Voices from the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar
Wednesday, November 28, 2018
My Flaherty story really begins at the end of my first Flaherty seminar. But let’s start at the beginning.
In 2010, Dennis Lim curated a Flaherty Seminar on the theme of Work. He included films by Zhao Dayong, an indie filmmaker from mainland China. My company, dGenerate Films, distributes Dayong’s documentaries. We helped facilitate his visa to the US so he could attend.
Dayong returned filled with passion and joy about his Flaherty experience. His enthusiasm inspired us to think about mounting a Flaherty Seminar in China. Independent cinema was in a sense flourishing in mainland China at the time. Several independent Chinese film festivals were showcasing groundbreaking Chinese documentary work that would also premiere at Rotterdam, Venice, Cannes, Berlin. A Flaherty Seminar seemed an essential next step to further deepen documentary discourse in China.
Mary Kerr, then executive director of the Flaherty, and I started brainstorming. We talked about a smaller scale Flaherty seminar to test the waters, maybe a three-day event. Excited, we thought about how the Chinese public, the independent filmmaking milieu, and men and women in academic circles might accept a Flaherty-Seminar type event. We discussed whether we would allow international attendees or limit it to Chinese participants.
In 2011, I was invited to the Seminar as a Leo Dratfield Fellow, a special award to get a programmer and mid-career filmmaker to the event. This was my chance to see how the Seminar worked and to determine which elements of it we could feasibly bring to China.
I had another reason for attending. I wanted to meet the other Leo Dratfield Fellow, independent filmmaker Matthew Porterfield. Matt makes microbudget films set in Baltimore, his hometown, with non-professional actors. I had recently seen and loved Matt’s Putty Hill . I felt his work was reshaping American independent cinema.
When I arrived on the Colgate University campus on a summer day in 2011, I was reverberating with excitement and passion for cinema.
However, the Flaherty’s rigorous eating, screening, and discussion schedule soon caused me to fall behind in my producing and distributing work. Producers are essentially on call twenty-four seven. We spend our days negotiating and renegotiating deals, listening to grievances, resolving conflicts, hiring and firing. In the midst of this chaos, we offer creative feedback and guidance. Distribution, on the other hand, requires sustained attention to licensing agreements, marketing assets, bookings, DVD covers, and print traffic logistics.
I ran back and forth to my dorm room in between screenings and discussions, trying to keep up with the work. When Monday morning rolled around, emails, texts, and calls overwhelmed me. I walked around campus muttering, “Who has time to watch and discuss movies all day!” It felt like a faraway ideal I couldn’t reach. I gave up making time to eat.
By Day Three, I was exhausted and needed to return to reality. Former Flaherty executive director and Museum of Modern Art curator, Sally Berger and her partner offered me a seat back to Brooklyn in their car. In 2010, Sally and I had traveled to Beijing and Nanjing to visit China’s then thriving independent film scene. In 2013 at MoMA, Sally Berger curated a groundbreaking 25-year retrospective called “Chinese Realities/Documentary Visions,” co-curated by dGenerate Films programmer Kevin Lee. As I write this in 2018, the film festivals Sally and I attended have been shut down or forced out of the public sphere. Many of China’s best independent documentary makers, including Zhao Dayong, have left mainland China.
Though I left that first Seminar early, filled with guilt, it turned out that my Flaherty experience was just beginning; it would continue to reverberate.
Against the odds, in 2012, with the help of curator Ou Ning (Meishi Street ) and leading Chinese independent film figure/curator/professor/producer Zhang Xianmin, plans for a mini-Flaherty in China started to come together.
But with the transfer of power to Xi Jinping, the environment in China had become more conservative. Mary Kerr and two Flaherty filmmakers, Ilisa Barbash and Laura Kissel, flew to China to present their work at the Bishan Harvest Festival in Anhui. When they landed in Shanghai, they learned that the authorities had shut down the festival.
However, private screenings continued, and Laura was also able to arrange university screenings in Hangzhou and Shanghai.
