Voices from the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar
Tagged as “Avi Mograbi”
Saturday, October 28, 2017
Since 2003, I have attended eleven Flaherty Seminars!
I have moderated my share of discussions. I was a featured filmmaker in 2009. I served as a board member from 2006-2008. At this point, I see the seminar as a well-oiled machine with a schedule we can count on.
Yet each seminar has been profoundly different. How to sum that up in five points? I keep coming back to the films and the five ideas that return to me year after year as key constituents of the Flaherty’s unique zeitgeist.
What is cinema? What constitutes a cinematic experience? I have seen the gamut at the Flaherty, from essay films, expository films, experimental, non-fiction, fiction, musicals to installations and video games and Benshi performance. And each Flaherty shows work that expands my notions of cinema in wonderfully surprising ways.
Years before the GoPro and drone cameras, Leonard Retel Helmrich filmed a man walking over a narrow railroad trestle 1000 above an Indonesian Valley in Stand van de Maan (“Shape of the Moon,” 2004). The view was from above via a homemade bamboo-pole mount and it was terrifying. Helmrich filmed other scenes in the film with his own invention called steadiwings. He calls his filmmaking process “one-shot cinema” because he edits more for camera movement than framing or photography.
Another example of craft at the seminar was Laura Poitras’s Risk . Through her camerawork looking up at Julian Assange, she shows the egotistical anarchist to be as self-conscious as a People Magazine star even as he functions as an important historical figure in our time.
I have started wonderful and enduring friendships at the Flaherty. I met longtime heroes and heroines—Scott MacDonald and Trinh Minh-ha--and found them incredibly down to earth.
Beyond these moments of connecting with people you admire, there are also those more awkward moments reminiscent of junior high school when you emerge from the cafeteria food line with your tray, scouring the dining room for a seat. My most wonderful meals have been those when I’ve plunked myself down with people I’ve not met before: students, established filmmakers, critics.
At the 2012 “Open Wounds” seminar curated by Josetxo Cerdán, I remember a great meal with Susana de Sousa Dias from Portugal and Laila Pakalina from Latvia. Their work had not shown yet so I had no idea they were featured filmmakers. We talked about traveling, family, and the films screened at the seminar.
Later, I was completely blown away by de Sousa’s beautiful and horrific 48  featuring an incredibly adept use of archival mug shots woven with interviews with ordinary citizens arrested under the 48-year dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar in Portugal.
I was mesmerized by Pakainiŋa’s gorgeous cinematography, measured pace, and dry humor portraying men and nature—especially riparian birds—in Three Men and a Fish Pond . I also loved fellow seminar attendee and filmmaker Robb Todd’s jilting imitation of the film-star birds’ during the discussion.
I confess that at times the quantity of images and ideas truly overwhelms. I feel the need to remind myself what I love about film. Of course, it is the ideas, but it is also the sheer pleasure I get from seeing truly beautiful images that transport me out of the room and under water in the Caribbean Sea, in Alamar  by Mexican Pedro González-Rubio and into the air in Teddy Williams’ The Human Surge  in 2017.
I loved the crazy, playful, imaginative Rube Golderg creations of Israeli artist/filmmaker, Mika Rottenberg in Squeeze , and in Cheese  where seven ethnically diverse sister/ maidens prattle and poke about an enormous wooden contraption, part farmhouse, part animal barn, part milking machine, part cheese churn, making cheese, yes, but also washing, combing, and styling each other’s impossibly long, Rapunzel-like hair. The experience was mesmerizing and hilarious.
Even the most wrenching of Flaherty Seminars has its moments of intense humor. In the midst of films about the tragedies of Minamata disease caused by environmentally-induced mercury poisoning, revealed by the Japanese documentarian Tsuchimoto Noriaki at the 2003 Flaherty, we saw Israeli Avi Mograbi’s hilarious and ominous films, Happy Birthday, Mr. Mograbi , August: A Moment Before the Eruption , and Wait It’s the Soldiers, I’ll Hang Up Now , which provided scathing views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When programmed together, they traced people’s reactions to Mograbi’s camera and the mounting distrust in the streets leading into the Second Intifada.
Ah, the moments of outrage.
I have been guilty of sharing in some of the politically-correct indignation over who gets to represent whom and how. And I have also been mildly piqued at the tremendous amount of time we devote to such debates, seminar after seminar. One memorable debate happened at my first seminar, “Witnessing the World,” curated by John Gianvito in 2003. In the post-screening discussion of Holly Fisher’s faux travelogue about Myanmar, Kalama Sutta: Seeing Is Believing  participants questioned Fisher’s right to represent the Burmese. At my most recent seminar in the summer of 2017, the debate was over Dominic Gagnon’s depiction of Inuit people in of the North . But the issues were different: if Inuit post images of themselves on the web that some feel reinforce negative stereotypes, what responsibility does a filmmaker bear if he uses them?
Of course, if we don’t keep asking ourselves those difficult questions, if we don’t demand that filmmakers create their work with a sense of purpose and responsibility, then there isn’t much to talk about. It’s why I go to the Flaherty—to see those non-commercial films I cannot see elsewhere and to talk about them with people whose varied perspectives provoke, enlighten, delight, and yes, sometimes outrage me!
