Voices from the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar
Wednesday, January 10, 2018
“There won’t be any time,” said the hazel-eyed woman standing next to me at the check-in desk.
She was smiling warmly, but I tensed up.
I had just arrived at Colgate University after a seven-hour drive in my tiny car from Oberlin, Ohio. I was exhausted, and more than a bit anxious. I’d recently finished an intense but rewarding year as a visiting professor at the University of Toronto. It was my first job teaching film, so I’d meticulously prepared every lecture, planning into the wee hours of the night.
I’d left Canada for a postdoctoral fellowship in the Cinema Studies Program at Oberlin College, but I was second-guessing my decision. I knew that Oberlin had launched some careers, sunk others. Things would eventually work themselves out for me, but back then I didn’t know that.
My life felt very unstable. My spouse and I had been apart for three long years, and I was nervous about my professional choices. Still, I was about to dive into a crowd of scholars, filmmakers, curators, and programmers gathered together by their passion for experimental documentary.
I had studied documentary with the late George Stoney at New York University, and had written a short article on the films of Francesco Pasinetti, a Venetian documentarian active in the first half of the 20th century. That was the extent of my knowledge. I felt more than a bit intimidated. Impostor syndrome, they call it. Commonly reported among graduate students and early career academics. No surprise there.
The group stages of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, hosted by Brazil, were in full swing. The much-favored home team was about to be humiliated by Germany with a crushing 1-7 defeat, the worst in the tournament’s history.
A loyal supporter of my own national team (Italy), I was apprehensive about not finding a place to watch the two matches that coincided with the seminar’s opening and closing screenings. “Is there a TV on campus where I could watch the World Cup Games?” – I queried at the check-in desk.
Later, I learned that the woman who intercepted the question was Ruth Somalo, a Spanish filmmaker, future NYC Flaherty programmer (“Broken Senses,” 2017), and one of the nicest people on the planet. She was clearly aware that this was my first seminar. And of course, she was right. There was no time.
Luckily, I was not the only soccer fan in this erudite crowd. Filmmaker and programmer Jason Fox, who was then pursuing an MFA at Hunter College, worked his considerable charm with the projection staff. He cajoled them to beam snippets of matches onto the same theatrical screen where during that week we watched works by Eric Baudelaire, Duncan Campbell, Cao Guimarães, Johan Grimonprez, and Hito Steyerl, among others.
Italy won the first match, lost the second. And then the third. Better luck in 2018, I thought. Things didn’t work out for them: in 2018 the team didn’t even make it through the qualifying rounds.
I’d become aware of the Flaherty seminar in 2010, when my then-roommate Robert Sweeney traveled upstate to attend what sounded like a film-nerd boot camp, programmed by Dennis Lim, a critic he had always admired. Rob and I were friends from graduate school, beginning to shape our respective careers out of our shared passion for film. He was already working at Kino Lorber and slowly working his way up the ranks of the New York film critics circle; I was writing a Ph.D. dissertation on migration in Italian cinema, a topic that was as vast and complex as it was personal.
Rob was always the more intellectual one, an omnivorous cinephile scurrying off to screenings of obscure films in musty basements throughout the city. He would carefully study all the schedules, organizing his week accordingly. Sometimes I would tag along, trusting his taste and hoping to learn something new. I often did.
That 2014 Flaherty felt a bit like those New York evenings watching films carefully selected by my friend. Except that the seminar took place in an air-conditioned auditorium with comfortable seating, pristine image quality, and an expert projectionist. There was even a piece projected in the campus planetarium.
I sat back and relaxed as much as I could, trying to overcome the awkwardness of forgotten names and shared bathrooms, of damp dorm rooms and sleep deprivation. The presence of my friend Ohad Landesman, a documentary film scholar I knew from graduate school, comforted me. He became my social buoy throughout the week.
I let Gabriela Monroy and Caspar Strake, the programmers of “Turning the Inside Out,” take me on a journey. I learned by watching and listening, rarely taking part in the group conversations that followed the screenings. I forced myself to ask a question on the last day. I felt like the child who spends the day talking himself into finally riding the rollercoaster when the park is about to close, when most of the people have already gone home.
I made my one and only comment on the last day of my second Flaherty, too: the 2016 seminar, “Play.” I suggested smugly that the morning program be renamed “The Michelangelo Antonioni Memorial Program: The Genius of David Pendleton.”
Probably rather pedantically, I proceeded to compare the films we’d just viewed to different periods in the long career of the Italian maestro. It was meant to be a heartfelt compliment to both the filmmakers and to David, whose programming savvy I had quietly admired all week.
One morning at breakfast David approached me to talk about one of his passions, Pier Paolo Pasolini, a filmmaker whose work I was never truly able to appreciate. At least not as much as David. He looked fatigued, but at the time I was not aware that he was already fighting the disease that eventually took his life in 2017. I’m grateful for that short conversation.
I felt validated by David’s gesture, which he performed so gracefully. I will watch more Pasolini, who, coincidentally, was also a soccer fan, and I will think of David, who taught me so much in so little time.
The Flaherty Seminar will never be a comfortable experience for me, but it will always be a deep one. It has exposed me to things I would not otherwise have had access to. It has introduced me to films I now teach regularly. And it’s made me feel connected to a great community, even if only for brief moments. It is also a humbling experience. A room overflowing with talent and history can have that effect.
I will return. I will make a comment on the last day, voice quivering and palms sweating, but it will be a good moment for me. A small victory.
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