Voices from the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar
Thursday, February 1, 2018
I was asked by Mary Kerr to film a trailer for the seminar, something that could be used for “propaganda” purposes.
The filming was to take place during the 2010 seminar, “WORK,” programmed by Dennis Lim. The idea was to give viewers the visceral sensation of being in the thick of it, as if they were taking part in the screenings, discussions, and the extra-curricular activities.
I’d been a Flaherty filmmaker the year before. The 2009 Seminar, “MONUMENTS, WITNESSES, RUINS,” programmed by Irina Leimbacher, was my first, and it was love at first sight. I was happy to help promote the cult of Flaherty.
I was delighted to find out that my friend Josh Solondz would be participating in the project as assistant director. Josh and I were born on the same day (December 11). The stars were definitely aligning in our favor.
Our producer was Mary Kerr herself; Lucila Moctezuma was associate producer. We enlisted the help of Gerry Hooper, a frequent Flaherty participant and an experienced DP, who had worked in Bollywood on the breakthrough gangster film Satya .
From the start, the idea was to conduct interviews with the Seminar filmmakers. This would be a way for us to get to know them, learn from them, poke fun at them and, perhaps, to abuse them a bit. Our team got a boost from Daniela Alatorre, who helped us with the interviews, and from Eva Weber, who worked as general assistant.
Our dual role made the Seminar experience exhilarating for me—and a constant challenge. But because of our special situation, we could see more than an average participant, and we could enjoy the comic aspect of this gathering of film lovers who brought their various preconceived notions and prejudices to a place where non-preconception was the official rule.
We’d been asked to make a trailer, something on the level of a brief commercial, but somehow we were inspired to approach the task as a serious film project. Surrounded by brilliant seminar filmmakers, academics, and other outstanding participants, I felt we had to try for the highest level of excellence.
The problem was, I didn’t know what I was doing. I’d hardly ever filmed human beings, except for dead ones!—in Nascentes Morimur . I’d filmed pigs and naked mole rats, and sewage!
I tried to place the interviewed filmmakers in environments corresponding to the atmosphere of their films. Michael Glawogger’s Megacities  and Workingman’s Death  put viewers in the midst of perilous workplaces: a slaughterhouse in Nigeria, a do-it-yourself coal mine in the Ukraine, sulphur collection inside an Indonesian volcano... We interviewed Michael in the Flaherty kitchen, in the midst of the clamor, with workers passing in front of the camera.
I would start each interview asking about the idea of non-preconception. Michael asserted that there was no such thing, but that it was a nice idea to entertain.
We shot two great Mexican filmmakers, friends and rivals, Eugenio Polgovsky and Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio, in the swimming pool, a location suggested by Pedro’s Alamar .
For Lisandro Alonso, we tried a Hitchcockian Vertigo zoom—suggested by Lisandro’s film Los Muertos . As Lisandro and Dennis Lim walked up a ramp towards the camera, which had been placed on a rug, we attempted, at first without success, to pull the rug and camera backwards as I zoomed in. Lisandro was amused, and said that our clumsiness reminded him of shooting Los Muertos in the midst of the jungle. We enlisted the filmmaker Uruphong Raksasad to help us, and the rug began to move.
We filmed the artist Mika Rottenberg at the local gym, using exercise machines and lifting weights as she spoke—a fabulous location full of reflections in the mirrors and different types of bodies in motion. At some point my conversation with Mika veered toward sex. That part was later excised from the online interview. Flaherty censorship! The official version is posted below.
We also interviewed Uruphong, Lucy Raven, Benj Gerdes and Jennifer Hayashida, Akosua Adoma Owusu, Alex Rivera, Kazuhiro Soda, Zhao Dayong, and Naomi Uman. The interviews were exhaustive. We’d set no limit to how long the conversations should be.
We began to spread the word that this would be a feature film about the seminar. We quickly produced a meta-trailer for that fictitious feature, while working on the trailer proper. In our meta-trailer Bill Brand, using the small, waterproof Kodak camera Mary Kerr had loaned us, filmed underwater shots of Lucy Raven doing laps in the pool. Dennis agreed to show the meta-trailer as part of a regular screening. I wonder if this was the first time that a film made during the seminar was shown at the seminar?
After “WORK” was finished, Josh and I began editing our many hours of footage. We loved the material and had endless fun with it. During particularly hot summer days we’d strip and edit au naturel. Many versions were created, representing the various modes of experimental filmmaking. Six months later we had a 2 ½-hour feature.
We’d have continued, had Mary not come by to bring us back to reality: the Flaherty, she reminded us, had requested only a 2-minute piece.
Josh and I are still entertaining the idea of making the feature. After all, there’s entire archive of interview footage, as well as discussion tapes that could be tapped. The feature could be endless, a Flaherty film that continues to grow longer, like the Flaherty experience itself, which feeds us and through which we continue to grow.
The official Flaherty Trailer: https://vimeo.com/18136767
Michael Glawogger interview: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=3EsqC6I7Hm0
Mika Rottenberg interview: https://vimeo.com/23155242
(Thanks to Josh Solondz and Jim Supanick for reviewing and adding valuable points to this piece.)
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