Voices from the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar
Saturday, February 2, 2019
I don’t recall who saw it, but my first film Woo Who? May Wilson  was selected for the 1970 Flaherty Film Seminar. I finished it in 1969; it was my New York University MFA thesis. Thrilled to find out about the seminar, I was honored to be invited.
That first seminar was a revelation. I met filmmaking peers and important people in the non-theatrical New York film world. I was taken seriously as a filmmaker.
The seminar gave me confidence to keep on making films. Edith Zornow, a Flaherty programmer [1965, 1967], was there. She selected my film for the 1970 New York Film Festival, a huge career boost.
Between 1970 and 1981, I attended nearly every seminar, either as an invited filmmaker (1970, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1981) or a participant. I missed 1980 due to the final editing on my Willard Van Dyke film, Conversations with Willard Van Dyke , screened the following year.
During those years, the Flaherty was the single most important event for me; it opened me to creative possibilities. The contacts I made and the seminar’s open forum for impassioned argument invigorated, empowered, and fed my soul. I began advocating for others to attend “summer camp for filmmakers.”
The 1970s were amazing years for independent social-change filmmaking. Documentaries chronicled Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, and the developing Women’s Movement. For the first time, both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, both established in 1967, awarded grants supporting all kinds of filmmakers. The newly-formed American Film Institute also dispensed grants. These institutions were recognizing young producer/directors, especially people of color and women.
The 1971 seminar was transformative. It gave birth to New Day Films and the First International Festival of Women’s Films, held in New York City in 1972. That summer, I was producing It Happens to Us  with an all-woman crew. My sound person, Angie Parnicky, had gone to college with Julia Reichert and Jim Klein. She told them about my film and told me to see their Growing Up Female —and that year Julia and Jim were seminar guests.
Willard Van Dyke programmed excellent political films: Millhouse: A White Comedy  by Emile de Antonio, The Selling of the Pentagon  by Peter Davis, The Murder of Fred Hampton  by Mike Gray and Howard Alk, Sad Song of Yellow Skin  by Michael Rubbo, One P.M.  by D.A. Pennebaker and Jean-Luc Godard, and Interviews with My Lai Veterans  by Joseph Strick.
Eight women directors presented films. These included The Woman’s Film  by Judy Smith, Louise Alaimo, Ellen Sorrin, Mosori Monika  by Chick Strand, Wanda  by Barbara Loden, Julia and Jim’s Growing Up Female: As Six Become One , and my own almost-never-seen The Center . The heated discussions around the women’s films led a group of women to gather for a breakfast meeting where, among other things, we organized the screening committee for the 1972 First Women’s International Film Festival.
After the seminar, Julia and Jim came to New York City. They moved in with my boyfriend (later my first husband) and me for five months. That fall Julia and I served on the screening committee for the Women’s Film Festival, which met in my loft.
That’s where we both saw Liane Brandon’s Anything You Want to Be . Julia and Jim had already started distributing Growing Up Female themselves. We joined forces. We felt that if you believed in your film, the other half of your job was to get people to see it. Julia went to Boston to convince Liane to join us to form New Day Films. While living with us, Julia shared with me that she had had an abortion. I filmed her story, which ended up in my film It Happens to Us, shown at the 1972 seminar.
At the 1976 seminar Susan Seidelman showed her fictional short And You Act Like One Too , about an unfaithful wife and a hitchhiker. During the discussion Willard Van Dyke lobbed a negative comment. I disagreed completely, taking great umbrage. I raised my hand, stood up, and refuted him in what I hoped was an even-handed yet forceful way. I stopped short of calling him a chauvinist pig.
I was nervous. No one ever stood up to Willard. Later, he told me my comments made him think about his knee-jerk reaction. He admitted I was right and he was wrong. Although I didn’t realize it then, that exchange marked the beginning of his respect for me, and it led me to direct his biography, Conversations with Willard Van Dyke, which I began shooting in 1977.
Between 1975 and 1980, I served on the board of International Film Seminars (IFS) [the name on the original Flaherty charter]. In 1976 I prompted IFS to collaborate with the Educational Film Library Association (EFLA), headed by longtime Flahertyite Nadine Covert, and the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers (AIVF), of which I was a founding board member. Drawing on our pioneering experiences with New Day Films, we organized the first conference on independent film distribution. Afterwards, through AIVF, we published the first self-distribution guide.
For me, the Flaherty’s greatest achievement is being a forum for filmmakers and professional film users to come together. It makes room for the debate and ferment that ignite critical thinking. At Flaherty, I met lifelong friends and mentors. Without it, I never would have entered the orbits of Nadine Covert, John Katz, Austin Lamont, Grant Munro, William Sloan, Willard Van Dyke, Barbara Van Dyke, and Sol Worth.
Without the affirmation and intellectual support from the people I met at the seminars, I’m not sure I would have continued on a social issue filmmaking path.
Thanks to the seminar, New Day Films, a cooperative of 160+ social issue filmmakers, has flourished, now distributing nearly 400 titles.
Saturday, February 2, 2019
1995 was a year of change. After living in New York for six years, where I’d found my niche, I was moving to Bangalore. I was in my twenties and still finding myself as an artist.
The small artists’ collectives in New York had been a strong influence. Originally I’d been a painter, but film, installation, video art, conceptual art, and critical theory had begun to influence me. I’d become comfortable in New York; Bangalore loomed as an unknown.
I had just exhibited a photographic installation, …Looks the Other Way , which used my family’s nineteenth century photographs. Found images had seduced me. My family had lived in Bangalore; they had converted to Christianity. What role did photography and film play in the British Colonies?
Before I left for Bangalore, I applied to the Flaherty Seminar. The theme that year was “The Camera Reframed: Technology and Interpretation.” Marlina Gonzalez Tamrong and Bruce Jenkins programmed.
I arrived at Wells College in Aurora, NY, and ventured into the first event. Outside the auditorium perched a few computers, early versions of the Mac SE. They were running CD ROMs with films from Rick Prelinger’s archive.
Rick had hired a pick-up truck to collect neglected industrial and advertising reels in small film formats. He invested his own money and time for numerous road trips across America (what a way to see your country!). He rented storage, digitized hundreds of hours of footage with primitive technology, and established an open source digital library. The images he made available spoke like oracles of personal and public pasts, the disintegrating histories of a media-dependent capitalist society, its workplaces and industries.
