Voices from the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar
Tagged as “Caspar Stracke”
Sunday, April 29, 2018
The 2014 Flaherty, “Turning the Inside Out,” examined “the state of documentary as it travels between the art gallery, the cinema, and the interactive screen,” according to seminar marketing. At the time, this issue constituted the heart of my doctoral research and a significant part of my film festival programming.
I was ecstatic to be awarded a fellowship to attend. I traveled from Toronto to Colgate University with film scholar Tess Takahashi and former Flaherty curator Pablo de Ocampo. Right away, the fellows met with Jill Godmilow, whose What Farocki Taught  I had seen previously, but whose larger body of work was new, thrilling, and uncompromising. Generous to us fellows yet recalcitrant in her documentary dogma, Godmilow set the stage for the Flaherty’s storied conversations and arguments.
The seminar opened with Godmilow’s Far From Poland , which provoked the audience to erupt into applause as the first frames appeared. It was a kind of nerdy-nirvana to experience it.
Filmmakers I admired participated that year, including Jesse McLean, Johan Grimonprez, Raqs Media Collective; and Hito Steyerl, beamed in via Skype as her daughter was ill. A number of new-to-me films were screened that left me reeling. The Anabasis Of May And Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi And 27 Years Without Images  by Eric Baudelaire transported me so intimately that I felt the dread of the haunted subjects’ lives. Duncan Campbell’s Bernadette  transformed homage into mystery. His film and others I saw at that seminar found their way into my programming and course syllabi.
An unexpected key issue emerged: a critical look at the currency of the term “essay film” and the rhetorical strategies of artists using documents, historical records, archival materials, and standard talking heads. Many attendees asserted that this format had shifted so much that some entries seemed more like lecture films. They circumvented the open, interrogative, and often surprising logical connections the essay form embodied.
Those rooted in the documentary film world exhibited anxiety towards gallery-based moving image work. Gallery artists mounted a defensive, apologist discourse about the shortfalls of film and video installation. Many agreed a black box would need to be built inside a white cube in order to sustain a gallery screening. These debates raged on through the week of the seminar.
The seminar’s format cannot ever completely fail—curation be damned.
If audiences don’t like the programming, the discussions still produce generative observations and insights into strategies and approaches. When the programming is well received, the most successful qualities of a work bubble up in discussions, crystallizing.
The Flaherty’s intensive and immersive schedule produces a think-tank like focus where a mutual interrogation of ideas germinate into a richer, more pronounced understanding of documentary. Still, a few more breaks in the screening schedule would be welcome.
The fellowship program introduced me to many remarkable people. I met scholars and curators such as Sonja Bertucci, Almudena Escobar López, Laliv Melamed, Herb Shellenberger, and Josephine Shokrian. I met talented filmmakers such as Emily Mkrtichian, Bjargey Ólafsdóttir, Arjun Shankar, Peter Snowdon, Libi Striegl, and Julia Yezbick.
The seminar came with both catharsis and a few regrets. Highs included being on a dance floor with Tony Conrad not long before he left us.
After the most intense critical discussion, I ate dinner with two filmmakers who had just experienced a less-than-jubilant reception. Their harshest critic sat next to me at the table. The filmmakers shed any defensiveness. A discussion about protest, representation, and the self-mythologization of the Left ensued. Conclusions were made and some consensus formed. Here, I felt the generosity and openness of the Flaherty as an intellectual laboratory of artists and thinkers.
There were a few regrets, such as when I returned to my dorm room exhausted, missing a fun night gallivanting in a nearby pond with new comrades. I didn’t want to bother curators Gabriela Monroy and Caspar Stracke, a lost opportunity. I later connected with them at DocPoint Helsinki. Their intelligence, curiosity, and behind-the-scenes anecdotes overwhelmed me.
In 2014, I was at a crossroads. I was simultaneously finishing my PhD with a dissertation about experimental documentary and post-minimal art and programming for film festivals in Toronto. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to pursue next. In a strange way, the Flaherty impacted my decision. Three years later, I was appointed a visiting assistant professor at Colgate University to teach documentary film classes.
Epilogue: The 2014 Fellows
On the second to last day of the 2014 seminar, I collaborated with the other fellows to try to give something back to the Flaherty.
We created a list of notable quotes we’d overheard. I’ve pulled a few of the gems from the sheet we distributed at the end of the seminar entitled “What The Flaherty Taught in 2014”:
Over the last week during break-out sessions, in private discourse over drinks, or otherwise, conversations between the fellows have generated many critical insights, deft observations and valuable provocations that, so far, have been left unshared with the larger seminar.
We want these comments to reach those best served by them, so here are a few morsels.
How to make a film (borrowed from “Rules of the Road” driving manual):
- Get the big picture.
- Watch out for the other guy.
- Make sure they see you.
