Voices from the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar
Thursday, January 24, 2019
It was 2000, and I was attending the Flaherty Seminar for the first time.
Kathy Geritz of the Pacific Film Archive, the programmer that year, had invited me to present two of my films, Paulina  and Live Nude Girls UNITE! .
That Seminar was a life-changing experience.
I had become a filmmaker because of a compelling need to speak through image, sound, and time. I was always clear on what I was doing with my own films. But I was so busy making them and trying to survive financially that I didn’t have time to see as many films as I would have liked, or to fully grasp the breadth of artistic practice in the documentary field.
The seminar introduced me to the work of Sergei Dvortsevoy, Harun Farocki, Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon, Chris Sullivan, Peggy Ahwesh, and Tran T. Kim Trang. Some of the work took me completely out of my comfort zone. These pieces left me perplexed and aggravated and thrilled. They expanded the way I think and create. And the post-screening discussions exposed me to a wide range of new ideas.
Harun Farocki’s work stands out as indispensable. As the world spins further into dystopian realms during the era of Trump, Brexit, Putin, and climate disaster, his rigorous and clear films address the structures and phenomena that have brought us to the present moment. By mid-week at the seminar, we had seen his I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts , Workers Leaving the Factory , and Images of the World and the Inscription of War . These works were new and strange to me at the time; now, they’re familiar and strange.
Kathy programmed the Farocki film, An Image , with my film, Live Nude Girls UNITE!. I loved this curatorial choice. An Image floored me. It was a work of laser-sharp confidence, image- rather than language-based, and disturbingly, cuttingly funny. Although very different, the two films paired perfectly to open up a discussion about how capitalism commodifies women’s bodies.
In Live Nude Girls UNITE!, co-director Julia Query and I argue that sex work is indeed work, for us a self-evident position, but one that not all people understand or accept. We told the story of a committed union struggle by nude dancers, women rarely taken seriously as laborers or as human beings with agency. The women’s powerful, collective voice speaks through the film.
An Image fashions an argument about women’s bodies and labor in a very different way. For Farocki, the woman’s body is no different to the crew of the photo shoot than the hunks of cheese, watches, or pints of beer arranged for advertising photographs in his later film Still Life . In An Image, with little dialogue, Farocki shows the labor the nude model engages in as she works to both embody an idealized image of “woman” and to disappear behind that image. Her labor is subsumed within the image-making labor: the studio crew building the set, arranging the lights, dabbing at the model with make-up brushes, and verbally poking her into twisted positions to achieve a sexy image. The nude model has no voice--and those producing the photograph have no interest in giving her one. An Image takes a crisp, clean, rigorous look at how consumer images are created.
I thoroughly enjoyed how my film played out in the programming mosaic Kathy had crafted and how the audience responded to the juxtaposition of these very different works.
It amuses me to think back to how little I knew when I found myself sitting on the dais with Harun Farocki for the post-screening discussion. At the time, I was a young whippersnapper of 37, too ignorant to fully understand who he was. I had been warned that these discussions at the Flaherty could be brutal.
That discussion has stayed with me. Some participants criticized me for creating false closure and constructing a Hollywood narrative in Live Nude Girls UNITE!. Some feminists who critiqued my film contended I was a pawn of Hollywood, patriarchy, and capitalism. They praised An Image as the antithesis of my film because it refused closure and refused the comforts of narrative.
Whatever Farocki may have thought of my film, he was generous during the discussion. Later on, as I came to know his work better, it became clear to me that he had been perfectly positioned to give a full-on, scathing, Marxist critique of a younger filmmaker’s work, but chose not to.