I was stunned. As I swam in the lake near the college, these reels played in my mind.
Twenty-four years later, Rick’s work still profoundly reverberates. At the time it resonated with my American friends’ pioneering, spirited thinking about culture, and their confident creation of media paradigms outside universities, museums, galleries, and established exhibition venues.
My own film work evolved from home movie reels I collected in Bangalore and other Indian cities between 2000-2008—inspired by Rick. My grandmother had lived in Bangalore, so it was a place of my childhood. My new neighborhood and the city beyond became a landscape to mine for films. Clutching my newborn son on my hip, I walked the streets and talked to aging Anglo Indians of the British Cantonment of Bangalore East. Their meandering, enchanting memories of the twentieth century unfolded like an opera.
The excitement of discovery filled my walks. I was a flâneur, a scavenger, and an archaeologist. It was a happy time where voices beckoned to me. Today, I quietly retreat into my own work, teaching, reading, living with animals and plants, and recycling home movies. But I remain thankful for those restless days of searching and discovery.
My first film was Straight 8 , a compilation of home movies by Tom D’aguiar, an Anglo Indian whose family had been in India since the early 19th century. He spoke with a clipped British accent, yet had never traveled outside India. Living among the British in the Cantonment deeply influenced his work for the newly instituted telegraph system and his amateur activities. By the 1930s he was making films. I replayed Tom’s deteriorating 8mm reels on my new Eumig projector, my best friend during long nights in my studio where I projected the films and re-shot them on MiniDv tape.
I’ve now made ten found footage films, and have material for more.
By the early 21st century, international information technology (IT) companies were favoring Bangalore. The city dissolved from a retirees’ haven with quiet evening walks and amateur passions in nature, film, cars, and books into an un-heavenly maze of flyovers, ring roads, and countless vehicles rushing to meet the demands of IT.
Tom’s films, and the interview I did with him, triggered my fascination with rewinding the past. His amateur moving images of lakes, forests, and agricultural land spreading throughout the city fascinated me. They delivered a sense of the calm that had preceded the wreckage of demolished old buildings and the new construction sites.
Out of this rubble, a new art scene was emerging in Bangalore. Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata were considered the “real cities.” Bangalore had been considered dull, a place for amateur activity, rather than professional life. After the 1990s, creative people outside the market culture and established institutions of the “real cities” began to move away from these urban centers. In their search for cheaper real estate, space, and community, they found Bangalore, still known for its liberal sensibilities, greenery, and gentleness.
Tom D’aguiar introduced me to Ram Gopal, a gay dancer born in Bangalore. Ram had contacted Tom years before because Tom had a movie camera and color film: “I’ve never seen myself in color—please film me.” Exquisite despite the crackled emulsion, the amateur footage shows a dancer performing on the rooftop of an old house in the cantonment in the late 1930’s. A serendipitous find.
One evening during the 1995 seminar, the Flaherty served dinner on the lawn. I met Monica Flaherty, who had screened a new print of Moana . Later I talked to her nephew, an interesting young filmmaker named Sami. When he learned I was moving to Bangalore, he shared that his father lived close by, in Mysore.
Sami told me that Robert and Frances Flaherty’s oldest daughter Barbara had married Botha van Ingen, whose family had emigrated from Holland to Ceylon to India. He owned a tea and coffee estate, and was a well-known taxidermist [the van Ingen brothers, Dewet, Kruger, Botha and Joubert and their company, van Ingen & van Ingen, were known throughout the world for their tiger and leopard head mounts and rugs]. Sami’s grandfather, Botha, a difficult personality, had a collection of glass negatives Sami had tried to procure.
Years later, when I had extended my search for amateur footage to Mysore and beyond, I finally met Sami’s father, Michael van Ingen, living in his rambling old home. Although at the time he had only a very few photographs and films, he shared that photography and filmmaking had been important activities for this family of taxidermists and for Barbara and Botha.
I was amazed that Robert Flaherty’s daughter had married a van Ingen decades earlier in Mysore. Barbara van Ingen was prominent in the elite circles of Mysore and Bangalore. As I hunted for small format films and their hidden histories, I discovered that many remembered her.
Saturday, February 2, 2019
Strong opposition to and support for including Dominic Gagnon’s film of the North  at the 2017 Flaherty seminar were voiced from outside and inside the organization. This caused questions to surface around the organization’s clarity about and stewardship of the core values that support its mission. The members of Board of Trustees had found themselves in the position to either censor of the North at the seminar or to allow the screening, as per the desire of guest programmer Nuno Lisboa.
Arguments against inclusion focused on the film’s content and its author’s relationship to the source material. Arguments to include the film centered on the Flaherty’s unique context as a space for critical discourse, thus perhaps the best setting to debate the issues surrounding the film. North American indigenous communities, along with some academics, were said to have rejected the work as enforcing negative stereotypes and protested its exhibition. Gagnon defended the work, citing the fact that everything in the film had been culled from online sites where the publicly posted, self-authored videos were found.
How the Flaherty organization came to find itself, during the seminar, with the decision to censor or exhibit of the North involves a complex narrative over time. But this moment is reflective of so many heated stalemates of recent years. The “he said, she said” accounts of events too often serve as an unproductive shell game for diverting our attention from the heart of the matter. Context and complexity are imperative to recognize while exploring possible logics, perspectives, poetics, provocations, proposals that do not rely on simple didactic agendas.
It is easy to become seduced into promoting bandwagon-esque postures (on any side of any argument), for in noisily convoluted and infuriating times such places seem like the only available platforms. I’d like to believe that alternatives, such as the Flaherty, are possible and preferable, especially when the going gets tough. Where else might we hash issues out with rigor, respect, and the benefit of reflective space over substantive time?
The actual value of the Flaherty is not clearly understood unless experienced first-hand. The six days of the Flaherty’s durational impact can seem merely a summer-camp drive-by. However, these six days, combined with a carefully designed atmosphere and experience of engagement, can deliver an exceptionally rich opportunity for reflection and exchange. This is the fundamental role of the Flaherty.
