Voices from the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar
Tuesday, December 18, 2018
I arrived at Wells College in August of 1987—of two minds.
For 15 years I’d been passionately interested in what has been called variously, “avant-garde film,” “experimental film,” “underground film”—and had heard legendary tales of how the Flaherty Seminar chewed up avant-garde filmmakers. Jonas Mekas and Ken Jacobs had apparently attempted to crash the 1963 Flaherty to screen Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures  and Jacobs’ own Blonde Cobra , an event later documented in Mekas’s film Lost Lost Lost . To Mekas and Jacobs the Flaherty seemed the tired past, not the creative present—an organization and an annual event in need of an intervention.
On the other hand, I’d agreed to be present at the seminar as one of the representatives of Peter Watkins’ epic media-critique, The Journey , which had premiered at Berlin the previous winter. I was proud of the work I had done, along with hundreds of collaborators, on The Journey—and excited that Richard Herskowitz (at the time program director at Cornell Cinema) had decided to show all 14 ½ hours of the film, much of it outside normal screening hours for the Flaherty. This was to be an intervention into conventional media-time, including the media-time of Flaherty seminarians.
I registered to attend the whole week, saw a few acquaintances, made some new ones—and kept telling myself that it would be fun to discuss the visionary Watkins film with seminarians on Wednesday evening.
“Visionary”? The process of making The Journey was meant to model a new kind of political organization: an international, non-hierarchical network of people around the world committed to social justice and environmental sanity, and interested in using the grassroots production of media as a way of learning about the world and acting progressively within it. Ideally, the network created in the production of the film would continue to expand beyond the film, perhaps by using the film (remember, this is before the Internet). Watkins had circled the earth three times between 1984 and 1987 to establish grassroots production units in 12 countries, to talk with locally organized crews, and finally to shoot the film.
I told myself I was not at all nervous about the upcoming discussion.
Then, that Wednesday morning I woke up with large welts covering my body. I’d never had them before and have never had them since.
The discussion with Watkins (and several others who had worked on The Journey) turned out to be a legendary “trashing” of a film/filmmaker (the discussion is included in The Flaherty: Decades in the Cause of Independent Cinema). The film had more than tested the patience of many seminarians and they were happy to vent their frustrations.
In the end, I was disappointed with the response to what I thought was a remarkable cinematic effort, and later on, saddened to realize that my having worked to bring Watkins to the seminar had seriously damaged my relationship with him.
I’m not sorry The Journey was presented at the Flaherty; it deserved to be shown and resonated well with the other films Herskowitz had programmed (by Su Friedrich, Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi, John Greyson, Alfred Guzzetti, Johan van der Keuken, Ilan Ziv…). But looking back on that discussion, I do have regrets.
The Journey is focused on the fact that, around the world, serious global issues were almost never a topic around the family dinner table (not sure the “family dinner table” still exists!). Watkins was interested in demonstrating how conventionally organized families avoided discussing serious issues together. I remember Patty Zimmermann directing a question to me in particular: something like, “Do you think the film might be stronger if it included a unconventional family, like say a lesbian couple?” I should have said, “Well, the focus here is on the dangerous anti-educational, anti-political habits of what traditional culture considers ‘normal’ families.” Instead, I remember saying something (I no longer remember exactly what) that I felt would ingratiate me with Patty and others who felt her question was pertinent.
I believe the final comment to Watkins was by a woman who identified herself as a former clinical psychologist: “I’m not being mean when I say this, just brutally real—please understand that. I liken your film to radical surgery with a rusty knife without anesthesia.” She went on to explain that there was no way her students could be expected to sit through the film.
Watkins said, “I’m sorry. I can’t respond to your comment.” But I continue to wish I’d said, “If you honestly believe you were not “being mean” with your comment, I’m afraid you’re not clear on what being mean means!” Or perhaps, “I see why you’re a former clinical psychologist!”—though actually being a smart-ass never works out for me.
I returned to the Flaherty the following year, partly because I felt I might need to continue to defend The Journey (I was correct)—and as had been true the year before, I continued to see films of considerable interest, to meet new filmmakers, and to develop new relationships.
The irony is that, though I’ve found it fascinating to transcribe and edit many of the big-group Flaherty discussions (first, for a special issue of Wide Angle [vol. 17: nos. 1-4], bravely published by longtime Flaherty-ite and then-editor Ruth Bradley; and years later for The Flaherty; Decades in the Cause of Independent Cinema), I’ve never liked the seminar model of discussing a film immediately after seeing it and with the filmmaker present—I’m so rarely clear about what I think immediately after a film and am not particularly interested in hearing others’ off-the-cuff reactions.
I attended the Flaherty regularly for many years, but my relationship with the seminars has always felt tentative—perhaps a residue of my experience with The Journey. I guess I’ve never quite forgiven that group of seminarians for not having a sense of humor about how their own impatience with the Watkins epic (a film meant to be a conscious intervention within the regular, predictable, comfortable schedules of those who see it, including “media-savvy” audiences like those at “Flaherty summer film camp”) was, in fact, the essence of what The Journey was about.