These attacks did not offend me, but I thought that their theoretical academic approach seemed disconnected from the realities of working women’s lives. I had worked as a cafeteria busgirl, a nude model for art classes, a “shrimp runner” at a Beefsteak Charlie’s all-you-can-eat shrimp-‘n’-salad bar, a painter, a waitress, a legal proofreader, a bookkeeper, and a peep show dancer at the Lusty Lady theater. I had also been working my way up through the ranks of the independent film world as a production assistant, assistant producer, assistant director, assistant editor, script supervisor, sound recordist, cameraperson, and finally editor, producer, and director. In 2000, I was beginning my third feature documentary, Maquilápolis .
In my efforts to survive through those various jobs and to wrangle work in the film world, I’d missed out on documentary history and academic theory. After the 2000 Flaherty Seminar, I knew I needed to work harder to expose myself to a broader range of non-fiction forms and to theory about them.
I continue to shape my working life to engage in this exploration. I now teach film production and theory at Haverford College in Philadelphia. I regularly teach with An Image, Inextinguishable Fire  and other Farocki. I’ll never catch up with all I need to know about the documentary world, but I love the process.
In 2014 when I heard that Farocki had died, the first images that flashed in my mind were not from his films. They were memories of him at the Flaherty Seminar: first, how generous and gracious he was toward me during the discussion of our films, and second, how he laughed as he performed an impromptu striptease at the closing party, both familiar and strange.
Monday, January 21, 2019
If you ever took a university film studies course, you’ve met Bill Sloan.
If you are film professor, you worked with Bill Sloan.
If you ever watched classic cinema or documentaries at a film festival, you sat with Bill Sloan.
If you ever borrowed a DVD from a public library, you know Bill Sloan.
For decades, Bill Sloan served as the film librarian and curator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) Circulating Film Library, appointed in 1980 after a stint at the New York Public Library. His wide-ranging vision of international art cinema, American independent cinema, documentary, and experimental film infuses this influential collection. Festivals, museums, and universities around the world depend on it.
With his sharp instinct for films that offered significant breakthroughs in form or content, the MoMA collection contributed a major building block for the emerging academic discipline of cinema studies. It not only set the standard for developing film collections at libraries, but also staked the claim that film and video were as important as books.
I have always conjured Bill as one of those rare and special shamans of cinema who hovered in some mystical meta-mode that knew where you needed to go before you got there.
While his white hair and beard floated around his always-smiling face like cumulous clouds fluffing an azure sky, his black glasses summoned a counterpoint. They seemed a metaphor for his ability to focus on what mattered in cinema.
I first met Bill at the Flaherty Film Seminars in 1980, early on in my career as a screen studies scholar when I was a University of Wisconsin graduate student. By then, he had been attending for two decades.
At that time, I suffered from a very bizarre delusion that the holy trinity of films, filmmakers, and theory exclusively defined film culture. At that first seminar I attended, Bill introduced me to the idea that librarians at museums and public libraries who purchased, collected, and screened films built a field-sustaining infrastructure supporting independent cinema. Across the decades, he had cajoled many librarians to attend the Flaherty. I remember he also insisted that audiences matter as much as the films, an idea that jolted me back then.
Graduate school pummeled me to take up arms as a partisan fighter defending the one form of cinema I felt mattered the most politically—documentary.
In contrast, Bill’s view was more expansive, a galaxy of practices and approaches. He was curious about all films, all genres, all periods. I imagine he considered this strategy a way to trek through many different universes of approach, content, form, style. He possessed that rare gift to find something marvelous in all that he saw. His attitude influenced how I teach film, with shorts dialectically juxtaposed with features.
His pluralist, wide vision of cinema materialized decisively in his programming with Nadine Covert, another film library world luminary, in the landmark 1972 Robert Flaherty Film Seminar. They imported a concept of heterogeneous films jostling against each other to galvanize a combustion of ideas. This aggressive curatorial strategy, channeling Amos Vogel and Cinema 16 from an earlier era, has influenced legions of programmers and professors in the half a century that followed. Bill and Nadine concocted a tempest of diverse filmmaking styles in the works of Les Blank, St. Claire Bourne, Lianne Brandon, Stan Latham, Marcel Ophuls, Yasujoro Ozu, Ousmane Sembene. In 1979, he programmed again, showcasing radical Dutch documentary filmmaker Joris Ivens.