Having had a great number of very influential and celebrated figures of cinema participate as featured artists or attendees, the Flaherty might look like a hit factory for experimental nonfiction film. But the fundamental goal of the Flaherty is not to promote, support, or celebrate films and filmmakers. The organization relies on a co-creative, open-ended scatter-shot of risky speculation and the spurring of an immersive exchange of ideas by participants at the event.
Through an active embrace of methods for elevating concepts of non-preconception and non-hierarchy, the Flaherty experience asks people to show up and come together—to collaborate, from a place of their humanity first, regardless of titles, roles, or expertise. The attempt, as Tony Fry expresses in his book Design as Politics, is to allow for “difference in common.” The Flaherty organization serves as the designer for a carefully choreographed gathering, with nonfiction cinema as accelerant for more expansive discourse around culture.
Can we productively talk about a film without having witnessed it ourselves? Perhaps. The danger arises when we believe we are certain and empower this certainty by a refusal to be uncomfortable. After all, being comfortable is not always the point. The value of the polis, as Hannah Arendt describes in The Human Condition, arises from the spaces where people act and speak together.
These spaces can be vulnerable and fragile at times. Genuine pain and crisis might be present and can motivate decisions to dismantle the polis. Indeed, conflict can be conflated with abuse. Sarah Schulman's book Conflict is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair, speaks to this idea:
“Shunning . . . is designed to maintain a unilateral position of unmovable superiority by asserting one’s status as Abused and the implied consequential right to punish without terms. This concept . . . is predicated on a need to enforce that one party is entirely righteous and without mistake, while the other is the Specter, the residual holder of all evil. If conflicted people were expected and encouraged to produce complex understandings of their relationships, then people could be expected to negotiate . . . And it is in the best interest of us all to try to consciously move to that place.”
As stewards of the Flaherty, the Board of Trustees could not take a position of censorship and deny the screening of of the North. At the same time, all involved were able to recognize that conflict and pain were present in the surrounding issues. Personally, the experience caused me some sadness. Not because my job as president of the Board of Trustees was hard in those moments, but because I had thought we had become better than we are. By “we” I mean those of us dedicated to the hard work it takes to build bridges, not burn them, for approaching discourse.
I remain optimistic, yet reminded that ways forward require the courage to face stretches of groundlessness. Ideally, the Flaherty will continue to rise to its mission, and not devolve into a reductive academic conference or a self-congratulatory platform for politically correct cineastes. Now, more than ever, the world needs models for active, collaborative progress. As my colleague Lisa Norton, Professor of Design Leadership at The New School, likes to say: Brave space needs to be safe, and safe space needs to be brave. Certainly, this is what Frances Flaherty had in mind when she founded the seminar.
Of the North was screened during the 2017 Flaherty seminar. What did this mean? Ask someone who was there. Or, listen to the audio file of the post-screening discussion. For the Flaherty, this event prompted many discussions over many months, and thus informed insights and subsequent actions addressing our role and responsibility for confronting systems of power and privilege.
Saturday, February 2, 2019
A few months after I had completed my four-year-long project, Le malentendu colonial [The Colonial Misunderstanding, 2004], I travelled the world to present the film at the Ouagadougou Pan-African Festival of Film and Television (FESPACO), International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), in Germany and elsewhere.
To further awareness of African situations and issues, I had accompanied my films at their screenings: an opportunity to enjoy life and discover a wider world. For a couple of decades from the mid-1980s to the late 1990s, going to festivals gave me a chance to relax and have as much fun as possible, until I finally grew tired of it.
Festivals and screenings in Amsterdam, Berlin, London, San Francisco, Toronto, and Yamagata followed a standard pattern: the travel to the festival, the screening, followed by extended conversations with audiences who were more or less aware of the history and geography of Cameroon where my films were set.
The Flaherty Seminar was the final stop on my 2005 one-month tour of the USA. The seminar’s theme was “Cinema and History: Piling Wreckage Upon Wreckage.” It was programmed by Jesse Lerner and Michael Renov, two film professors who taught at universities in southern California.
When I mentioned to friends that I was going to the Flaherty, the look on their faces bemused me. Some warned me that it was very expensive, while others said it was great. When I wanted to know more, no one could really offer much beyond the mysterious phrase: “You will see for yourself.”
Of course, I knew about Robert Flaherty. I had watched his films at the Cinematheque Française and in venues such as the Cinema du Réel festival in Paris, accompanied by passionate debates attempting to define documentary. Nanook of the North  always occupied the center of these arguments about reality and its representations in cinema.
My own work reflected on these very same questions. Because European ethnographers, anthropologists, journalists, and filmmakers gathered stories from around the planet, there was little space for alternative discourses from all the other Nanooks living in the world. Following in the wake of the first generation of African filmmakers, such as Youssef Chanine [Egypt], Souleymane Cisse [Mali], Med Hondo [Mauritania], Djibril Diop Mambety [Senegal], and Ousmane Sembene [Senegal], I embraced a filmmaking process dedicated to deconstructing colonial representations that continue, unconsciously, to perpetuate a distorted image of Africans. My film Afrique, je te plumerai [Africa I Will Fleece You, 1992] was screened at the 2005 seminar.
The Flaherty was totally different from my festival experiences. Rather than film industry types or everyday festival-goers, the “public” was comprised of academics who enjoyed gathering together to engage with the films from their different perspectives.
When I arrived at Claremont College in southern California, I realized that this was the first time I had ever set foot on an American campus. The size of the campus amazed me. The dorms, the canteen, and above all the beautiful screening facilities made a lasting impression on me.
I enjoyed the long walks between the different venues. These walks offered the time to meet other participants and to engage in interesting conversations. I was glad to converse with the American filmmaker William Greaves, whom I had met ten years earlier in 1995 in Paris, and the Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán, whom I had occasionally met in France after his screenings. I bonded with the incredible Mexican filmmaker Juan Carlos Rulfo, director of Del olvido al no me acuerdo [From Oblivion I do not Remember, 1999].
It seemed as if everyone I talked to in-between films either taught at a university or was doing research for a film.
Breathtakingly packed with films, the program started early in the morning. Films screened all day long. Passionate debates unfurled. People seemed to know so much about these subjects. Their comments went North, South, East, and West before concluding with brilliant statements that the next speaker then picked apart!
