Voices from the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar
Thursday, September 7, 2017
It was late September when two quite colorful groups of people descended on the charming resort town of Jūrmala in Soviet-occupied Latvia.
The groups spoke two different languages and there were just two interpreters to facilitate communication.
One group was Soviet documentary filmmakers and scholars, and the other, American documentary filmmakers and scholars. That was the first and only Soviet-American Robert Flaherty Film Seminar.
Rather than a hotel, we all checked into a sanatorium of the Union of Soviet Composers, a spacious structure just two steps away from a beach on the Baltic Sea. This was where Soviet composers were supposed to rest from the daily grind and soak in the musical inspiration carried by the salty Baltic air.
The year was 1990. The Soviet Union would be dead by the end of next year, but few in the world sensed the unforeseeable.
For seven days, we explored each other’s films. And, inevitably, we explored each other.
To start, the Americans said a few kind words about Gorbachev. We winced. In turn, the Soviets made a few kind remarks about Ronald Reagan, whose stature for a brief period in the Soviet Union was not unlike Simon Bolivar in South America. American filmmaker Steve Roszell then stood up and ripped Reagan apart to the enthusiastic cheering of his fellow Americans.
We all took note and dove back into films.
The screenings began with the obvious and the sacred: Nanook of the North  and The Man with a Movie Camera  and progressed to then current American and perestroika films. Although it seems unbelievable now, most of us so-called Soviets had never seen Nanook until that seminar. And most of the Americans had never seen Dziga Vertov’s masterpiece.
That September we saw a great number of excellent films. I personally made three major discoveries: The Thin Blue Line  by Errol Morris, The Seasons  by Artavazd Peleshyan, and Sherman’s March  by Ross McElwee. Of the three filmmakers, only Ross was present. I fell in love with his film and its brave, intricate self-irony.
Michael Moore’s blockbuster Roger and Me  was also screened. Its showmanship struck me with its chutzpah and subtle card stacking. After the screening, some American filmmakers were quick to explain to the uninitiated that not all aspects of capitalism were as bad as painted in Michael’s film. Those were kind and reassuring sentiments.
Another important discovery was Tongues Untied  and its gentle, amiable author, Marlon Riggs, who passed away so young.
Our two interpreters were in high demand. Not one of the Americans spoke any Russian. A handful of the Soviets spoke some basic English. Outside of the theater, our professional interactions were rather limited, although everyone generously compensated with hand gestures. We were genuinely interested in understanding each other.
No matter how free spirited, the Soviets were more or less part of the State system of filmmaking. There were no independent film studios. Everything we did, no matter how subversive (remember, perestroika?) was financed by the State. We worked with set budgets and as a rule tight production schedules.
Unlike us, the Americans were truly independent. They often assumed considerable personal and financial risk when they embarked on a project.
To borrow a phrase from Pulp Fiction , “the little things” stood out. We shot 35mm stock, whereas the Americans shot mostly 16mm and with a few exceptions, on video. None of us Soviets had ever worked with video. “U-Matic” was a word we heard at that seminar. Steve Roszell, who directed the documentary Writing on Water  on video, patiently explained “U-Matic” to all of us. With his thumb and index finger he had us imagine ¾-inch tape. The “U” sounded exotic and foreign, maybe because it reminded us all of a U-boat.
“It took me four years to complete Sherman’s March,” Ross McElwee told me over our evening glass of kefir. I shook my head in awe and disbelief. In 1989, I completed my first feature documentary Interpretation of Dreams in under ten months. Little did I know that it would take me sixteen years to complete a feature documentary when I relocated to the US.
My film was rather well-received by this binational crowd. No small part of this favorable reception was due to the simple fact that Freud and his books were on the forbidden list in the Soviet Union. Our American friends were just beginning to discover the Soviet realities. “The little things” were very often shocking to them. Impressed with my film, video scholar Deirdre Boyle brought a tape of Interpretation of Dreams to Richard Pena. The next year, he invited me to the New Directors/New Films series. That invitation was a transformative event in my life.
I offer one final memory about that September.
The seminar coincided with the Jewish High Holidays. One day, several American filmmakers expressed interest in visiting the only synagogue in Riga. Some of us Soviets joined them. We arrived in the city. We met a number of old men praying outside the synagogue. One of them asked who we were. I began to explain, of course, in Russian. Then British–Israeli scholar and filmmaker Alan Rosenthal
We stepped aside and watched Alan and several of these men converse in a once dead and now revived ancient tongue. Two worlds connected without any external help.
In a way, this connection across divides is exactly what happened during that 1990 Flaherty Seminar. Half of us did not speak Russian, the other half did not speak English. Certainly, almost none of us spoke Hebrew. But we all spoke film. And we connected. We all got some sense of each other, and maybe even a better sense of the world.
Where this “better sense of the world” took us all is a whole different story.
P.S. The former Soviet Republic of Latvia is now an independent country and a member of the European Union. The sanatorium that once belonged to the Union of the Soviet Composers has long been converted to luxury condominiums. A three-bedroom apartment currently lists for 650K Euros. Long live capitalism! I guess…
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