Many know Bill from Bill’s Bar, mounted each year at the Flaherty. He assembled this jerry-rigged, speakeasy-like bar with a folding table, plastic pails for ice, and a glass jar for donations for libations. It took me many years to decipher why he always worked behind the bar. Literally and figuratively, I suspect he loved serving the next generation of filmmakers, programmers, and scholars. As he poured these young seminarians cheap chardonnay in clear plastic cups and plied them with stale pretzels, Bill connected with each of them. Their urgencies and obsessions delighted him.
Bill impacted me even more profoundly as I plunged into what felt like an endless dark pit of historical research for Scott MacDonald’s and my The Flaherty: Decades in the Cause of Independent Cinema (Indiana University Press, 2017).
Because he served as President of the Flaherty Board from 1974-1977, I interviewed Bill’s four times. We talked about his career as a librarian, his programming and trustee experiences, the evolution of film culture, the importance of the seminar for both its devotees and the field. He proclaimed resolutely “there’s nothing like the Flaherty anywhere.” He argued for its irrefutable impact, but also relished detailed nasty gossip about various trustees and seminarians whose hardline, narrow positions he found despicable, even thirty years later.
When I first approached him, I promised the interview would only require thirty minutes for some historical fact-checking. Every call flooded to two hours. Tales cracked out like lightning in a thunderstorm, a contrast to what many assumed was his quiet demeanor. I wrote furiously in my notebook to capture his labyrinthine stories and the textures of his passionate advocacy for the Seminar so I could figure out the next question that archives could not answer.
He unleashed a hurricane of films, people, debates, love stories, board decisions, disputes. He wanted to be sure I knew who had affairs with whom, who was difficult and harbored selfish agendas, who had a good soul.
As I listened, it became clear, like patches of blue sky erasing storm clouds, that he found the debates that cut through the people who migrated to the Flaherty to argue about cinema energizing, important, vital. I suspect, for him, their ferocity ripped the roof off old structures to expose new cinematic terrains below.
Bill was truly the wizard of international independent cinema, the man behind the screen and behind the scenes who brought all of us into a more capacious world of cinemas we never could have imagined—or gotten to-- without him.
Saturday, January 12, 2019
The Flaherty Seminar was legendary in the New York City independent film community, when I became a part of it in the early 1980s. People spoke about the seminar reverently.
However, it took me years to find the courage to take the plunge.
I finally signed up for my first seminar in 1991. At lovely Wells College on the shore of Cayuga Lake, the seminar lived up to all my expectations. It fostered serious devotion to film, but was also very social and enjoyable.
The cinema of the Arab world shown that year deeply impressed me: Halfaouine: Boy of the Terraces  (Tunisia) by Asfour Stah; Omar Gatlato  (Algeria) by Merzak Allouache; Canticle of the Stones  (Palestine) by Michel Khleifi; and A Door to the Sky (Morocco) by Farida Benlyazid. The year before, I had traveled to Morocco twice, hoping to make a documentary, but the filmmakers’ deep commitment to their material, their compelling storytelling, and their expert cinematic techniques taught me more about the Arab world than I had perceived as a traveler.
The founder of the seminar, Frances Flaherty, had described the value of my experience at the Flaherty. Invoking philosophy, she had written about watching films as a means of “learning to see.”
An image stays with me from that first seminar. After sitting in the darkened auditorium in the morning, quietly concentrating on what was on the screen, I walked out into the sunshine and down to Lake Cayuga with others from around the country and the world. The seminarians were so friendly; the group spirit, very encouraging. Filmmakers discussed the subjects of their films and how they’d secured funding. Programmers and curators talked about what they were showing. Students, with their great enthusiasms about film, nudged me to recall my own passions for media when I was their age.
