Voices from the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar
Tagged as “Bill Sloan”
Monday, January 21, 2019
If you ever took a university film studies course, you’ve met Bill Sloan.
If you are film professor, you worked with Bill Sloan.
If you ever watched classic cinema or documentaries at a film festival, you sat with Bill Sloan.
If you ever borrowed a DVD from a public library, you know Bill Sloan.
For decades, Bill Sloan served as the film librarian and curator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) Circulating Film Library, appointed in 1980 after a stint at the New York Public Library. His wide-ranging vision of international art cinema, American independent cinema, documentary, and experimental film infuses this influential collection. Festivals, museums, and universities around the world depend on it.
With his sharp instinct for films that offered significant breakthroughs in form or content, the MoMA collection contributed a major building block for the emerging academic discipline of cinema studies. It not only set the standard for developing film collections at libraries, but also staked the claim that film and video were as important as books.
I have always conjured Bill as one of those rare and special shamans of cinema who hovered in some mystical meta-mode that knew where you needed to go before you got there.
While his white hair and beard floated around his always-smiling face like cumulous clouds fluffing an azure sky, his black glasses summoned a counterpoint. They seemed a metaphor for his ability to focus on what mattered in cinema.
I first met Bill at the Flaherty Film Seminars in 1980, early on in my career as a screen studies scholar when I was a University of Wisconsin graduate student. By then, he had been attending for two decades.
At that time, I suffered from a very bizarre delusion that the holy trinity of films, filmmakers, and theory exclusively defined film culture. At that first seminar I attended, Bill introduced me to the idea that librarians at museums and public libraries who purchased, collected, and screened films built a field-sustaining infrastructure supporting independent cinema. Across the decades, he had cajoled many librarians to attend the Flaherty. I remember he also insisted that audiences matter as much as the films, an idea that jolted me back then.
Graduate school pummeled me to take up arms as a partisan fighter defending the one form of cinema I felt mattered the most politically—documentary.
In contrast, Bill’s view was more expansive, a galaxy of practices and approaches. He was curious about all films, all genres, all periods. I imagine he considered this strategy a way to trek through many different universes of approach, content, form, style. He possessed that rare gift to find something marvelous in all that he saw. His attitude influenced how I teach film, with shorts dialectically juxtaposed with features.
His pluralist, wide vision of cinema materialized decisively in his programming with Nadine Covert, another film library world luminary, in the landmark 1972 Robert Flaherty Film Seminar. They imported a concept of heterogeneous films jostling against each other to galvanize a combustion of ideas. This aggressive curatorial strategy, channeling Amos Vogel and Cinema 16 from an earlier era, has influenced legions of programmers and professors in the half a century that followed. Bill and Nadine concocted a tempest of diverse filmmaking styles in the works of Les Blank, St. Claire Bourne, Lianne Brandon, Stan Latham, Marcel Ophuls, Yasujoro Ozu, Ousmane Sembene. In 1979, he programmed again, showcasing radical Dutch documentary filmmaker Joris Ivens.
Many know Bill from Bill’s Bar, mounted each year at the Flaherty. He assembled this jerry-rigged, speakeasy-like bar with a folding table, plastic pails for ice, and a glass jar for donations for libations. It took me many years to decipher why he always worked behind the bar. Literally and figuratively, I suspect he loved serving the next generation of filmmakers, programmers, and scholars. As he poured these young seminarians cheap chardonnay in clear plastic cups and plied them with stale pretzels, Bill connected with each of them. Their urgencies and obsessions delighted him.
Bill impacted me even more profoundly as I plunged into what felt like an endless dark pit of historical research for Scott MacDonald’s and my The Flaherty: Decades in the Cause of Independent Cinema (Indiana University Press, 2017).
Because he served as President of the Flaherty Board from 1974-1977, I interviewed Bill’s four times. We talked about his career as a librarian, his programming and trustee experiences, the evolution of film culture, the importance of the seminar for both its devotees and the field. He proclaimed resolutely “there’s nothing like the Flaherty anywhere.” He argued for its irrefutable impact, but also relished detailed nasty gossip about various trustees and seminarians whose hardline, narrow positions he found despicable, even thirty years later.
When I first approached him, I promised the interview would only require thirty minutes for some historical fact-checking. Every call flooded to two hours. Tales cracked out like lightning in a thunderstorm, a contrast to what many assumed was his quiet demeanor. I wrote furiously in my notebook to capture his labyrinthine stories and the textures of his passionate advocacy for the Seminar so I could figure out the next question that archives could not answer.
He unleashed a hurricane of films, people, debates, love stories, board decisions, disputes. He wanted to be sure I knew who had affairs with whom, who was difficult and harbored selfish agendas, who had a good soul.
As I listened, it became clear, like patches of blue sky erasing storm clouds, that he found the debates that cut through the people who migrated to the Flaherty to argue about cinema energizing, important, vital. I suspect, for him, their ferocity ripped the roof off old structures to expose new cinematic terrains below.