Later, during his first US visit, Zhang Xianmin presented a paper called “How to Kill a Festival” at New York University, which analyzed the death of independent film festivals in China, including plans for a Chinese Flaherty Seminar experience.
Nevertheless, the Flaherty experience continued to amplify. The films we had proposed for the Chinese Flaherty found their way to a new screening series, called ISAAS (Indie Screening Alliance of Art Spaces), curated by Zhang Xianmin. ISAAS and other screening series offered decentralized networks of alternative screening spaces in mainland China, providing a way for curators to screen films for localized audiences. Zhang Xianmin sent four Flaherty-selected titles to be included in this 2015 screening tour.
The Flaherty continues to reverberate for me. When I lived in Lisbon in 2016, I spent time with Nuno Lisboa, and guest taught in his film class at the Escola Superior de Artes e Design de Caldas da Rainha. Nuno curated the 2017 Flaherty, and runs Docs Kingdom in Portugal, another Flaherty-inspired global gathering.
Matt Porterfield and I have stayed in touch and are supporters of each other’s work. A few months ago, Matt asked me to mentor one of his promising film students in the Johns Hopkins University Film and Media Studies program.
Through these past ten years and the ongoing amplifications of my original, truncated Flaherty experience, my first impression of the Seminar hasn’t changed much. The Flaherty is both an imagined ideal and a real space. It’s where gathering together all day and all night to watch and discuss movies embodies not only a privilege, but a freedom worth fighting for.
Friday, November 23, 2018
My first connection with the Flaherty Seminar was not auspicious.
In 1977, I came from Argentina to the US to study under Sol Worth at the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania.
At the first class, we learned Sol had passed away the week before at something called the Flaherty Seminar. The school was in shock.
I took the Documentary Film Lab under two of Sol’s Ph.D. students, Bob Aibel and George Custen, who became good friends. Bob programmed a series with many films he’d seen at Flaherty. He insisted I go. I finally made it in 1980.
John Katz programmed an impressive film line-up ranging across feature films such as Robert M. Young’s Alambrista  and Anne-Clair Poirier’s Mourir à tue-tête [Scream from Silence, 1979] to animations by Doris Chase, Emily Hubley and Derek Lamb to Les Blank’s Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers —Les sold t-shirts for the film out of a leather suitcase. I still have mine.
I was hooked.
In 1981, the seminar traveled to the University of California San Diego at La Jolla, where it was programmed by Stan Lawder. The Pacific Ocean setting was heavenly, but the programming reflected unease about the nuclear arms race under President Reagan.
That year also brought classics like Ed Pincus’ Diaries (1971-1976) [c.1980], which opened a new way to explore personal relationships. The highlight for me was the 16mm double-system presentation of Les Blank’s work-in-progress, Werner Herzog in Peru, on the making of Fitzcarraldo . Les was open to reactions in a very fruitful post-screening discussion. This project became Burden of Dreams , a better film than Fitzcarraldo.
The food at this seminar was less than stellar. On the second day, I wrangled a few people to go down the hill for lunch at a nudist beach. A few days later, what began as a trickle of people had become a crowd.
The 1982 seminar was held at Camp Topridge in the Adirondacks, programmed by the legendary Erik Barnouw. Camp Topridge was one of Marjorie Merriweather Post’s homes. Screenings happened in the vast living room adorned with trophy heads.
1982 was the height of nuclear war fears. I was honored Erik showed my short, Button, Button: A Dream of Nuclear War . For many years, I shared my films with Erik. He sent back lovely cards with thoughtful reactions.
Other nuclear war films included the recently restored Atomic Café  and Tom Johnson and Lance Bird’s No Place to Hide . Both made masterful use of archival footage. Video appeared with Daniel Reeves’ brilliant Smothering Dreams  and Edin Velez’ Meta Mayan II .
Bill Sloan, then the film librarian at the Museum of Modern Art, invited me to join the Board of Trustees. The invitation was a great honor. I was one of the youngest trustees—the others had links to Frances Flaherty and the first seminars. Board meetings were held in Vermont at the hilltop home of Paul and Dorothy Olson. Paul was a kind, gracious attorney who ran everything by the book. Dorothy made a killer pumpkin soup.