However, after such a memorable first Flaherty, I must admit I became disillusioned at subsequent seminars because of what was programmed and what was left out. I felt that Flaherty programmers began to favor poorly made “personal documentaries” and nearly incoherent experimental works on trendy subjects. Films that come to mind: Mirror Mirror  by Jan Krawitz, shown in 1993; Video Letters 1, 2 & 3  by Yau Ching, shown in 1994; Self Portrait Post Mortem  by Louise Bourque, shown in 2004; and Mutual Analysis  by Péter Forgács, shown in 2005. In the worst of these films, the filmmakers narrated in gloomy tones and complained about how harsh reality had hurt their sensitive souls.
In an article for International Documentary in 1997, I wrote about these works as “Films about Me.” I noted they “convey a bitterness towards the world, forever moaning about being victimized by one thing or another.” The creators seemed to disdain cinematic techniques. For example, some filmmakers waved a camera around the room and asserted heavy-handed conclusions on complex subjects. The preponderance of these films eclipsed an important documentary tradition where directors expressed a large concern for humanity and the world beyond oneself.
In the years leading up to the 2008 financial crisis, works on personal subjects so crowded the Flaherty schedule that almost nothing was programmed about the American economy, the banking and financial industries, or the struggles of people in the workplace. The Flaherty contributed little or nothing to prepare people for the financial crisis or to provide a lens though which to understand it.
Despite this critique, I wish to express my enduring admiration for the Flaherty at its best. At the seminars I’ve attended, there has always been something extraordinary to see: Lumumba: Death of a Prophet  by Raoul Peck in 1993; Secuestro: The Story of a Kidnapping  by Camila Motta, also in 1993, and Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One by William Greaves [shot in 1967, first version 1972] in 2005, for example.
Many people have tried to describe exactly what makes the Flaherty unique. I’ve been thinking about this question since my first Flaherty twenty-some years ago. After reading the new book The Flaherty: Decades in the Cause of Independent Cinema, which vividly evokes the great times of the seminar over the years and its important discussions, I finally understand how to answer two important questions. How did the organization that presents the seminar endure for over sixty years? Why are busy and sophisticated people like me spending time writing essays on the Flaherty?
Here is my answer. The seminar’s structure, designed by Frances Flaherty, is the best forum in the world for enabling us to truly care about cinema in all its forms.
To make my case, I invoke philosophy, as Frances Flaherty did in writing about the origins of the seminar. I’ll use terms from the philosophy of Aesthetic Realism to explain, starting with a description of the contradictory nature of the self who signs up for his or her first Flaherty.
Founded by the American poet and literary critic Eli Siegel, Aesthetic Realism argues that the self is duel—one aspect of a person yearns for a deep experience in life, hoping to be profoundly affected by the world. This experience can obviously occur after seeing a significant work at the Flaherty.
But something can get in the way of this experience, at the Flaherty or at any other film event. Aesthetic Realism contends that another part of the self seeks to remain intact and runs away from expansive, deep feelings. For example, I might see the greatest film of my life at the Flaherty, but ten minutes later jokingly ask friends about the latest gossip concerning someone at the seminar. Aesthetic Realism describes this impulse as “contempt” and defines it as “the false importance or glory from the lessening of things not oneself.”
In other words, I may love a film and be genuinely moved, but stubbornly resist its sway over me by gossiping, making a phone call, or mindlessly checking my email in an effort to regain composure.
Fortunately, the structure of the Flaherty effectively counters this contempt.
After a great work is presented, we discuss it in formal sessions, and then again at breakfast, lunch and dinner. There is no running away from the impact and meaning of a film.
No matter how unsettling the original experience, the seminar allows the film to get inside of us and endure. For me, this is the legacy of the Flaherty.
Saturday, January 12, 2019
In the fall of 2018 I was disappointed to learn that the Flaherty Board had suppressed what had been for two decades the organization’s logo: the canonical image of Nanook in the act of throwing his harpoon, presumably at a walrus or a seal. Allakariallak plays Nanook in Robert Flaherty’s film.