The Flaherty Seminar served as the space where longtime friends or enemies settled old scores. For me, it was a fascinating circus where filmmakers performed as peacemakers, especially when not defending themselves and their work from strange interpretations or misinterpretations.
But I also remember the fun part when the lights went down, after screenings and debates concluded at around 11 p.m. Some Flaherty insiders organized an informal bar with music, where you could talk and drink and dance until 4 or 5 a.m. After only a few hours’ sleep, you had to be ready for the next day’s screenings again. The program always surprised because the films were not announced ahead of time.
After three days at this pace, we were all exhausted. However, the regular shouting and yelling of passionate film critics disagreeing on a theory sparked by a film kept us all alert!
Frankly, I was not prepared for this experience. I did not come from academia. I was more concerned about the fight for the visibility of African cinema. As a result, I was an outcast. However, in all fairness, the Flaherty was a tremendous experience.
Two years later, in 2007, Mahen Bonetti and Carlos Gutierrez curated another edition of the seminar entitled “South of the Other.” As Mahen was preparing the seminar, we talked frequently. Alas, due to Flaherty rules and my own calendar, I was unable to attend. I felt that going to the Flaherty a second time would have allowed me to take better advantage of the opportunities that such a gathering of intellects creates, beyond the obvious networking opportunities.
African cinema needs a Flaherty seminar-like venue held on the continent to address its ongoing urgent issues. Thirty years ago, I represented the next generation of African filmmakers. Today, I am among the oldest. Yet the visibility of African cinema and the discourses surrounding it have gone almost nowhere.
Saturday, February 2, 2019
A good friend of mine who had once gone to the Flaherty seminar assured me the participants went skinny-dipping, a ritual at the event.
I’m a bad swimmer. I almost drowned twice. The first time was in a swimming pool when I was a child. The second was in the Baltic Sea at the age of eighteen. Both took place in Palanga, a popular holiday resort in my native Lithuania.
Water also reminds me of precious moments with my chosen family, such as camping in the Adirondacks with my wife and our dog or summer picnics on lakeshores with past lovers. In spite of my almost-drowning history, water intrigues me. It makes me think of a break from routine and inspires a sense of kinship.
After the fall of communism, Palanga became too expensive for my family’s annual holidays. My parents never owned a car and so, despite my close calls, the ability to go for a swim remains ingrained in my memory as a special occasion.
Although I greatly anticipated the skinny-dipping at the Flaherty, I also looked forward to everything the seminar seemed, at least by rumor, to be famous for: dozens of films, conversations with filmmakers, and camaraderie with scholars obsessed by documentary. In 2016, I was almost done with my doctoral studies in the Visual and Cultural Studies program at the University of Rochester. My dissertation focused on the ways queer migrants shaped transatlantic visual culture in the years between the World Wars. I secured a Flaherty fellowship to attend the seminar, and that June, off I went.
The late David Pendleton curated the program that year, called “Play.” I was familiar with David’s writing on homoexoticism in the films of F. W. Murnau, Sergei Eisenstein, and Pier Paolo Pasolini through my dissertation research. David’s curatorial statement for the 2016 Flaherty seminar spoke about “a cinema of curiosity,” “alternative histories,” and “the tug of history.” As a queer immigrant, I read between the lines and was certain David’s program promised films rich with multiple creative interpretations of queerness and its possibilities for worldmaking, kinships, speculations about the future, and memory’s afterlives.
During the week at Colgate University, I grew increasingly disenchanted with the seminar. My trouble began on opening night, which kicked off with a screening of Saul Levine’s flicker film Light Licks: By the Waters of Babylon: In the Hour of Angels . The film starts with a handheld camera focusing on the moon in night sky, followed by over ten minutes of rapidly flashing lights. Then the film focuses on the New York skyline. Instead of looking at the world, Levine’s camera blinks and squints. Watching the screen, I caught my eyes doing the same.
I wondered if this film foreshadowed the kind of cinema to come during the rest of the seminar. Why does a week on experimental documentary need to start with New York and the work of a white American filmmaker? This was the first of a series of questions I returned to throughout the week. Why did my Flaherty fellows cohort seem to be the youngest people at the seminar? Why do the post-screening discussions so poorly confront the generational and racial divides among the Flaherty attendees? What is the income of the many participants who struggle to remember the number of seminars they have attended (the registration fee is close to $1,500 USD). These questions linger as my most vivid memories.
I did see a number of memorable films and filmmakers during that week. Kidlat Tahimik’s uncompromising decolonizing wit both on and off camera. The Mojave Desert in Brigid McCaffrey’s footage and the Azores in Joaquim Pinto and Nuno Leonel’s Fish Tail  reminded me about the ways queerness can be encountered in remote locations. In scholarly accounts, the focus is mostly on what city life has historically offered queer people—in bars, parks, night clubs, and abandoned areas such as the piers along the Hudson River in New York. I frequently struggle to connect to Western urban centers and their iconic status in queer imagination. Today, many young queer people can hardly afford to live in larger cities. So in a peculiar way, I am grateful to that Flaherty experience for ultimately turning me toward water, rocks, and grass.
As the week progressed, the dissidents I found myself drawn to moved to the back rows of the screening and discussion rooms for stretching and gossip. Here emerged sotto voce comments confronting the seminar’s issues head on, especially the questionable selection of works by women filmmakers. Here Ute Aurand faced criticism for colonial sentiments in her diary film on India and Ana Vaz was confronted for unacknowledged privilege in her works on Brazil.
Contrary to the 2016 seminar’s theme, the Flaherty did not at all feel like an environment dedicated to play, especially the post-screening sessions. In spite of a number of non-American seminar participants, questions and comments posed in accented English were rarely the first ones to be heard. Again and again, entitled white men raised their hands first to vocalize their thoughts. I sometimes envied their confidence.
I’d envisioned the Flaherty as an inspiring educational experience, but on many occasions the seminar instigated flashbacks to the grad school trauma I carry as a first generation student. At Flaherty, as in grad school, I kept experiencing the feelings of lagging behind, of struggling without a sense of progress, of not being seen. My memories of drowning are haunted by the same sensations.