Monday, December 10, 2018
As marketing consultant for Zacharias Kunuk’s Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner , I attended my first Flaherty in 2001. Elaine Charnov and Sally Berger, both New York-based film and media curators, co-programmed that seminar held at C.W. Post.
The production team considered both women family friends, as Elaine had programmed Igloolik Isuma films at the Margaret Meade Festival and Sally, an early friend and champion, had even visited Igloolik, Canada, which lies about as far north of New York as Las Vegas is west—so accepting the invitation to the Flaherty felt like coming home.
Igloolik Isuma Productions was Canada’s first independent Inuit production company, founded in 1990 by Zacharias Kunuk, Paul Apak Angilirq, Pauloosie Qulitalik, and Norman Cohn. Producer and Cinematographer Norman Cohn represented the film. Zach and the others were unable to attend.
At its Cannes Film Festival premiere in May, 2001, the film won the Camera d’or for best first feature. Although it had been programmed in prime position on opening Saturday night, that placement turned out to be a liability. A day-long press junket and big party outside Cannes for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring  spirited all key press and a number of interested distributors away from both morning and evening screenings.
This perfect storm left us high and dry. As the first Inuktitut-language film ever to appear at Cannes, we remained the subject of considerable anticipation—but came away with limited press and industry word-of-mouth.
Although winning the prize was a great boost to our spirits, the festival was over by then and everyone we wanted to talk to had gone home.
Over the years, the pace of industry life at Cannes had become so frenetic that business meetings were compressed to thirty minutes. It normally had taken buyers and sellers a month or more to unpack and follow up on all the threads of conversation that had been unspooled at the festival. Then we’d all break for the summer. After Cannes these days, it’s rare that anyone in the film business has the time or inclination to undertake new business until the Toronto International Film Festival in September.
By the end of Cannes, we had agreed to one sale, to the Netherlands. Seven Paris-based distributors expressed interest in borrowing the print. I spent the following week there trying to identify three viable candidates for the producers to consider. Our aim was to partner with a distributor who could treat the film as a major cultural monument and position it as an entertaining experience.
Igloolik-Isuma Productions made Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner to tell a story from their land mainly so that they could see people who looked like themselves on television. In the late 1970s, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation frontier coverage package to the north consisted of pre-taped programs and classic series programs like Bonanza and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Until the 1981 formation of the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation (IBC), no northern content was included. IBC produced programming for children and teenagers, cooking shows, call-in shows, and mini-documentaries about inspiring people of the region. No feature films had been undertaken.
One of my favorite selling points about Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner was that the story had been in development for approximately four thousand years. It was set in Igloolik a thousand years ago. The scriptwriting team began by reviewing the legend recounted by seven elders, whose approval was sought before the work was finalized.
Our first strategy in putting the film on the market was to affirm its authenticity. The New York Times later gave kudos to the scriptwriters who gave the characters and situations great depth of feeling. This was neither true nor accurate. The filmmakers sought only to depict the inherent feelings that gave the legend its power.
By rendering an authentic reading of the legend, it remained unclear just how much fun it would be for audiences to engage with it. So the Flaherty Seminar served as our first test audience and focus group.
Under the Seminar’s microscope, participants recognized that the film combined the monumental broad strokes of a Homerian return legend with the insouciance of a high school rival comedy. In the rush of Cannes and the private screening rooms where the film had been screened, no such close reading had emerged.
No matter what producers and promoters might say about a new film, the best way a film can validate its place in the market is to road test it with audiences. The last grace note on our Flaherty experience was that Jeff Lipsky and two colleagues from the US independent distributor Lot 47 came out from New York to see the picture. Before they left the Seminar, we opened talks about Lot 47 taking on US distribution. By validating the social value of the experience and putting the film on track for sale, the Seminar provided results that we had initially expected to achieve at Cannes.
One last note about family.
After I first viewed Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner in March and joined the team, I sent the cassettes to experimental animator Faith Hubley, who was preparing her fall semester Picture Writing course at Yale University. Of all things, the course was to focus on the subject of Inuit Storytelling.
Three months later, Faith, who had also been invited to present her work at the Seminar, set out from New York with Norman Cohn at the wheel, me as navigator, and the print of Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner in the trunk. The conversation turned to the early days of children’s television. Faith and Norman compared notes about the ways each faced the challenge of delivering consistently good work through the years. It seems their success and happiness was rooted in an unwavering commitment to do good work. They recognized that by simply putting their noses to the grindstone and working diligently, everything else in their careers would fall into place. They had never met before, but it was clear that Faith and Norman had always been birds of a feather.
Through that first and during subsequent Seminars, the Faith-Norman paradigm seemed to pop up everywhere. The Flaherty method of putting laser-sharp focus on craftsmanship prompted participants to recognize kindred spirits who entered the discourse by first and foremost celebrating good work for its own sake.
And a good time was had by all.
Sunday, December 9, 2018
Saturday, December 8, 2018
My early awareness of the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar is intertwined with conversations during the 1980s with the programmer, filmmaker and archivist Pearl Bowser.