I had come to take the logo for granted. When Patricia Zimmermann and I were preparing our first Flaherty book, The Flaherty: Decades in the Cause of Independent Cinema, for Indiana University Press, we made clear to the press that the logo needed to be the cover image. The designers had suggested a generic man-with-camera.
For me, the logo has always evoked the collaborative nature of Nanook of the North  and the Flaherty seminar. Designed in the late 1990s at the suggestion of longtime Flahertyites Phred Churchill and Phil Wilde, the logo had come to symbolize the seminar’s escape from the threat of economic collapse and its subsequent emergence as a crucial organization and annual event within the modern history of documentary.
By 2017-2018 the logo (and Nanook/Nanook) had become for some, apparently including the majority of board members, a visual emblem of colonialism and exploitive capitalism, an instance of a stereotype of the indigenous Eskimo, described in a proclamation read at the 2018 seminar (quoting Joseph E. Senungetuk, an Iñupiat from Northwest Alaska), as “a people without technology, without a culture, lacking intelligence, living in igloos, and at best, a sort of simplistic ‘native boy’ type of subhuman arctic being” [Give or Take a Century: An Eskimo Chronicle (San Francisco: Indian Historian Press, 1971): 25].
Theory is at its best when it illuminates, but it can also blind. If, theoretically, any film about an indigenous group, made by a person considered a descendant of a colonizing group, can never be anything more than exploitive, then I suppose one might conclude that Nanook is an instance of the Eskimo stereotyping Senungetuk became familiar with, growing up in the 1940s and 1950s.
However, it would be an unusual viewer who could see Nanook as subhuman. Flaherty is at pains to demonstrate that the Inuit had survived as a people in what for most would be a hostile environment, specifically by developing a range of remarkably efficient technologies for hunting, fishing, and moving through the world. Certainly the depiction of Inuit culture in Nanook is limited, as no film about a culture can escape limitations. But Allakariallak and the other actors in the film who demonstrate aspects of traditional Inuit life remain, nearly a century after the film’s release, thoroughly engaging, aware and adept, quite the opposite of the subhuman depictions of indigenous groups so common in popular films before Nanook.
The complaint in the proclamation that Nanook is holding a harpoon despite the fact that “the Inuit portrayed in the film were using guns at the time”—i.e., that Flaherty ignored the realities of modern Inuit life—also seems problematic. Nanook begins with Nanook and other Inuit bringing the furs they’ve collected over the year to the Trader’s. Clearly the Inuit are seen as part of what was in the 1920s a major industry, the fur trade.
In fact, a gun is seen in one of the shots depicting Nanook and other men bringing a walrus to shore. We don’t see them use the gun to kill the walrus, just as, later in the film, we don’t see Nanook kill the small fox he has trapped. Flaherty was hoping to depict the Inuit in a way that would demonstrate their commonalities with American moviegoers. He may have felt that depicting the killing of the animals would interfere with this goal.
Over the years much has been made of a scene at the Trader’s where Nanook seems befuddled by a phonograph. But this is less a joke on Nanook than Allakariallak’s reenacting an experience most of us have on a regular basis: amused astonishment at what a new, seemingly magical technology can do.
That some Flahertyites would rebel against an image from what they believed was a retrograde film is hardly surprising. Over the decades, the seminar has seen a series of more or less progressive small rebellions. The change of the seminar from a private gathering to a more public intellectual event under the influence of Erik Barnouw and Willard Van Dyke may have been the first rebellion.