I am writing this story after two historical events, one macro and one micro: a year of the #metoo movement across the globe and a number of changes in the Flaherty organization such as the push to abandon the logo that included a silhouetted still from Nanook of the North .
Back at the seminar I attended, most of my disenchantments with the Flaherty had less to do with curatorial decisions or logos than with the seminar’s climate, which seemed to have been cultivated for decades to promote rigid higher education frameworks and to empower the regulars accustomed to these frameworks.
If I could change one part of the Flaherty so future iterations would be less traumatising to new participants like myself, I would dispose of these frameworks. The seminar could aspire to have more participants of lesser financial means, rather than those with the resources to pay the full fee year after year. The seminar could actively commit to moderating those voices that dominate. The seminar could have more early career professionals.
And the seminar could have rituals like swimming in nearby lakes—because collective experience of nature can be be as memorable and formative as collective experience of culture.
Saturday, February 2, 2019
Sarah Elder sent an encouraging email about the Robert Flaherty Film Seminars to the State University at Buffalo’s Media Study listserv in the early 2000s, when I was an undergraduate in the Media Study Department. It was the first time I’d heard of the Flaherty Seminar.
I noticed later that Sarah would send an annual, heartfelt reminder to go to the Flaherty, each time contending that the experience would be life-changing.
Because Sarah’s class on non-fiction cinema had been so influential on me, I looked up each year’s seminar. The themes intrigued: The Age of Migration, Witnesses, Monuments, Ruins, Work.
In 2009, I finally applied for a student fellowship. I was rejected. I applied again a couple of years later. I was rejected again. Long after I graduated, with the encouragement of Jennifer Stob, I applied for the third time in 2015 and was accepted for a Professional Development Fellowship.
I was at the tail-end of living in Austin, TX. I was also at the end of programming with Experimental Response Cinema, at the time my most significant film programming experience. Over three years we had presented nearly a hundred events, screening the videos of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels  and hosting artists such as Jeanne Liotta, Jesse McLean, and Michael Robinson.
A friend once told me that he considered everything he had done before that day juvenilia—an annoying reflection, but one I wholeheartedly repeat here. Three years later as I look at my notes from that 2015 Flaherty, and compare my thinking before Flaherty to my thinking now, I see the measure of the seminar’s influence.
Curated by Laura Marks, the 2015 edition was called “The Scent of Places.” The featured guests included Mounira Al Solh, Marie-Hélène Cousineau, Arthur Jafa, Khalil Joreige, Hassan Khan, Hala Lotfy, Ulrike Ottinger, Steve Reinke, Juan Manuel Sepúlveda, Laila Shereen Sakr, Tariq Teguia (over Skype), and Ramon Zürcher. When I arrived at the seminar, I was entirely unfamiliar with most of these makers.
I did know of the Flaherty’s notion that participants should enter the seminar “without preconceptions” and participate in its efforts to establish a space for serious discussion. I prepared myself to be a bit more vocal than usual, but I also committed to critically attacking my own tastes and conceptions.
My hand shot up after Ulrike Ottinger’s gorgeous Unter Schnee . I asked if the filmmaker was uncritically fetishizing cliched elements from Japanese culture. Someone from the audience exclaimed, “You’re talking to Ulrike Ottinger!”
Later, I ended up feeling betrayed by the pairing of Mounira Al Solh’s Rawane’s Song  and Marie-Hélène Cousineau and Madeline Ivalu’s Before Tomorrow . What seemed like an effective dialectical match also seemed to throw Before Tomorrow to the wolves. The film suffered from the juxtaposition. I voiced my opinion and continued to talk about this screening during the following days.
I’m glad I don’t remember many public statements besides those two and I’m glad I don’t remember much of what I said to others.
As I flip through my notes from the seminar, I see four variations on the same question, scrawled quickly and illegibly.
I tried to grapple with my reaction to Laila Shereen Sakr’s art works. My scribbles seem to be trying to figure out something about what it means for so many of us in the world to have access to moving image tools such as cellphones at a moment when these images are more disposable than ever, and what it means for those who do not have the tools to represent themselves. I’m now properly obsessed with these thoughts, but until I began writing this, I’d forgotten that I first started scribbling about them at that 2015 Flaherty.
Toby Lee, Pooja Rangan, and Chi-hui Yang’s names are in my notes: I perked up every time they spoke. Belena , Ramon Zürcher’s beautiful short film written in all caps, was shown during the same lovely screening as that year’s “Flaherty” film, Reflections  by Madeleine Tourtelot.
“Haha!—Mounira Al Solh” is written on a corner of a page. I still think about her voice in The Sea Is a Stereo, part II: Paris without a Sea .
Lines and curves are on the pages with Tariq Teguia’s name. Clearly, I was trying to understand the way Teguia’s masterful works grapple with geography and what the land maintains and portends.
Some very personal notes–related to family, care–were written next to Hala Lotfy’s heart-rending Coming Forth by Day .
Somewhere near the end of the notebook, I wrote “Refusals of testimony, how to grapple with them.”
The notes don’t include that I danced and drank every single night, and that I talked so much my lungs were shot. I may have gone swimming. Also, I lost some belongings. Since that Flaherty, I’ve understood that there’s a direct proportion between the quality of an art or film event and how many things I lose.
This is a nice little narrative about where the Flaherty took me and how attending that 2015 session impacted my life and career. However, my narrative is not as important as the the artists and the artworks—and the ideas generated by that 2015 Seminar, which continue to resonate.
It’s a special experience, 100-plus folks, all gathered together, their ears and eyes focusing together. It’s been a rewarding experience, and exciting to see the changes the Flaherty has gone through since. I can’t wait to go back.
Saturday, February 2, 2019
Working as the film projectionist for the Flaherty Film Seminars in the 1980s and early 1990s positioned me in the wonderfully dualistic role of distanced observer and full participant.
The job kept me occupied endless hours each day, keeping balky equipment running smoothly and making sure that everything the programmer had scheduled would screen properly.
But projecting also gave me ample time to observe the foment of the seminar as a detached observer.
As a medievalist art historian, my interest in film was not the all-in level of engagement of most everyone else who attended the seminars: professional filmmakers and archivists, film scholars and critics. But my interests in critical theory bridged my medieval focus and film interests. Documentary professionals put theory into practice, and irresistibly drew me in. For the Flaherty week, I could be a mediavalist.