1986 featured the great Brazilian Eduardo Coutinho, Ross McElwee, Richard Gordon, Carma Hinton, and Henry Hampton. Their work showed the power of documentary to enlighten the human condition. Henry brought Eyes on the Prize , a soon-to-be-released groundbreaking history of the civil rights movement. He piloted his small plane to the seminar; I picked him up at a nearby airport. The discussions, which missed the point of the series’ achievement, bemused him.
In 1995, Richard Herskowitz tricked me. He suggested I follow him as president. He said, “It’s no big deal, doesn’t take much time.”
As co-president and then president, I weathered tough times on the financial side and around struggles to make the organization more inclusive. Tom Johnson and Patti Bruck stepped forward to save the seminar, providing crucial financial support through family foundations.
In 1998, thanks to funding provided by longtime friend of the seminar Steve Scheuer, we presented an additional seminar in Israel, programmed by Bobby Abrash and Linda Blackaby. Ricky Leacock and George Stoney presented their work and gave classes at Tel Aviv University.
We tried to include Palestinian filmmakers, a great challenge. Our Israeli partners contended: “We invited them, they didn’t come.” Daoud Kuttab, producer of a local version of Sesame Street, did come. The polarization became evident during an explosive discussion of Amos Gitai’s House in Jerusalem . A film professor accused Amos of being a traitor for daring to explore Palestinian past-home ownership.
During the wrap up, our local partner Dani Waxman said, “You showed us how to do it, now we have to do it.” Years later, I found out that Dani and other documentarians had gathered every year for four years and even published the proceedings!
The 2010 seminar coincided with the soccer World Cup. Fans of Mexico, Argentina, and Spain fulfilled their obligation to watch their countries’ matches. Alas, a few screenings were missed.
The seminar leaves lasting memories. Taking a leak alongside Raoul Peck while I gushed over his masterful L’homme sur les quais [The Man on the Shore, 1993]. The gracious Johann Van der Keuken and his observational films. Walking to lunch with Marlon Riggs after being blown away by Tongues Untied . Catching up about mutual Cambridge friends on the lovely Lake Cayuga dock with Mira Nair. Discovering the work of Ulrike Ottinger and finding out we shared a great friend, Ellen Auerbach, the subject of my film Ringl and Pit .
The most successful seminars mix realist docs, experimental, and animation to explore the human condition and provoke emotional responses. I fear the Flaherty’s humanist tradition is slipping away to favor the latest formalist fads.
Extraordinary documentaries such as Giancarlo Rossi’s Fuocoammare [Fire at Sea, 2016], on the immigration crisis in the Mediterranean, don’t seem to have a chance of a seminar screening now. I hope future programmers will keep in mind the Flaherty’s humanist origins.
Thursday, November 8, 2018
In transit to my first Robert Flaherty Film Seminar in 1999, I read the organization’s description of what to expect during the weeklong immersive retreat. I wondered, is this a cult? A closed circle of devotees of a venerated figure restricted to a liminal space during an annual ritual of intense discussion of ideas and beliefs, with all meals taken together, sleep deprivation, separation from family, and complete secrecy about the esoteric content to be revealed in a darkened room by a curate selected by the elders?
Well…yes. But I found that beneath the cult-like veneer the event was defined by more liberatory experiences: exposure to new and rare screen works; personal encounters with interesting people from diverse places; long talks with likeminded souls; plenty of laughter amid the debates; the pleasures that come with food, drink, music, and dance, and hours of film discovery.
I’ve returned to seven more seminars, including the one I was fortunate to program in 2011.
The bonds formed are often lasting. Many friendships and meaningful professional collaborations began for me at a Flaherty Seminar.