Bill was truly the wizard of international independent cinema, the man behind the screen and behind the scenes who brought all of us into a more capacious world of cinemas we never could have imagined—or gotten to-- without him.
Sunday, February 11, 2018
My first encounter with Robert Flaherty was in 1962, the spring of my first year at Bennington College.
Totally by chance I happened to see a handwritten announcement on a chalkboard on the stairs going to the top floor of the Commons, saying that Frances Flaherty would be screening Robert’s films. I had never heard of Flaherty. But something compelled me to go.
The following fall, I wrote to Arnold Eagle, who had worked with Flaherty on Louisiana Story , inquiring about an internship. I never heard back from Mr. Eagle. But years later in the 1980s, I became his student at the New School, taking courses in 16mm production and subsequently using his studio as a place to work.
One day, when he was cleaning out his files, Arnold happened to find my letter. It stated that Frances had screened Flaherty’s Man of Aran  and Louisiana Story. I sort of remember her doing it in two visits. In any event, I was blown away. I’d never seen anything like these films.
After college, I embarked on a career as an arts administrator. I worked primarily for the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA). My last position there was as Deputy Director for what was then called the Division of Communication and Visual Arts, where I supervised funding for film and media organizations.
Although I loved being part of something I believed in, I’d always wanted to work on the creative side of film and media. So I left NYSCA in 1981. Fortunately, by 1982, I found the Flaherty Seminar. I was hooked forever.
My first Flaherty was in 1982 at Topridge in the Adirondack Mountains in Northern New York State. The film and media historian Erik Barnouw programmed it. Barbara Van Dyke was helming the organization as executive director and coordinator of the seminar. The projectionist was Murray Van Dyke. Located deep in the woods on a lake, with its many historic buildings intact, Topridge was the former “rustic retreat” of Marjorie Merriweather Post.
At this seminar I felt such gratitude to find a community of people with whom I shared goals, dreams, and mission. And, as an aspiring filmmaker, I found this seminar experience and the many, many more to follow extremely helpful in giving me the courage to pursue my own creative path.
As I became more and more familiar with the organization and its people, I discovered what I would call Flaherty godmothers and godfathers, people who came almost every year.
As I said at his recent memorial, Bill Sloan was one of these treasured people. He first attended the seminar in 1964, which means he knew Frances Flaherty. With Nadine Covert, he programmed his first seminar in 1972, another one in 1975 with Barbara Van Dyke, and then worked solo to put together the 1979 seminar.
When I read the program Bill Sloan created with Nadine in 1972, I know I would have been totally blown away. They showed The Sorrow and the Pity . Does that mean Marcel Orphuls was actually there? They showed a film by Ozu, several films by Claudia Weill and Eli Noyes, and of all things, Greed  by Erik Von Stroheim. They also screened many titles by filmmakers I’m sorry to say I do not know.
My overall impression of their program is one of great variety and richness. I understand from Patty Zimmermann and Scott MacDonald’s recent book about the history of Flaherty [The Flaherty: Decades in the Cause of Independent Cinema], as well as from Nadine herself, that variety was something they worked hard to accomplish and promote as a programming goal.
Bill served on the Flaherty Board of Trustees and as its president from 1974-1977. I believe he continued on the Board over subsequent years in various capacities. He established Bill’s Bar. To this day, it persists. The best conversations about film take place at that makeshift bar.
As I look through the various seminar programs during those years, I regret I was not there. The 1970s seem like the Flaherty’s golden age of film programming.
I served on the Flaherty Board twice, once in the 1980s and again in the late 1990s. For two years in 2000-2001, I was the president. Like most nonprofits during both those periods, Flaherty was working to transition into a more professional and stable organization. A lot of our focus centered on a need for an office and a paid director, first part-time and eventually full-time.
There were of course a number of rocky years along the way, but Flaherty always seemed to bounce back stronger than before. I’ve come to think of the Flaherty as an organization with a soul. It's never lost its reason for being.
I attribute this clarity of purpose to the Flaherty “godparents”: Dorothy Olson, Paul Olson, Bill Sloan, Erik Barnouw, Jack Churchill, Barbara Van Dyke, Tom Johnson, Nadine Covert, George Stoney, and many others. With their unique charismatic presence, these godmothers and godfathers operated as spiritual guides to film and media. Forgive me if I wax too metaphysical.
After taking a break for a few years, I came back to The Flaherty for its 60th anniversary in 2015. I was hooked again and have returned several times. I’m astounded by the community of people that the seminar attracts, a group that has become more and more international. The word is out: this year the seminar sold out in less than twenty-four hours!
I’m proud of all the time I contributed to help the Flaherty to develop and flourish. I see my work for the organization as a chance to give back some of the good the seminar has given me through the decades.
A Flaherty godparent passed away in 2017 at age ninety-nine: Dorothy Olson, a journalist, arts administrator, filmmaker, former Flaherty trustee, and mentor to many in the film and media world. In my last conversation with her, she talked about never forgetting and never recovering from seeing The Sorrow and the Pity at that 1972 Flaherty.
The Flaherty is an organization with a soul. It always seems to find a way to continue, and, I like to think, evolve.