Pearl was the one who encouraged me to attend the seminar and provided the rationale that made it inevitable for me to pay the registration fee and make the five-hour drive from Philadelphia to Wells College in Aurora, New York. She offered the persuasive syllogism, “You’re a filmmaker. Filmmakers need to meet other filmmakers and talk about their work. You need to attend.”
The first sentence was a declarative creation of fact: “You’re a filmmaker,” something I hadn’t quite had the courage to say to myself. The second sentence, “Filmmakers need to meet other filmmakers and talk about their work,” was an introduction to a protocol that I hadn’t really thought much about before. “You need to attend” is typical of Pearl: a call to action.
Pearl was the one who first named many of us cultural workers, who created definitions for our roles in the community: “Greaves (William) is a conductor.” “Ayoka (Chenzira) is an engineer.” “Miles (Bill) is an historian.” “Toni (Cade Bambara) is a strategist.” “Henry (Hampton) is an admiral.”
I had just turned thirty and had been working as a producer at a public television station in Philadelphia, producing witness-based documentaries on social and cultural issues as well as multi-camera studio shows. But even though I’d been making documentaries, some of which were broadcast nationally, I hadn’t labeled myself a filmmaker. That was Pearl’s name for me. My self-definition had been “someone who works in public television.”
The Flaherty seminar had been referenced when I was a grad student in the Film/Video Section at MIT, a documentary film program. But I never thought that attending the Flaherty seminar was part of the essential work of an American independent filmmaker, or more specifically an African-American filmmaker, until those conversations with Pearl.
The first Flaherty I attended was programmed by Linda Blackaby and Tony Gittens. It was a revelation. It showed me the impact of film programming as an art, especially how the selection and sequencing of work operates as a mode of communication. Programming the seminar is analogous to the creative work of the deejay: it is a dance with the audience.
Though I’d attended screening series before, the Flaherty experience of seeing films in context with other films for seven very full days and nights with the same group of people, followed by peer-to-peer conversation, brought new understanding not only to the work I was seeing, but to my own practice. Conversations over meals and drinks with programmers like Cheryl Chisholm, who helped create the African Film Society in Atlanta, and MoMA programmers Mary Lea Bandy, Sally Berger and Bill Sloan made clear to me that programming is an art.
Seeing the films of Trinh T. Minh-ha and the reaction and debate surrounding her work demonstrated that cinema was as rigorous and as rich an investigative and analytical tool as the written essay.
Presenting my own work at Flaherty added another layer to my relationship to the seminar. In 1987, Richard Herskowitz invited me to screen The Bombing of Osage Avenue, a film I made with Toni Cade Bambara. That experience led to important new collaborations for me.
At those early seminars I saw breakthrough films by Canadian filmmakers John Greyson and Richard Fung who had an ease of storytelling not yet reflected in US queer cinema. And I found the critiques launched by film and media scholars like Patty Zimmermann and Scott MacDonald to be important, and deeply appreciated their multi-leveled analyses of aesthetics, class, economics, ethics, politics, and technologies.
In 1989, a confluence of forces led to a Flaherty that had an enormous impact in the US independent media community. B. Ruby Rich, who was then the program officer for film and media at the New York State Council on the Arts (a primary funder of the Flaherty) articulated a need for institutions supported by public funds to reflect the diversity of the public and not replicate class, gender, hetero-normative, and racial power structures. She compelled the Flaherty to expand beyond its 1950s-early-1960s roots as an elite East Coast club for white men and (occasionally) their spouses.
That year, Pearl Bowser, a Flaherty board member, was chosen as co-programmer with Grant Munro, a producer at the National Film Board of Canada. Their programming palette included a mixture of African and African-diasporic films, new works from Latin-America, Chicano films and queer cinema, as well as Glasnost documentary and Canadian animation.
Pearl also saw to it that film studies scholars and cultural theorists of color such as Toni Cade Bambara, Manthia Diawara, and Teshome Gabriel attended. Pearl’s invitees created a critical mass of film theorists who could expand the discussion and analysis of film so that films made by filmmakers of color, women, and those locked out of the academy and mainstream culture might be analyzed within the context of the communities that created them.
Word of Pearl and Grant’s curation attracted a new and diverse cadre of filmmakers to the seminar in addition to curated guests, including the Palestinian filmmaker Alia Arasoughly and Ethiopian filmmaker Saleem Mekuria. That seminar also allowed me to experience Lourdes Portillo’s extraordinary La Ofrenda .
Pearl invited me to screen Power!, a work-in-progress I had directed with Terry Rockefeller for Eyes on the Prize II . She also invited Henry Hampton, the creator and executive producer of the Eyes series, to present a mini-retrospective of his works. Eyes II posed more challenges to the white attendees with its more complex issues of Black self-determination, ongoing Northern struggles, the Black Panthers, and community control. That seminar also had an impact on works that were finished in its direct aftermath, including Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied .
Pearl intervened in the traditional structures of the Flaherty. For Pearl, I think this was not just about getting people of color to the table, but about building a new kind of place to gather and exploring new ways of seeing and relating to the works shown and to each other.