The best example of what the seminar can do at its most utopian came at the end of my first. Two of the guest artists were avant-garde film programmers, Mark McElhatten and Scott Stark. One of their planned screenings got bumped, but they, abetted by Tom Whiteside, set up a 16mm projector and screen on the lawn and improvised a set of shorts that lasted literally till dawn. Unidentified home movies, TV newsfilm outtakes, Warhol’s Soap Opera, a soft-core film that looked like a Warhol, an indelible 1968 medical training film called The Inner World of Aphasia, and inscrutable pieces of found footage—a thrilling end to a derangement (as Mekas famously called for) of the cinematic senses.
The experience encouraged me later that year as I co-organized the first Orphan Film Symposium along similar lines: eclectic, unconventional programming of short archival, documentary, and experimental films, packed into an intense several days and nights with a hundred enthusiasts.
I returned the following year for a Flaherty designated “Essays, Experiments, and Excavations,” ingeniously programmed by Kathy Geritz, which took the eclecticism of that lawn-til-dawn screening and expanded it for the entire week. The screenings were particularly enriched by historical films selected by both the curator and her guest artists.
Filmmaker Peggy Ahwesh picked Little Tich and His Big Boots  to accompany her own works. Geritz put three versions of the Lumières’ Workers Leaving the Factory  before Harun Farocki’s 1995 video of the same name; and, for new filmmaker Travis Wilkerson, 79 Springtimes of Ho Chi Minh  and Now!  by Santiago Álvarez, the Cuban filmmaker who inspired him. We also saw uncanny films by surrealist-scientist Jean Painlevé and F. Percy Smith’s The Acrobatic Fly .
As a heritage organization, the Flaherty has always dealt with the tension inherent in its mission: keeping the name, films, and legacy of the Flahertys alive while also supporting independent media makers and showcasing new work. I was always puzzled by the event’s maintenance of a reverence for Robert J. Flaherty amid its well-earned reputation for discussions that sharply critique the colonialist roots and practices of the Western documentary tradition.
My first seminar experience certainly included heated exchanges about representations of race, but also playful uses of the iconic Nanook character. What I didn’t hear was negative critique of Flaherty films. In 1999 we screened George Amberg’s Louisiana Story Study Film , two hours of cinematographer Richard Leacock and Frances Flaherty narrating outtakes from the 1948 documentary. Having legendary Ricky Leacock’s booming voice at that seminar gave the week a charge. Yet, as in his 1962 narration, he spoke of “Bob” only in hagiographic terms. This was curiously removed from the prevailing critical discourses on documentary film history even in 1999.
Nearly twenty years later the Flaherty continues to thrive as a platform for independent work, but the devotion to its namesake has recently waned. The 2017 seminar showed no films by Robert Flaherty, and 2018 brought the official phasing out of the Nanook logo.
A Flaherty Seminar conception I find problematic is the devotion to Frances Flaherty’s neologism “non-preconception”: open your mind to experience new work with fresh eyes and ears. Yet every person comes to a film with sets of conceptions and experiences. When an audience takes in an unfamiliar screening with no introduction (a seminar tradition), the potential for misconception is ripe. Follow that immediately with a group discussion (before reading the notes distributed after) and misunderstandings can get amplified.
Another tension exists between the non-preconception ideal and the seminar’s commissioning programmers to identify a central theme and a title advertising it. Suggesting to an audience that a film is about x (sound, work, play, scent, etc.) sets expectations, which may or may not focus on the strengths of the work shown.
When invited to program the 2011 seminar, I had in mind Geritz’s 2000 admixture of a century of shorts. I was able to assemble a wide-ranging variety of films, many relevant to the Flaherty legacy. These included rare archival pieces: Leacock and Flaherty’s 1947 color “survey film” of locations shot in preparation for Louisiana Story (owned by the Flaherty Study Center but never shown at the seminar); a 1960 Kodachrome film shot during the sixth seminar <youtube.com/watch?v=f8i8pESv4YA>; and two silents brought by Paula Félix-Didier from the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires, both made to capitalize on Nanook’s commercial success: Kivalina of the Icelands (a 1925 fairytale shot in Arctic Alaska with an Inuit cast) and En las Orcadas del Sur , shot on Antarctic islands by an Argentine scientist).
