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.
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