- Keep your eyes on the road.
- Always have an out.
Thesis number one for documentary practice: films need to be beautiful not just on the outside but on the inside.
Every film should ask the viewer, “Who am I, standing next to this?”
You can only be conscious of yourself when there is an other.
You can’t be in solidarity with yourself.
Where’s your labor going, baby?
We’re not looking at the panopticon, This is the reverse shot.
Read yourself into a crisis—then make a film.
Eisensteinian montage can be a Pavlovian proposition.
A film should break vases.
Film festivals outsource risk to independent filmmakers.
The Flaherty runs on caffeine and alcohol.
I think we should just stay here and never go back to where we came from.
Thursday, March 8, 2018
In Germany, the Flaherty isn't well-known.
But I had lived in Boston from 2006-2012, and spent my weekends at the Harvard Film Archive (HFA). Through the Boston filmmaking grapevine, I heard about the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar.
Another regular HFA patron mentioned the seminar to me with great respect. She said that everybody who returned from the Flaherty raved about it. Since I was a foreign filmmaker seeking contacts and insights, the seminar seemed to be the place to go.
So, in 2009, I went to the Flaherty. I’d imagined a seminar of maybe fifty participants. When I got there, I was shocked to realize that I was one of 180!
I had trouble following the large group discussions, partly because I speak German and partly because I could not hear everything that was said. For me, these huge discussions neither added much to the films nor opened up the programming concept.
However, I enjoyed the programming itself. I discovered filmmakers I’d never heard of, including Chick Strand, Omar Amiralay, and Pavel Medvedev. I also liked that year’s program curator, Irina Leimbacher.
I was lucky to take part in some lively late-night talks at Bill's Bar. I made a few friends. And I became more familiar with the Boston filmmaking community. Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s Sweetgrass  was screened with many Bostonians present.
I would have loved to return to the seminar the following year, because the theme was “work.” In 2007, I had curated a little film series in Germany, as part of a big project supported with national cultural funding, entitled “Work in Progress.” I applied for a LEF fellowship to attend the seminar, but wasn't lucky enough to receive one. Since my financial situation was less than stable, I could not afford to pay my own way.
In 2014, the ethnic German filmmaker named Caspar Stracke co-curated the seminar together with his Mexican partner Gabriela Monroy. Although I had returned to Germany, I could not resist going to this Flaherty.
Also, I had a mission.
I had joined the programming team of a small ethnographic film festival, the Freiburger Film Forum. Since 1985, it has run biannually in an old university town in the south of Germany.
I hoped to start a collaboration between the Freiburger Film Forum and The Flaherty. Our forum and the seminar share a similar structure of continuous screenings with only one film shown at a time, and a focus on dialogue and discussion between the filmmakers and participants.
I recruited a filmmaker friend from Germany who was planning a US trip. We both enjoyed the seminar. We loved some of the programming, and especially the chance to listen to the great experimental documentarian Jill Godmilow.
I’d contacted the seminar director and some board members concerning my idea of a collaboration. They were friendly and interested. I departed from that seminar with a clear intention to develop a Flaherty homage for the Freiburger Film Forum.
In 2016, I returned to the seminar to arrange a mutual project. I studied the history of the seminar in order to develop a programming proposal, which evolved from a retrospective of ethnographic work to a focus on contemporary political documentary with some historical works: Eloge du Chiac , Los Sures , An Injury to One , Free Land .
Our collaborative program eventually happened in May 2017.
We invited former Flaherty curator and board member John Gianvito to serve as a special guest. He discussed the films in a most delightful way. This well-received program made a strong statement about the committed cinema of resistance in the U.S.
I wanted to introduce the long-standing institution of the Flaherty Film Seminar to the German film community. Because our Freiburg venue belongs to the nationwide association of community theatres, the programmers who belong to this organization are stimulated by our careful curation. They learn about our programming through articles published in the association’s magazine.
My hope is that the collaboration between the Freiburger Film Forum and the Flaherty Seminar will inspire others to provide access to the immense archive of films that have been shown at the seminar over the decades. For me, these programs signal love for the documentary genre and the treasures of reality one can discover in these films.
My Flaherty story underscores that one important aspect of the seminar is to facilitate networking among those who care deeply about accomplished filmmaking. I am happy to be a small part of this community. Though I would not call myself a seminar devotee, the virus of the Flaherty has touched me.
Nevertheless, I would suggest that downsizing might be something for the seminar to consider.
It is also true that the Flaherty is not exempt from the self-aggrandizement that often characterizes public cultural environments. Instead of a true dialogue between different kinds of participants, the large group discussions tend to become a chain of overly elaborate scholarly statements. I would like some of the scholars in attendance to behave in a less “scholarly” way.
Nevertheless, compared to other film gatherings I have attended, the Flaherty is the best at providing a democratic and open platform.