Each year, the filmmakers initially knew me as “the projectionist.”
As I think back, the booth looked like a Steampunk tableaux. With its carbon-arc housings and ancient Simplex E-7 projectors, the Wells College projection booth’s vintage equipment created a snapshot of a passing era.
With intense protectiveness, filmmakers handed over their films. The rough looking equipment concerned them. Frequently, the films we screened had come directly from post-production, sometimes before prints had been made.
They worried about how the equipment might affect their films, but their cautious apprehension stemmed more deeply from their concern about how such a diverse crowd of professionals would receive their work. The rapidly evolving technologies in the decades of the late twentieth-century shadow and inform the parallel evolution of evolving film theory.
The intellectual challenges to Modernism in the generations influenced by Michel Foucault and Jean Baudrillard tested theoretical underpinnings. Film and photography’s ideological origins embodied Modernisms derived from the Renaissance era and the technological advancements of the Industrial Age.
For documentarians in 1980s and 1990s, the bulkhead separating documentary from fiction was becoming far more permeable. New challenges to the norms set off alarms, but also offered new artistic and intellectual opportunities.
These rethinkings, coupled with feminist, LBGTQ, ethnic, and post-colonialist studies made for wonderfully rich screenings. As someone who had grown up under the projection booth model, both literally and figuratively, the discussions interested. These interdisciplinary postmodern currents roiled my field of Late Mediaeval History of Art.
The projection booth model has the advantages of the shared audience experience, which forms the core of the Flaherty, along with traditional documentary and early Film Studies. But like the Simplexes, the projection booth speaks to an earlier era where a single source provided the vision for a mass audience, an act of ideological colonization.
The term “documentary,” after all, stems from the Ciceronian term, docere. In its original usage in de Oratore, it means to teach, to guide, or to lead, which was totally compatible with the Modernist use of education as a means of creating a rational social unity. Through the illusion of experiential witnessing framed to create a rational argument, documentaries sought to educate their audiences. The Man with a Movie Camera  and other experimental documentaries proved the exception.
As the Flaherty Seminar progressively embraced experimental forms, it ended up questioning that model more and more, opening up to a multiplicity of coexisting perspectives to create a web of histories rather than any single restrictive tradition.
What most excited me was exactly those moments that tested out fresh critical approaches in a relatively conservative genre. Unlike studying fourteenth-century painting where explorative methodologies run the risk of treating art works in a manner not relevant to their contexts, documentary film offered an environment where many filmmakers embraced new ideological groundings in their films. This made the critical language circulating around them feel exactly appropriate.
While the art world offers various venues for dialogues between practice and theory, none do so with the focused alacrity, diversity, immediacy, and intensity that the Flaherty offered each year I was there.
Discussions in the 1980s and 1990s with a savvy film community about the films of Sadie Benning, Tony Buba, Su Friedrich, Jean-Pierre Gorin, John Porter, and Marlon Riggs underscored the intellectual change we were participating in. In retrospect, we hacked out a crucible for the ensuing digital era, which philosophically grew out from both critical theory and broadening mediamaking practices.
The Flaherty was a microcosm of larger cultural currents. It served as place of experimentation where a broadening documentary community could question the premises of the genre, its media, and their cultural roles.
While the projection booth model certainly still has some purpose, it now operates in a wider field of multiple smaller screens, participatory interactive digital narratives, and sensory immersive technologies, inspiring the future potentials for documentary.
Those years in the booth and at intensive seminar discussions continue to shape my scholarly research. I keep asking how an ever-evolving critical theory drives technological changes, and how both can galvanize a socially responsible and diverse cultural engagement.
Saturday, February 2, 2019
Though I have been living in New York for over a year, at this very moment I am on the high mountains of Yunnan shooting my new film and using my rest time to write this recollection.
More than eight years have passed since the 2010 Flaherty. There are many details I cannot remember clearly.
The car is driving along the narrow, windy, mountainous road in central New York state. It is four o’clock in the afternoon. The setting sun casts a layer of pale yellow on the hills.
A colleague who works with images drives. Two other media types are also in the car. I do not speak English so I cannot communicate with them. I am wearing a light blue t-shirt with the image of a sewer worker lifting the manhole cover—for me, a visual metaphor for documentary filmmakers.
Outside the window, farms pass by. Horses leisurely graze. A gentle wind is blowing.
Sitting against the window, I sense the fragrance of the plants and the earth, bringing to mind the Changbai Mountain area in Northeast China, the hometown I left more than twenty years ago.
Every year after the long winter, I’d bring my dog to the open country to lie on the grass and bask in the sun. Looking up at the blue sky, I’d imagine myself growing up. The scent on this drive reminds me that I once had a homeland.
In the distance, a black horse-drawn carriage driven by two women in long dresses approaches us in the other lane. I have only seen this before in films. I suddenly become excited and use Mandarin to ask my companions, “Are there still people like these!” It seems like they understand me and they use English to give me an explanation, and I seem to understand too.
When we arrive at Colgate University, the Chinese American film critic/programmer Chi-hui Yang helps me register. For the next few days, he translates for me. I am grateful to him.
The entire university, quiet and beautiful, is built against the hills. Each building has a history of nearly a hundred years. From time to time, a groundhog stands to look at us across the grass.
More than a hundred people have come for this event. We all stay in the student dormitory. On the first floor, there is a bar. Meals are served at the school's canteen. It is summer vacation, and other than us image-workers, no one is around.
One night, programmer Dennis Lim brings a few of us to an Italian restaurant in the small town. Chi-hui Yang urges us to not let others know when our works will screen, so that everyone will have a surprise.
Each day divides into morning, afternoon, and evening screenings of features and shorts. Discussions follow each screening. Every day ends very late in the evening, and then it is time for the bar. Drinking goes on until nearly morning. But I go to bed early—I’ve come from China for this and am still dealing with the time difference.
The films are screened in the school’s small cinema. At the screenings a lot of people turn up. Some sit in the aisles. Having everyone crowd together every day to watch films creates a warm feeling.