In 1968 Van Dyke and D. Marie Grieco hosted a group of avant-garde filmmakers from the West Coast, who rebelled against what they saw as the Flaherty’s stuffiness and its devotion to certain narrowly defined modes of documentary. They exchanged nametags to confuse the other seminarians. Filmmakers and theorists concerned with image ethics soon returned the seminar more fully to its realist documentary focus. Then came the feminist rebellion of the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s. After that, demands that the Flaherty expand the international and ethnic diversity of its filmmaker guests and seminarians…
In recent years the seminar has become increasingly academic, sometimes more like a college classroom than the freeform seminars of old. Academics trained in postcolonial theory arrived in the mid-2010s to take action against the logo—as if suppressing a symbol of previous generations’ attempts at progressive change absolves a younger generation of the weight of history.
The elimination of the logo is full of ironies. Among other things, it suggests that those who came to feel embarrassed about the image of Nanook-with-harpoon are more aware of Inuit reality than Flaherty himself, who spent much of his youth in northern Canada and lived with the group he filmed for sixteen months. It is not hard to find modern Inuit who express gratitude for Flaherty’s depiction of their grandparents’ ways of dealing with their environment.
To suppress Flaherty’s image is to assume that the men and women who collaborated with him for so long lacked agency, implicitly rendering them into the stereotype described above.
And how does eliminating the one image of an adult Inuit known around the world create respect for the history of that cultural group or their descendants?
Ultimately, to suppress the Flaherty logo is not just to disrespect Robert Flaherty and the history of the seminar. It also patronizes Allakariallak, Maggie Nujarluktuk, and all the Inuit we see in Nanook, whose dignified presence/performance defies bigotry, film history, and recent social theory every time the film is screened.
Friday, January 11, 2019
If I could ever be given the keys to a time-traveling craft, outside of the inevitable “prevent atrocities by eliminating dictators” expeditions, my ultimate inclination would be to return to periods impossible to re-create.
I would gladly give many treasures to travel back to Dan Streible’s 2011 Flaherty Seminar or Dennis Lim’s in 2010. Or Ed Halter’s in 2002, or Patty Zimmermann’s with L. Somi Roy and Erik Barnouw in 1994, or Richard Herskowitz’s in 1987. Although I was in grade school at the time, I would have loved to attend Standish Lawder’s Seminar in 1981. Or even go back to the very beginnings of the Seminar in 1955 with Frances Flaherty.
Chi-hui Yang’s phone call to me in 2013 was relatively unexpected. We’d first met shortly after I’d moved to San Francisco. Chi-hui’s “The Age of Migration” Seminar was legendary amongst the filmmakers and media folks with opinions that matter.
The persistent Bay Area connection to the Seminar with several decades of programmers is relatively well-known: Ariella Ben-Dov, Linda Blackaby, Kathy Geritz, Irina Leimbacher, and Steve Seid. All were either residents at the time or, in the case of Richard Peterson and Susan Oxtoby, relocated to the area soon after their respective Seminar involvements. Even Greg de Cuir, Jr. had a Bay Area connection long before his 2018 co-programming role.
I had always wanted to attend the Flaherty Seminar, yet each year the mid-June timing and the remoteness of the event’s assorted locations was problematic for me. I explained to Chi-hui that I was uncomfortable joining the Board of Trustees without ever having attended the Seminar. Chi-hui immediately dispelled these concerns by noting that it wouldn’t be the first time it had happened.
He asked again. I accepted. I was reminded of an earlier occasion when Sam Green invited me to join the San Francisco Cinematheque Board. When asked to serve by someone you admire, how can you decline?
Several film historians contend that the Flaherty format inspired the Telluride Film Festival. “I don’t think it was an influence at all,” Telluride co-founder Tom Luddy told me recently. He noted that the curatorial work of Albert Johnson at the San Francisco Film Festival was a primary inspiration for him and Bill Pence.
Debates about inspiration and causality aside, the two events share several surface similarities in their efforts to make independent works available. But perhaps most importantly, they share a collective faith in the removal of preconceptions. The audiences must trust that the programmers will take them on a worthwhile and rewarding journey.