However, feedback from the organization, throughout the selection process, encouraged me to keep a thematic core, which in the end became sound and the title “Sonic Truth.” In 2014, the executive director convened an informal Flaherty “Programmers Circle” to brainstorm about future directions. One point of consensus among those who had curated for the series was that a singular theme was an unnecessary limitation on creating an optimal program.
This said, we also agreed that the seminar continues to reward those who attend. Further, the spring and fall Flaherty NYC series allow for more curatorial voices, ever-new cinematic forms, and local audiences unable to attend the traditional seven-day immersion.
When I returned in 2017 after six years away, I found the formula still stimulating, and the desire to stay up all night every night had not subsided. The energy was independent of the film viewings per se. It came from a multi-sensational social experience that was too pleasurable and liberating to be a cult.
Sunday, November 4, 2018
Back in the early 1980s, I was working for Gerald O’Grady at Media Study/Buffalo, a regional media arts center. For six years, I served as the Film Programmer there, organizing series that ranged from programs of classic narrative cinema and the various New Waves to contemporary independent and avant-garde films.
The roster of visiting filmmakers who came to screen and discuss their work ranged from feature-film directors such as Chantal Akerman, Jonathan Demme, and Wim Wenders to key figures in the avant-garde such as James Benning, VALIE EXPORT, and Yvonne Rainer, to influential documentary filmmakers such as Richard Leacock, Marcel Ophuls, and D. A. Pennebaker.
During that period, I became involved in a pair of collaborative projects with Melinda Ward, then director of the Film/Video Department at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. One of these involved organizing and curating a touring film series titled “The American New Wave: 1958–1967,” which premiered in January 1983 at the Sundance Film Festival.
The project began during a period of growing interest in alternatives to Hollywood movies and commercial television. It was designed to showcase films from an earlier generation of American independent filmmakers active in the late 1950s and early-to- mid-1960s. Makers of that period such as John Cassavetes, Shirley Clarke, Robert Frank, and Jonas Mekas were attempting to create a new form of feature filmmaking that paralleled the New Waves emerging in Europe. The National Endowment for the Arts funded this touring program, which was shown across the US at museums, film archives, media centers, and universities.
The second project initiated with Melinda was programming the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar in the summer of 1983. Our partner in both undertakings was Bill Horrigan, my close colleague from the graduate program in cinema studies at Northwestern University (then Melinda’s assistant).
At the time, Melinda and Bill were also actively engaged in the creation of the PBS series Alive from Off Center, which focused on contemporary performing and media artists whose works were too experimental for the more established PBS series Live from Lincoln Center. Alive gave television viewers their first encounters with the musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson, storyteller Spalding Gray, photographer William Wegman, and dancer and choreographer Trisha Brown.
When we were invited to program the 1983 Seminar, there was no announced concept for the week, as was Flaherty’s practice at the time. This said, for each day, we devised screenings that revolved around a particular theme, even if that theme sometimes shifted meaning during the course of moving from morning to afternoon to evening sessions.
Our first full day was devoted to the theme of “youth.” We started in the morning with a Paper Tiger Television program that critiqued Seventeen magazine, continued with three compelling new nonfiction films about young people—Bill Jersey’s Children of Violence , Josh Hanig’s Coming of Age , and Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines’ Seventeen —and ended with William Farley’s Citizen , a lively portrait of a group of young West Coast performance artists roaming the streets of San Francisco.
Another daily focus probed the heritage of radical politics within the history of nonfiction filmmaking. The program initiated this theme with a morning screening of Chris Marker’s short experimental video Guerre et Revolution . It continued with two feature films, Leo Hurwitz’s two-part feature Dialogue with a Woman Departed  and James Klein and Julia Reichert’s Seeing Red .
Had Melinda and I given that year’s seminar a name, it might have been something on the order of “bordering on fiction.” This concept was perhaps best exemplified by the boundary-blurring practice of our main guest, Filipino filmmaker Kidlat Tahimik, who had directed Perfumed Nightmare . He used his appearance at the Seminar to share his newer features, Turumba  and Who Invented the Yoyo/Who Invented the Moonbuggy [1980–81]. Because this reflexivity was conducive to comedy, much of Kidlat’s work involved a level of playfulness not typically associated with nonfiction filmmaking.
