to Colgate. Along the way, I visit family and friends in the Buffalo area. The vast rolling hills of central New York amaze me. Photos never do them justice. Zigzagging on rollercoaster roads, I manage to remember how to find Hamilton, New York, where the Flaherty Seminar happens. I have gone four times.
When I went to college, my family couldn’t afford the dorm experience. So going to the Flaherty offers a chance to live the youth I never had. While many participants don’t like the dorms, I think it’s fun living there for a week. I often joke I should hang a Creed poster on the walls.
The rigid schedule of screenings, discussions, and meals comforts me. Perhaps it is similar to how military people appreciate routine or how prisoners eventually relish their own institutionalization. Structure provides a weird comfort: it takes care of everything.
At the Flaherty, I have conversations with the custodians and cafeteria staff, the working folks running things behind the scenes. These are sometimes my best, most unpretentious Flaherty conversations. To watch all these documentary films about ordinary people and not actually engage such people in real life would feel strange.
The seminar challenges participants to exist without preconception, a task difficult to accomplish, especially for smart academics with big egos. But can these faculty types win at foursquare, a schoolyard game often played at the seminar?
After the last screening and discussion of the day, I like to walk quietly through the small thicket of trees to return to my dorm room. No media. Insects buzzing. Stars.
Once, late at night, a van packed with seminarians went skinny-dipping. Like a lost scene from Dead Poets Society, naked people from Mexico, Spain, and maybe Portugal swam in a secluded lake owned by a fancy school. As the sun rose, we returned on winding back roads flanked by foggy landscapes, feeling exhilarated.
Rubbing shoulders with others from Buffalo is another Flaherty highlight. These DIY media-makers, folks from Squeaky Wheel, and descendants of the radical Media Study Department at SUNY-Buffalo remind me where I am from.
A rust-belt city, Buffalo’s unofficial nickname is The City of No Illusions, which for me translates as a city with a vastly under-recognized experimental and media-activist legacy. Without fail at the Flaherty, I meet New Yorkers who wear fancy glasses that cost more than my monthly rent and they talk shit about Buffalo. Their disdain drives me mad.
One year, Tony Conrad, my former mentor at SUNY-Buffalo, crashed the seminar. It was a pleasure to catch up. Some whispered, “I think that’s Tony Conrad over there.” To me, he was just Tony.
I remember his radiating smile. At a local dive bar in Hamilton, Tony playfully hopped up and down on the dance floor like an ostrich, a nod perhaps to Tony’s former band, The Primitives, and their famous song and dance, “The Ostrich.” Tony’s dancing was joyfully out of place and challenging, just like his experimental films and videos.
We chatted about the trials of my life as a professor in Illinois. We joked that the Department of Media Study is such a radical program that afterwards it’s hard to fit in anywhere else. I sought career advice. Tony replied cryptically, “These things take time. They can take a long time.” Tony passed away the following year. This was our last conversation.
Tony’s teachings, Buffalo’s vanguard media scene, and the Flaherty heavily inform my ideas about underground media, radical experimentation, and challenging the status quo.
The documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty made a career constructing dehumanizing films about other people and cultures. Now a seminar exists in his name. Yet, that seminar is very critical, even of him, a strange contradiction.
Beyond Robert Flaherty’s problematic representations of others, many criticize the seminar for high cost and limited accessibility. When I enthusiastically tell others about the seminar, a common response is, “I’d love to but it’s too expensive.” What about all the people who might never have a chance to attend the Flaherty?
Combined with the Buffalo scene and DIY punk culture, my Flaherty experiences galvanized me to create a microcinema in the irregular hallway in my Champaign, Illinois, apartment. I called it Hallways Microcinema, a nod to Buffalo’s Hallwalls. It had a two-year run with twenty-one events, all free.
I programmed screenings drawn directly from the Flaherty, including projects by Su Friedrich, Lourdes Portillo, Johan Grimonprez, and Jesse McLean. I met up with Vanessa Renwick from the Oregon Department of Kickass at a Flaherty. While touring, she presented her films for us. Without Hallways, these works wouldn’t have seen the light of day in Champaign.
Hallways served as a microcosm of the Flaherty Seminar. We screened challenging works and opened up lively discussion. People drank, hung out, talked, and formed a community. Like any community, it could be seen as exclusionary.
At the Flaherty, you work through half-baked ideas and get advice over meals. You never know where a conversation might lead you.
In 2016, I was thinking about applying for a Fulbright Fellowship. Somehow, I got connected with screen studies scholar Patty Zimmermann. She had recently spent time in Ukraine, delivering lectures. She encouraged me to apply to Ukraine, an emerging democracy with students voraciously consuming new ideas. Her enthusiasm sold me.
I write this Flaherty Story looking at winter outside my window in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, my home for a year. I contemplate my next course of action. I think about how the Flaherty Seminar supported and nurtured me. I consider how fortunate I was to be able to attend.
The problem with experiencing a mind-blowing Flaherty Seminar is that the next one will most likely disappoint you. Even though this has happened to me twice, my return to Buffalo, central New York, and the Flaherty always conjures a homecoming, reminding me where I am from and where I might go.