Voices from the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar
Tuesday, May 29, 2018
The 1986 Flaherty Seminar at Wells College in Aurora, NY, stands nearly equidistant between the first Flaherty Seminar in 1955 and the present.
The 1986 Flaherty pivoted the seminar to align with exciting new contributions to documentary filmmaking.
The powerful social and political movements of the 1960s and 1970s increased access to filmmaking for women and people of color. The African-American Civil Rights Movement crested with the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 and the resulting civil unrest in major urban areas. Black Power reflected black self-identification and a more militant stance. Resistance to the unpopular US war in Vietnam, especially on college campuses, took demonstrations into the streets to burn compulsory draft cards. Women became more self-assured, refusing subservient and unequal treatment. These upheavals fostered emerging voices, new stories, innovative forms, and fresh perspectives. Filmmakers began to explore identity issues and challenge accepted social mores.
The films we programmed in 1986 reflected the issues of the times: life in the developing world, the long struggles in the US against racism and for equal rights, the experience of searching for roots, the long reverberations of Brazilian dictatorship in Brazil, and indigenous, immigrant, LGBTQ, and other communities that had rarely been heard from before in documentary or highlighted at the Flaherty.
As community-based media organizers and film programmers, we had been deeply involved with creating platforms to showcase politically engaged work. We brought our commitment and background to using film to the Flaherty Seminar. We wanted to curate new voices into a meaningful, cogent program.
Esme Dick, the Executive Director of International Film Seminars, the organization that presents the Flaherty Seminar, invited Tony to program the 1986 seminar. At the time, Tony was a Flaherty board member and professor in the Learning Resources Division of the University of the District of Columbia in Washington, DC. He also founded and directed the university’s Black Film Institute.
“Everyone else on the board has programmed the seminar and you should have a turn,” noted Esme. Tony was the first person of color to program the week-long seminar.
Tony invited his long-time colleague and Flaherty attendee, Linda Blackaby, to co-program with him. At the time, Linda was Director of the Neighborhood Film/Video Project of International House in Philadelphia. We collaborated to conceptualize and mount the program.
Frances Flaherty’s principals of non-preconception and exploration guided us.
The traditional seminar structure consists of screenings and discussions. For filmmakers and media workers, the Flaherty Seminar offers a special experience, a movie camp filled with film watching and discussion by day, socializing and more discussion by night. Spectacular meteor showers over Lake Cayuga illuminated some of the nighttime discussions.
We wanted to create an inclusive and diverse seminar experience where filmmakers, films, and participants represented many ethnic, racial, gender, class, and sexual orientations.
We wove identity politics and independent cinema with countercultural and alternative views of social issues. We connected some of the new ways video, TV, and public media addressed the audience and innovated new storytelling methods and structures.
Most importantly, we brought rising star filmmakers of color to Wells College to present and discuss their work: Henry Hampton (with a preview of his American epic public television series on the civil rights movement, Eyes on the Prize [1987-1990]), Mira Nair (Mississippi Masala  India Cabaret , Monsoon Wedding , Queen of Katwe ), and Trinh-T Minh Ha with Naked Spaces: Living is Round. 
Native American video artist Victor Masayesva insisted that his Itam Hakim Hopiit  be screened without subtitles in order to assert the dominance of Hopi, his indigenous language.
LGBT filmmakers presented their work. Peter Adair came with his and Rob Epstein’s The Aids Show . Richard Fung showed his more theoretical Orientations . Andrea Weiss and Greta Schiller screened their International Sweethearts of Rhythm . Lucy Winer and Paula de Koenigsberg brought Rate it X .
We also invited international filmmakers who worked in different styles of documentary and experimental film.
The great Brazilian documentarian Eduardo Coutinho screened one of his first feature-length works, A Man Marked for Death/Twenty Years Later . Ghanaian filmmaker King Ampaw showed Kukurantumi: The Road to Accra , one of sub-Saharan Africa’s first feature-length films. Taieb Louhichi from Tunisia presented Shadow of the Earth . Chilean Jaime Barrios offered Somos + , as well as a work he codirected with Gaston Ancelovivi, Memories of an Everyday War . And we screened French ex-pat Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Routine Pleasures 
The seminar also highlighted US indie films. Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon came with To Taste a Hundred Herbs , the third film in their landmark trilogy chronicling rural China. Lisa Hsia attended with Made in China: A Search for Roots . Tony Buba screened Braddock Food Bank . Indie feature films included Keva Rosenfeld’s All American High , Ross McElwee’s groundbreaking and hilarious Sherman’s March , and John Hansen’s Troubled Waters .
We enjoyed programming shorts by Jim Blashfield, Cathey Edwards, Jan Krawitz, Dean Parisot, Joanna Priestly, and Osamu Tezuka.
Our seminar was the first to embrace video as a format equal to film. Rather than relegating video works to a sidebar, we deliberately presented them in the theater space.
We showcased Marina Abramovic, Jon Alpert and Downtown Community Television (DCTV), Helen De Michiel, Joan Logue, Victor Maseyesva, Dan Reeves, and Jeffrey Skoller. Karen Ranucci brought the video collection Latin American TV and Martha Wallner presented Paper Tiger TV’s Central America Comes to Middle America [1985-1986].
Since our 1986 seminar, the seminar has regularly featured works by filmmakers of color.
In 1987, the year after our seminar, Tony founded the Washington, DC International Film Festival, now in its 32nd year. He also served as the Executive Director of the Washington, DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.
In 1992, Linda founded the Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema. She co-programmed the 1998 Flaherty Seminar with Barbara (Bobbie) Abrash. Later, she was Program Director of the San Francisco Film Festival.
Looking back, it feels as if the most powerful meteor showers of the 1986 seminar were in the screenings, discussions and participants’ reflections where alternatives to dominant cultural narratives from independent and international media artists lit up the media scene.
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