No less forceful in their hybridity were films like Jill Godmilow’s Far from Poland  (shown as a work-in-progress) and Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Reassemblage . Michelle Citron’s What You Take for Granted  provoked heated debate among Seminar participants. This explicitly feminist film focused on the growing relationship between two women, a blue-collar worker and a professional. Their story was intercut with a series of fictionalized interviews with other working women (based on actual interviews). For some participants, this hybrid form seemed to undermine valued tenets of nonfiction filmmaking. For others it represented a significant innovation.
In many ways, this mode of organizing programs around thematic conceits emerged as an offshoot of our own professional endeavors. We were all programmers or, as we eventually came to be called in the 1990s, curators. Our thematic bent, then, was more aligned with the art world, which was somewhat different from either the academic or production communities at Flaherty. Rather than focused on explicating or producing individual works, the curator’s role is to organize ensembles of work for exhibition around authorial or thematic subjects. Such exhibition is intended to elicit relationships among works in order to signal historical movements or reveal contemporary trends. It was this perspective that Melinda, Bill, and I brought to the Flaherty programming that year.
To this day, I remain deeply indebted to those programmers who came before me, each of whom devoted a lifetime to screening and advancing the work of avant-garde artists, documentary directors, and independent filmmakers. Amos and Marcia Vogel, founders of the seminal Cinema 16; Ulrich Gregor, who founded and programmed the Forum section of the Berlinale for many years; Adrienne Mancia, the mainstay for me at Museum of Modern Art; and Edith Kramer, the heart and soul of the Pacific Film Archive define this group of engaged cineastes.
Sunday, November 4, 2018
Attending the Flaherty four times over a span of many years has been really valuable, really exhausting, really fun, really instructive, and sometimes (really) aggravating.
Full disclosure: For financial reasons I’ve only attended on the four occasions when films of mine were showing. Needless to say, it would be great to attend in other years so that I could see a lot of films and interact with many interesting people, but also because there wouldn’t be the pressure to be on.
I attended my first Flaherty in 1987 with The Ties That Bind  and Damned If You Don’t , when Richard Herskowitz was the programmer. I was thrilled to be invited and even happier when I arrived at Wells College and saw that lake. Oh, that lake!! After hours of watching filmsfilmsfilmsfilms and talkingtalkingtalkingtalking, it was sheer bliss to jump off the dock into the beautiful water of Cayuga Lake.
I was impressed by the quality of the films and the discussions, although it was back in the day and there was a little too much of “This doesn’t follow the acceptable rules of what a documentary should be” coming from the old guard. And although those remarks were tedious, they weren’t surprising: Richard, with his wealth of knowledge about experimental film, had decided to break the box open, to bring works (like mine and many others) which weren’t obeying the rules about how to make a “proper” documentary. It was an excellent move on his part that helped to open up Flaherty in ways that are still reverberating, and which he did even more aggressively (I use that adverb as a compliment) when programming the 1999 Flaherty with Orlando Bagwell.
I don’t recall being chastised for breaking those rules, but was astonished to be told by a woman during the discussion about Damned If You Don’t that it “wasn’t yet time” for films to be showing the female nude. She cited Laura Mulvey’s famous and influential analysis of the male gaze, while I pointed out that I was a female doing the gazing, and a lesbian at that!
Three years later, in 1990, I was extremely fortunate to be invited to the special Flaherty seminar held in Riga, Latvia, where I screened The Ties That Bind. This one was programmed by Richard Herskowitz, Raul Zaritsky, Ivars Seleckis and Abraham Kalzkins, and was structured so that half the group were Americans and half were from the Soviet Union (which dissolved a year later).
It would take many pages to describe that experience; suffice it to say that it was one of the highlights of my forty years as a filmmaker. There was no lake this time; instead, we swam in a lot of good vodka.