“The Scent of Places,” programmed by Laura Marks in 2015, was my first seminar; it was everything I’d imagined it would be and more. There were opportunities to re-screen works by Ulrike Ottinger, Ramon Zürcher, and Steve Reinke which I had seen elsewhere, yet was now able to view again in an entirely new context. There were opportunities to see a handful of films by Tariq Teguia and Arthur Jafa I’d only read about. And I was able to see films I’d not known about and meet filmmakers about whom I had heard very little, such as Khalil Joreige and Juan Manuel Sepulveda.
The “not knowing” aspect was frequently exhilarating and occasionally beguiling, admittedly for all of the reasons everyone mentions about the Seminar. Much of the notoriety of the Flaherty derives from the exhaustive post-screening discussions. As expected, things were said during “The Scent of Places” and discussions would occasionally boil-over—quite unlike the usual platitudes and rote answers of film festival post-screening question-and-answer sessions,
I was able to invite my Fandor colleague Amanda Salazar along to the 2015 seminar as well. We both enjoyed its ample opportunities for cinematic assessment and appreciation.
Coincidentally, 2015 also launched a long-planned upheaval in my own life. Four months after the Seminar, I packed-up the archive and moved away from my neighborhood of fifteen years to settle in a more rural setting roughly one hour north of San Francisco. Due to infrequent visits and brunches in Petaluma with poet Joanna McClure and filmmaker Lawrence Jordan, I was relatively familiar with the area. Immediately after moving, I visited the Hotel Petaluma, built in 1923 and under extensive remodeling. I walked into the refurbished ballroom and conceived the nefarious plan of hosting film screenings in its enormous empty space.
When I returned to San Francisco a few days later, I spoke to Amanda about her interest in collaborating on a Flaherty-inspired event at the hotel. She did not hesitate. A mere five weeks after arriving in Petaluma, we jointly presented the First Annual Report of the reconstituted Camera Obscura, an organization originally co-founded by the aforementioned Lawrence Jordan with Bruce Conner and a handful of others in 1957.
Each Annual Report expands on a Flaherty-esque program pairing films together and featuring in-depth discussions with each of the filmmakers in attendance. Not unlike the Flaherty Seminar, everyone watches the films together and lodges in the same location.
With the Fifth Annual Report in the months ahead, this programming initiative will soon surpass the lifespan of the original Camera Obscura Film Society.
The real impact and significance of any event is reflected in the reverberations it leaves behind. By that standard, the Flaherty Seminar has no parallel.
Thursday, January 10, 2019
When was my first Flaherty? The prompt seems simple enough.
Was it in 1993? At the time, I was working as a projectionist at Cornell Cinema, then under the direction of Richard Herskowitz.
Richard had his eye on me. He saw that the furthest reaches of cinema enticed me. Did you need someone to push a video cart up the hill through the snow for the Sunday afternoon video art series at the Johnson Museum? Call me. To project the Thursday evening experimental ethnography show? I’m your guy.
As a student of the late Cornell University professor, Don Fredericksen, I had taken a shine to Dutch filmmaker Johan van der Keuken. Fredericksen had become a devotee of the filmmaker following Richard’s groundbreaking 1987 seminar. One day, Richard asked me, “What are you doing this summer? There’s something you may want to do.”
I’d heard about the Flaherty from both Richard and Don, who loved to tell the story of Joris Ivens and his wife Marceline dancing late into the night. Jean Rouch’s Chronique d'un été  had featured Marceline, a Nagra in her handbag, walking in Paris, reciting moments from her childhood—and thus helping to invent cinéma vérité.
As humidity set in and thunderstorms rolled through the summer of 1993, I’d open the narrow old window by the Cornell Cinema projection booth, as the films I was projecting were running, and crawl out onto the ledge. There, I could see Cayuga Lake curving North. Past that bend lay the Flaherty Seminar.
As I drove up the lake to Wells College, I recalled Richard’s warning: don’t tell anyone in Ithaca or at the Flaherty that you’re sneaking in; this is a secret.