Sunday, September 10, 2017
When I was at Columbia Journalism School, Willard Van Dyke, then curator of film at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), told me to stay connected to the independent film community by joining the New York Film/Video Council (NYFVC)—I was headed toward a career in television. Why didn’t he suggest that I attend the Flaherty Film Seminars? I don't know, but he was involved with both.
So were others I came to know, like Bill Sloan (Bill’s Bar is still a Flaherty mainstay) and George Stoney, whose All My Babies  had been shown at the first Flaherty Seminar.
I’d seen All My Babies in a documentary course that George taught at Columbia University before he went to Canada, then came back to become a legendary professor at NYU. Both Bill and George were past presidents of the New York Film/Video Council of which I was a board member for seventeen years and president for eight.
The NYFVC was a non-profit that had been serving the independent media community since 1946. It programmed all forms of visual media. I never thought of TV and film as separate pursuits but many did. Other distinctions abounded: narrative vs. documentary; film vs. video; and one that always disturbed me, journalism vs. documentary. Often at Flaherty I heard filmmakers say, “I’m not a journalist.”
The first informal continuing professional education I experienced before Flaherty was at INPUT: the International Public Television Producers Conference in 1992 in Baltimore when I was Executive Producer of Listening to America with Bill Moyers [1992: 26-part TV series] on PBS. I would go on to other INPUTS in Fort Worth, Halifax, Rotterdam, Aarhus, Barcelona, San Francisco, and Lugano.
Law, medicine and many other professions have continuing education requirements; journalism and documentary filmmaking have none—though within each area non-profit organizations like the Flaherty informally make continuing education possible.
For me the Flaherty Seminar has been a condensed form of graduate school with a diverse group of students who share similar interests. Lifelong friendships are formed.
In 2003, the year I went to INPUT in Aarhus, Denmark, I attended my first Flaherty Seminar, at Vassar College. It was curated brilliantly by John Gianvito. Lucy Kostelanetz, a neighbor and member of the NYFVC and the Flaherty Board, had recommended that I go because the topic was “Witnessing the World.”
Two films by Canadian filmmakers fascinated me: Zyklon Portrait  by Elida Schogt and Seeing Is Believing: Handicams, Human Rights, and the News  by Peter Wintonick and Katerina Cizek.
Avi Mograbi’s Israeli films were incisive and humorous, especially Happy Birthday, Mr. Mograbi . The entire audience at Vassar seemed appalled by Holly Fisher's Kalama Sutta  because she’d made an experimental, artistic film in Burma — a place and subject that cried out for documentary reporting. I’d never before seen an audience erupt in such disapproval.
Tran Van Thuy’s Vietnam documentaries were a special gift. The British filmmaker Franny Armstrong showed McLibel: Two Worlds Collide ; it was critical of McDonald’s before Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me .
Franny also showed an impressive film she’d made in India, Drowned Out . I recommended it to Thirteen/WNET’s new international series Wide Angle, which commissioned her to make a shorter, more journalistic version for broadcast. Marlo Poras’s Mai’s America  stayed with me and I screened it for documentary students years later at Columbia.
At my first Flaherty, Marcia Rock, who runs the NYU journalism documentary program, asked me if I’d like to teach Documentary History and Strategy. For the next three Spring semesters, I taught at NYU and then, after raising enough money to complete production on my work-in-progress, Nam June Paik & TV Lab: License To Create, I co-taught and mentored students at Columbia Journalism School. A student filmmaker I met at Flaherty, Alana Kakoyiannis, shot second camera when I interviewed Paik’s widow Shigeko Kubota, a video artist in her own right.
In 2007 I saw two versions of Natalia Almada’s Al Otro Lado (To the Other Side), one at INPUT in Lugano, the other at the 53rd Flaherty Seminar, “South of the Other,” programmed by Mahen Bonetti and Carlos Gutierrez, at Vassar. Almada’s film focuses on drug trafficking and illegal migration between Mexico and the United States and highlights narco corrido music. I subsequently went to MoMA to see her next film El General [ 2009]
Dan Streible, of Orphan Film Symposium fame, superbly curated the last Flaherty seminar I attended in 2011, "Sonic Truth.". George Stoney showed A Reunion of All My Babies  and we saw the 1906 film A Trip Down Market Street Before the Fire. Most powerful for me was Tan Pin Pin’s Singapore Gaga . I’ve followed her films since.
Caroline Martel’s Wavemakers  was an intriguing work-in-progress and I later went to the Museum of the Moving Image to see a completed version.
Sam Pollard showed some of his work with Spike Lee, and I was introduced to the animated films of Jodie Mack, whom I later ran into on Main Street in Hanover, NH during a fall mini-reunion at Dartmouth.
I met Lillian Schwartz and learned that she had worked at the TV LAB at Thirteen/WNET, the subject of my nearly finished documentary. Dan showed her earlier experimental work at Bell Labs.
For me the highlight of “Sonic Truth” was my friend Jane Weiner, who came from Paris to show her documentary On Being There with Richard Leacock . I later drove her to interview Robert Drew in Sharon, CT.
When organized well, there’s no better introduction to remarkable films and significant filmmakers than the Flaherty Seminar.