The post-screening discussions are fierce. My film, Ghost Town , is scheduled to be screened on Wednesday evening. The organizing committee has hired a translator for me, an anthropologist named Kevin (his Chinese name is Kai Da Xiong). His live translation is great! Later, he would come to Guangzhou, China; we’ve become good friends,
My deepest memories from that week are of Michael Glawogger’s films.
In Glawogger’s Haiku , a short film about a Ukrainian steel mill worker, the first shot is a huge pneumatic hammer smashing down on a burning red iron block. The clang is deafening, shattering. Then a worker hoists this iron block back up, repeating the process. It feels like the theater is being demolished.
Suddenly the man is at home with a woman. The two of them face a simple meal; there is only the pleasant sound of eating. There is not one line of dialogue in the film—only that clang of the pneumatic hammer smashing on the iron and the sound of eating.
Workingman’s Death  shows the working conditions of laborers from a few different countries. It’s a “big film”; you can tell a lot of money was spent on it.
A powerful segment is shot in the open-air slaughter market in Nigeria. Extremely bloody and disgusting. Butchers carry and drag the freshly cut cow legs and heads, placing them on a burning tire to roast. Thick smoke shrouds the huge space. This is the cow’s hell and humanity is the devil in this hell.
There are also segments about Ukrainian workers crouched low in caves to mine coal in the severe cold, about a sulphur mine in Indonesia, about a ship-breaking operation in Pakistan, about an old man who writes with a brush and water on the ground of a square in Anshan, China, and about Germany’s abandoned factory parks.
Glawogger’s work is full of strength, just as he was. It made a deep impression on me.
During the last two days of passionate post-screening discussions, some feminists complain about the programmer. Why are so many of the films about men? This was the first time I had ever encountered such a question. In mainland China today, a totalitarian state and a feudal society, it is rare for someone to care about the status and rights of women.
The screening of Ghost Town, about a remote village in China, appears to satisfy the feminists because there is a section that tells the tale of a young mother who was swindled into a marriage in Shandong province.
The last night, everyone gathers at the bar to drink and dance. Dennis Lim opens a skull-shaped bottle of alcohol. Each person takes turns to drink a mouthful.
The days of many questions have filled my brain to the brim. I’m exhausted but it’s a fatigue that feels good.
On the morning of my departure, I wake up very early. Alone, I follow a mountain road until I reach a forest. I find a log to sit on while the morning sun shines through the tree branches and warms my body. A layer of mist drapes the mountain slope. I close my eyes and deeply inhale.
The scent around me is just like the scent of my childhood hometown.
Translated by Elizabeth Wijaya
Saturday, February 2, 2019
At first, there was something furtive in my relation to the Flaherty.
I first remember excited drives up Cayuga Lake to crash the seminar during its years at Wells College. Those journeys up the lake from Ithaca usually ended in a welcoming embrace with Patty Zimmermann or Richard Herskowitz before I was secreted into the rooms where the magic was happening.
This was a period when we Ithacans were actively promoting cinema’s embrace of video, installation, theory, and the diversification of Flaherty’s guest mediamakers and audiences. Our local activation was done through Cornell Cinema, the Experimental Television Center, and public television, and with colleagues at Ithaca College and Cornell University. We expanded on what we were seeing through readings of theory and prolonged, urgent discussions about diversifying cinema from the ground up and across the board—from makers and audiences to spaces and formats. There was a charge in the air that we couldn’t contain.
Similarly each summer up Cayuga Lake, the Flaherty was as much about process as about works of cinematic art, in bringing together a rather raucous band of screen folks whose work, discourse, and passion took cinematics to an expanded level of duration. For me, the seminar calls to mind the wild extensions of cinematic time and space, inside and beyond the theater: including discourse carried on long after screenings and formal discussions, during outdoor projections and experimental installations, and into late night conversations down at the Lake Cayuga docks. And throughout the rest of each year, Flaherty continued to percolate, producing innovative art works and thinking.
No instance of Flaherty programming made as strong an impact on my curating, teaching, and theorizing as the 1990 seminar that brought together inventive feminist works by Kathy High, Indu Krishnan, Janice Tanaka, Su Friedrich, and Vanalyne Green, along with searing works on the duration of life itself by queer makers facing the horrors of AIDS: DiAna’s Hair Ego: AIDS Info Upfront (Ellen Spiro, 1989) and Paris is Burning (Jennie Livingston, 1990), both echoing the programming, two years earlier, of work by the heroic Marlon Riggs.
For many of us who grew up as the first generation of American media scholars and theoreticians, the intensity of Flaherty programming channeled our teaching and writing throughout the 1990s and brought history and theory in contact with the demands of gender, sexual, racial, and economic difference.
Then there was the year when Patty Zimmermann and Michele Materre took Flaherty “on the road” to Ithaca College for a condensed seminar on “Exploration in Memory and Modernity.” For me, the “Flaherty on the Road” initiative meant further expansions of Flaherty time and space via the electronic highway. This was an exciting and contentious time for cinema, as digital media promised to open cinema up to new global experimentation and online audiences while also transforming the ontology of film itself.
Several of us who were concerned with broadening the seminar’s efforts at social inclusion as well as its commitment to the electronic arts, seized on the invitation offered by Zimmermann and Materre to mark these transformations. My contribution was a Digital Salon programmed in conjunction with screenings by Reggie Woolery, Alex Rivera, and Leah Gilliam—exciting young artists who were blending the analog and the digital within provocative reflections on race and sexuality. What a gift it was to have the promise of new media introduced to Flaherty by these brave artists for whom the magic of digital archives and production enhanced their ability to better represent their cultural histories and contemporary challenges.
The Digital Salon I programmed focused on exposing the thrill of global interconnectivity evident in the work of Shu Lea Cheang, Roberto Sifuentes and Guillermo Gomez-Peña, Muntadas, Per Eide Spjeld, Adrianne Wortzel, Constance DeJong, Tony Oursler, and Stephen Vitiello.
The Digital Salon expanded the Flaherty beyond its cinematic walls, by featuring interactive works by artists who embraced the new nimble tools of digitality for their potential in dismantling the history of restrictive cinematic identifications and enabling broader participation across various spaces of presentation and reception. The Digital Salon drove the Flaherty beyond central New York and down the electronic highway.