The very funny/ironic/preposterous/predictable aspect of the seminar was that the Americans kept ooh’ing over the fact that the Soviet filmmakers had access to shoot in 35mm and were making films which often relied on visually and intellectually wonderful metaphors (since they couldn’t speak openly about political or social issues) while the Soviets did the same amount of ooh’ing over our ability to shoot down and dirty anywhere we wanted, and to speak so openly about our political and social concerns.
One thing I will always feel grateful for was the chance to spend so much time with Marlon Riggs, who died just a few years later from complications related to AIDS.
The third opportunity came in 1998, when Barbara Abrash and Linda Blackaby invited me to show Hide and Seek . I don’t have any memory of the responses to the film, but it might have been problematic since half of Hide and Seek is narrative—but by now there was more acceptance of, and interest in, the ways that one could problematize documentary, or simply use it as one part of a film which also drew on other genres.
What I do remember is that they invited Hirokazu Kore-eda to show the documentary Without Memory  and his second feature narrative, After Life . Both films were revelatory, in so many ways, and have had a lasting impact on me. I was also delighted to discover the work of Ning Ying, especially On the Beat .
Most recently, in 2012, Josetxo Cerdan included three of my films in his “Open Wounds” seminar: The Head of a Pin , The Odds of Recovery , and Gut Renovation , a feature documentary about the destruction of my neighborhood in Brooklyn.
Aside from a kerfuffle during the discussion about Gut Renovation with a filmmaker who felt that what I was doing was “wrong” in some way (I guess in comparison with what I had done earlier on; maybe I’m supposed to keep remaking Sink or Swim  for the rest of my life?), it was another great experience.
It seems that each Flaherty introduces me to one filmmaker’s work that particularly blows my mind. In this case, it was the work of Leila Pakalnina, and I wasn’t the only attendee who fell head over heels for her work.
But speaking of kerfuffles, that’s a known and remarkable aspect of the seminar. One can’t (proverbially) lock 100+ people in a room all day every day for a week without there being an explosion halfway through. I recall during my first or second time at the Flaherty, the filmmakers who had done Atomic Café presented a work-in-progress about animal rights. Like Atomic Café, it seemed to me that they’d done solid research and had an impressive array of archival material to illustrate each of the themes they were planning to cover. But some attendees went ballistic, accusing them of insensitivity to the issue, etc., etc.
Usually during these blow-ups, people step in to defend the filmmaker(s), who are understandably in a certain amount of shock. I don’t recall whether I defended them or their film, though I might have, because I tend to jump into a fight. I do hope that I did. The Flaherty is an environment in which it’s presumed that serious conversations will take place about the effectiveness of a film, and any filmmaker who presents their work should be prepared and should allow that to happen. But this other thing? Naaah….
But aside from that annual funkiness, the Flaherty is remarkable. I feel grateful for all that I’ve learned when attending, and for the filmmakers, scholars, and programmers who I first befriended at the seminar and with whom I have kept in touch during the many years since.
Sunday, November 4, 2018
“The Flaherty” occupies a spot in my memory. Or is it in my imaginary?
Imaginaire doesn’t have an exact equivalent in English; it means in French something like “the territory of imagination.”
The Seminar is a place I had tried to picture in my mind for a long time after being told —with no further explanation—that I should definitely attend.
In the cinema milieu I come from, the Flaherty also strikes a chord in the historical imagination. It is where, in 1959 at the University of California, Santa Barbara, mythical pioneer cameraman Michel Brault met Jean Rouch, who invited Brault to experiment abroad with his “direct cinema” approach to filming “life as is.” Emerging French-Canadian filmmakers didn’t get much chance of feeling part of the world of cinema back then, but somehow the Flaherty had made that happen. Also, Maya Deren became one of the great influences on this so-called father of Québec cinema, and I like to think that the Flaherty played a part in that.