I timed my arrival to sit in the back of the auditorium just as the film began. The windows had been blacked out; the wooden seats in the old auditorium creaked. Raoul Peck’s Lumumba  started. I was spellbound.
I don’t remember how long I lingered that day. Richard was glad I’d made it. I’m surprised that in my excitement I didn’t pick up a speeding ticket or drive straight into the lake on the way home. This first experience sparked my commitment to the Flaherty.
Even though I crashed it and saw only one film, was that my first Flaherty?
In 1994, I joined the seminar staff as assistant projectionist to Michael Grillo, a brilliant art historian who lived in Maine and devoted time each summer to the Wells College 35mm carbon arc projectors. I handled the 16mm films, although it took a few days to adjust to operating the projection equipment without shaking. Michael exuded patience, and so did Phil Wilde and Annie Michel, the video projectionists. Over cheap beer from Phil’s cooler behind the stage, I bonded with them between screenings.
Maybe my first Flaherty happened years later in 1999 at Duke University, when, for the first time I attended the seminar as a participant—and no longer worked in the booth. I looked forward to this Seminar with great enthusiasm, arriving at the end of a week-long road trip, prepared to practice Frances Flaherty’s “non-preconception.”
On the first night, Johan van der Keuken—in person!—climbed onto the stage to denounce the technical staff for butchering the projection of his work. As we say these days, awkward.
After I saw Warren Sonbert’s breathtaking Noblesse Oblige , I stood up during the group discussion and proclaimed its montage genius. From the back row of the auditorium a voice boomed. Legendary direct-cinema filmmaker Ricky Leacock, famous for his honesty, interrupted me to yell out, “YOU’RE BLIND!” Although stunned that an elder had attacked me, I was more stunned by his inability to recognize Sonbert’s vision.
For my “first Flaherty” I could just as easily choose a year when I fell out of love there or a year when I fell in love. I could name a dozen nights on the dance floor when the sequencing of songs and my complex interactions with people far surpassed anything I’d seen on the screen that day. I discovered that DJ’ing the Flaherty is harder than programming the films. When successful, the dance party reaches transcendence.
The last two years I attended have become new “firsts.” Despite its warts and wounds and boring enfants terribles, Nuno Lisboa’s “Future Remains” in 2017 revived the Flaherty for me once again.
Alone in the Adirondack Mountains after that Seminar and occasionally ducking out of my tent for a rainy hike, I returned to a question. Why didn’t Nuno screen a Flaherty film, which was considered a seminar programming tradition? A longtime participant had conjectured, “Frances would be rolling in her grave.”
But later, upon examining the previous sixty-two years, I found that 2017 did not violate the sacrosanct tradition. In fact, 2017 represented the ninth or tenth time a Flaherty film was not screened.
How easily we mythologize the Flaherty, even those of us with years of experience at the seminar.
Recently, as I was scrolling through the Flaherty Seminar’s online database and hopping through the years, line by line, a realization occurred to me. “Future remains” was exactly the right title for Nuno’s program.
Non-preconception suggests the non-linear. If you embrace the Flaherty’s contradictions, you can then work through the ambiguities of non-preconception. In the theater, the future remains unknown, and the past cannot yet be known. Each screening conjures an experiment in seeing anew, with consequences for the past and the future past. The Flaherty extends beyond the seminar week and beyond the films into our lives.
In 2016, David Pendleton programmed the Flaherty around the theme of “Play.” This became another first Flaherty, since for the first time in my life, I felt mortality’s pressures, limits, and lightness. I wept multiple times, especially when witnessing the beauty of Portuguese filmmaker Joaquim Pinto’s survival-by-camera in films such as E agora? Lembra-me [What Now? Remind Me, 2013] and Rabo de Peixe [Fish Tail, 2003].
The moon seemed to appear during each of the films in David’s program. It seemed as though he had delicately placed it into each of the works. These moons reminded me that our time on Earth is brief. I drove away from that seminar and called my friends. I told them that I loved them.