Yet, somehow the Flaherty never left Ithaca. During and after the Digital Salon, I began to think about the cultural necessity of finding a way to archive these innovative works created for CD-Rom and the internet. The result was my founding in 2002 of the Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Art in the Cornell Library. Named after the pioneering Cornell media sociologist, the Goldsen Archive now houses many of the titles and artists introduced by Flaherty and challenges the new threat to artistic duration posed by planned digital obsolescence.
The Goldsen Archive is home to repositories of work produced in conjunction with NYSCA’s Electronic Media and Film program, with Rockefeller grants and the Renew Media Grants in New Media Art, along with central New York’s cherished Experimental Television Center where so many Flaherty video titles were produced. Over the years, the Goldsen has grown into one of the world’s leading digital repositories of individual artist portfolios and large institutional collections. While some of its more than 10,000 digital images, 4,000 artworks, and twenty archival collections can be accessed online (goldsen.library.cornell.edu), most are readily accessible on location in Cornell’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections. Indeed, the Goldsen’s recent exhibition, “Signal to Code: 50 Years of Media Art in the Goldsen Archive”(http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/signaltocode/), serves as an archival marker of the social and conceptual inventiveness of Flaherty’s expansion of the boundaries of cinema.
The Goldsen collections now entice users to take an excited drive along the electronic highway, and back to Ithaca, where the critical legacy of Flaherty and its video and new media artists now cohabit together.
Saturday, February 2, 2019
The first time I attended the Flaherty Seminar at Wells College in central New York, I didn’t know what to expect.
It was 1991 and I was working at the Jewish Museum in New York City. Started in 1904, the museum, a hub for art and Jewish culture from ancient to contemporary times, was the first of its kind in the US and is one of the oldest in the world. At the time, I was the archive coordinator there for the museum’s National Jewish Archive of Broadcasting.
I’d studied Yiddish in the Linguistic Department in graduate school from 1986-1989. I wrote a thesis on photo books on the so-called last Jews of Eastern Europe.
Wanda Bershen, the well-known programmer who was the Museum’s Film Festival Director and my supervisor, recommended that I go. We thought that since I worked with television and broadcast material, the seminar could push me a bit further, into film. Wanda thought very highly of the Flaherty.
I’m a somewhat reserved person. When I arrived at Wells, I didn’t know anyone and was constantly finding myself in large groups. Though I knew no one there, everyone seemed to know Wanda. That made me feel welcome.
Wanda had told me that the seminar’s philosophy was to never announce the screening schedule in advance. I was intrigued about having no idea about what I would watch. I think I was a bit relieved that my unstructured time would have some structure. Back then, no one had computers or mobile phones, so time felt different. The screenings happened three times a day, with an occasional optional late-night screening of a film by Robert Flaherty or someone else.
The three-screenings-a-day concept excited me. Growing up in Far Rockaway, Queens, daytime was for outside play, not for TV and movies. So watching films all day felt like a special treat. Watching a movie while the sun shines remains a guilty pleasure for me.
The board insisted that we attend every screening and discussion. I learned that when everyone immerses themselves in the same films and discussions, rich conversations ensue.
Strong memories from the three seminars I attended in 1991, 1992, and 1993 linger: the theater, shared meals, dorm rooms, swimming in Cayuga Lake, star-gazing at night. And people: David Callahan, Graham Leggat, Ann Michel, Steve Montgomery, Bill and Gwen Sloan, and Phil Wilde became close friends and valued colleagues. The Flaherty made it easy to develop these relationships. It was a bucolic setting where no outside obligations intruded. I found myself in groups of people who loved to talk about films, which was thrilling.
I saw works by Sadie Benning, Joe Berlinger, Cheryl Dunye, Kazuo Hara, Raoul Peck, Ela Troyano. Rea Tajiri’s History and Memory  and Roddy Bogawa’s Some Divine Wind  touched some deep place in me as they wove personal, family, and world events together.
The discussions got heated over issues of inclusion, gender, and race. I was there the year Ken Jacobs performed XCXHXEXRXRXIXEXSX , which led a now-notorious confrontational moment. His Nervous System apparatus extended an excerpt of an old pornographic film through hand-cranked manipulation. The long performance agitated some. The content upset many women. The argument, hurt feelings, anger, and intensities spanned several days.
At the end of that rancorous seminar, the wonderful Margarita De La Vega Hurtado introduced Paul Leduc’s Barroco , the closing screening. With its musical exuberance, the film felt like a reward, a nice balance to the bitterness of the week.
My favorite Flaherty experience was William Greaves’ Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One . I not only admired Greaves’ films, but also his warmth, generous spirit, humor, and openness. A scene in the film where the crew rebels against him brought the seminarians to a joyous place.
The Flaherty Seminars were valuable for my early career.
First, they created sustaining connections. Before the Flaherty I simply did not know many festival programmers. David Callahan, Steve Montgomery, and Bill Sloan got me involved in the New York Film and Video Council which furthered my networking in the film world.
Second, the seminars helped me understand the pleasures of duration and endurance watching. There is nothing like coming into a dark theater, not knowing what you will see or how long you might be there.
Third, the Flaherty taught me to immerse myself in programming as a holistic experience. Binge watching is common now. But back then I had never spent a full day watching films! Over a week’s programming, the films really do start to speak to each other. Sharing the same screening experiences with people who grasp references and resonances is priceless. It’s an intangible, but essential, lesson about programming: show films that spur an audience to make connections across the films.
An obsessive archivist and saver, I still have my folders with all the film descriptions. Back then, programmers kept files on filmmakers, films, addresses. When I’ve wanted to program a particular film or filmmaker, I’ve consulted these folders. Sometimes I simply luxuriate in the nostalgia they evoke.
Almost three decades later, the seminar still impacts my New York Jewish Film Festival programming. Started in 1992 as a joint project between the Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, it originally focused on Eastern European Jewish life after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, which enabled many films on Jewish topics to be created and seen. Now, the festival is international and explores many themes. We program thirty films over two weeks.
We consciously structure a mix of documentary, narrative, and experimental works and a range of early career to established artists. Our programming team is excited when films resonate with mood, tone, or content, enabling our audience to make connections. The ways Flaherty programmers built their programs has left an imprint on our programming for decades.