In June 2011, I had the privilege of being included in the mostly female cast of Dan Streible’s “Sonic Truth” program at Colgate University. I showed The Phantom of the Operator (2004), the first cut of my feature-length documentary on the mystery of the Ondes Martenot musical instrument (Wavemakers, 2012) and my double-screen/double-soundtrack installation Industry/Cinema (2011). Although I believe that the exploration of the intersections between sound/music/voice and the documentary could have been taken much further than the theme invited us to imagine, the Seminar continued its traditional magic to provoke some important encounters that summer of 2011.
Image-memories still resonate:
Upon my arrival, the sight of my bunk bed bringing me back to my Girl Guide summer camp years and the thought, “Be Prepared.”
The 1950s-style cafeteria and the thrill of wondering who will I get to sit next to this time?
The very moment when, seconds after the dark screen lights up, the man beside me asks, “whose film is this?” —and I answer, “mine!”
Frank Scheffer —who confessed later that he would have shit his pants if he had dared, like I did, to show an unfinished documentary—suggesting that we should say “work-in-process” rather than “work-in-progress.” I have been faithful to his insight ever since.
Pioneer computer animator Lillian Schwartz sharing her recent epiphany that the films she directed decades earlier at the Bell Labs were in three dimensions, or, minimally, enhanced by the 3D glasses we all wore happily for one of the 2011 Flaherty group portrait.
Fellow Québécoise musician Kareya Audet getting invited by Schwartz to score some of her work.
A Famous Movie Person (the otherwise quite charming Samuel D. Pollard, editor and co-conspirator of Spike Lee) making me a bit grumpy for not playing by the rules of the Seminar and just showing up for his part—in other words, not enduring the experience/experiment from beginning to end, like everyone else.
The discovery of the oeuvre of free spirit Les Blank documenting, among gap-toothed women and other wildly beautiful humans, the life of some French-from-the-Americas descendants like me, making music in Louisiana. We talked about showing a retrospective of his work in Montréal, which he was keen to do, but unfortunately he left us all before that could happen. Since then, whenever I hear “Less is More,” I think of Les.
Jodie Mack igniting conversations about giving more space to experimental cinema in the Flaherty programming.
By the campfire, encountering a meeting of the minds with professor Wini Wood, who later brought me to Wellesley (“Hilary’s college”!) to present my work and mentor her students.
George Stoney sharing his insights about the Direct Cinema tradition I come from in Francophone Canada, which is rarely acknowledged in documentary anthology books (mostly written by Americans or French), and moi realizing he likely became the public access television pioneer he was in the US thanks in part to his involvement with the National Film Board of Canada’s (NFB) Challenge for Change program at the end of the 1960s.
The time I saw Phantom of the Operator as a pinkish black-and-white Betacam video instead of as the multi-colour archival film it is—perhaps the worst screening it has had, but with an audience who wouldn’t blink. The projectionist, West Coast filmmaker Gibbs Chapman, taught me that I could have put the show on pause to switch to DVD. A few days later, at Union Docs in Brooklyn, I would scream, “Stop!” at the bad start of the screening of another work.
And last, the feeling of returning home, solidified by a sort of never-alone-now feeling when I have to face the well-meaning NFB production and distribution civil servants/bureaucrats, and festival moguls around the world.
The Flaherty also got me a gig as a visiting scholar teaching film at Virginia Commonwealth University, through some mysterious references. I suspect one was from the spectator whose Southern accent I could barely understand in the conversations following the screening of my work-in-process, but who somehow offered the boldest comments. James Parish became my beloved colleague. He eventually co-founded The Bijou, a micro-cinema in Richmond, Virginia, where I’m certain the spirit of the Seminar thrives during post-screening Q&As.
One of the takeaways of the Seminar was experimenting with Frances Flaherty’s radical notion of non-preconception to assume a bare and raw position before the big screen, to take "life as is" as it was projected by filmmakers —and projected back by spectators. More than ever now, I take to heart being a spectator, and watching films well became to me something to revere as much as making films well.
The Flaherty remains an ideal documentary think tank and an event I always want to go back to. Since the summer of 2011, every spring I believe this time I will return for real—my imaginary embodied.