Voices from the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar
Tagged as “Deirdre Boyle”
Monday, September 18, 2017
I attended my first Flaherty Seminar at Pine Manor Junior College in 1977. That was forty years ago! It was a momentous event for me for many reasons. Part of it had to do with something no one could have foreseen: a film community known for its often heated debates came together in mourning over the sudden and unexpected death of one of its much loved participants, Sol Worth.
Still in shock, I soon discovered that the women’s movement was still being hotly debated at Flaherty: gender politics challenged the power dynamics of discussions, which surfaced most conspicuously around the work of Swiss filmmaker Alain Tanner. I remember it well because I cut my teeth as a media critic by summoning my courage to take Tanner to task for his cavalier representation of women in his films. Laughed down by some audience members, I persisted with my critique, winning Tanner’s fury and my self-confidence in speaking up for women’s voices.
Not surprisingly, given all that was going on that year, no one challenged the conspicuous absence of video at the Seminar. This upstart, unprofessional medium was dismissed by an old guard who considered film the only medium worth looking at; video didn’t even rate a debate.
If memory serves, it took the Seminar’s most revered elder statesman to overturn resistance to screening video. In 1982 Erik Barnouw programmed what was for many of us our most memorable Flaherty seminar at Camp Topridge in the Adirondacks. It was a glorious site that had once been the summer home of Marjorie Merriweather Post, owner of General Foods and long reputed to be the wealthiest woman in the United States. Ms. Post also owned Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, which was later purchased by you-know-who.
Post considered Camp Topridge a “rustic retreat” situated on 300 acres in God’s country. It contained numerous buildings including a Russian dacha that proved essential to this story. Topridge was a stunning location for the Seminar; the main lodge featured a huge, circular, windowed room surrounded by sofas and a plethora of animal trophies mounted along the walls. Post-screening discussions looked out over a sparkling lake, and each day fabulous meals were prepared by students at a local culinary school.
Arguably the best thing about the place, though, was the dacha, a charming Russian cottage dedicated to screening video. Several large-screen monitors were scattered in the vaulted but cozy central hall where videotapes by Daniel Reeves (Smothering Dreams, 1980), Edin Velez (Meta Mayan, 1981), and Minneapolis public TV producers Deanna Kamiel, Ken Robbins and Tom Adair were shown. Passionate discussions about the relationship of video to television and the documentary tradition were conducted there.
I do not know what it took for Erik to persuade IFS naysayers to give video a chance, but whether it was the spectacular sunsets on the lake, the superb dinners or the eerie stag antlers on the walls, video arrived at Flaherty with panache and seemed to please most everyone; video was no longer an oddity at Flaherty but a partner with film.
The following year tapes by video artists and documentary activists like Bill Viola (Hatsu Yume,1981; Chott el-Djerid, 1979; Ancient of Days, 1979-1981), Skip Blumberg (Pick Up Your Feet: The Double Dutch Show,1981) and Paper Tiger Television were shown. Emboldened by the success of single-channel tapes, Flaherty programmer D. Marie Grieco boldly decided to present the first video installation in 1984. Bill Stephens, one of the first African American video artists to be featured at the Whitney Museum in New York, showed Belief Sandwich, Relief Gauntlet (1981) which proved challenging to stage. Cornell University was not equipped to handle an outdoor display like this, but the Seminar’s adept technical staff pulled it off.
Bill Stephens was not the only video practitioner that year; also featured were works by Michelle Parkerson (Gotta Make This Journey: Sweet Honey and the Rock, 1983), Ed Emshwiller (Sunstone, 1979), Cecilia Condit (Possibly in Michigan, 1983), Max Almy (Perfect Leader,1983), and Dan Reeves (Amida,1983). Presenting innovative work by so many talented video makers made it clear that video had become a Seminar staple.
More tapes were featured the following year by artists like Louis Hock (The Mexican Tapes: A Chronicle of a Life Outside the Law, 1986), David Schulman (The Race Against Prime Time,1985), and Kirby Dick (Private Practices, 1986). Soon any differentiation between work shot on film or tape receded, and all those doubts raised about the video medium and its professionals subsided.
Today, a generation that calls everything “film” probably knows little about the battles that once raged between film purists and video iconoclasts determined to defend the distinctive features of this outlier electronic medium. I suppose this struggle to include analog video at the Seminar seems strange today. But it took leadership from influential figures like Erik Barnouw and George Stoney to usher reluctant trustees and snooty filmmakers to accept the “new media” called video as part of the Flaherty.
Once I stepped down as an IFS trustee, I attended far fewer seminars, but I did travel to Riga, Latvia, in 1990 for a terrific cross-cultural Seminar where the audience was surprised less by media than by the clash of confused expectations about the Other. The Americans expected the Soviets to make political films like Vertov, and the Soviets thought the Americans would offer up “heros” like Flaherty.
Instead of a cozy capitalist dacha, we enjoyed the generous appointments of a spa retreat for Soviet artists. No one was particularly interested in video, especially since the Soviet filmmakers were just beginning to use portable 16mm cameras instead of 35mm. Asked to introduce “guerrilla television” to colleagues who knew nothing about video, I got nowhere fast: we hadn’t understood that our new friends were just beginning to experiment with their brand of cinéma vérité.
Several decades later and back in the states I decided to see what was happening at the Flaherty Seminar. I attended the 2009 Seminar at Colgate University, which was brilliantly programmed by Irina Leimbacher. I was delighted to see the sophisticated presentation now given to video installations. Amar Kanwar’s multi-channel work was beautifully installed on several walls in a room of its own where participants could spend as much time as they wished to fully appreciate it. The Seminar had come a long way in recognizing the seriousness and artistic excellence of the now digital medium of video.
Looking back over all this time, I am pleased to have been a participant-witness to the early days of video at the Seminar and to have known many of the people—videomakers, programmers, technicians, trustees, and Seminar participants—who helped this history unfold. Many of them are gone now, and I am honored to bear witness to their varied contributions to making the Seminar new-media friendly, inclusive, and illuminating to this day.
Thursday, September 7, 2017
It was late September when two quite colorful groups of people descended on the charming resort town of Jūrmala in Soviet-occupied Latvia.
The groups spoke two different languages and there were just two interpreters to facilitate communication.
One group was Soviet documentary filmmakers and scholars, and the other, American documentary filmmakers and scholars. That was the first and only Soviet-American Robert Flaherty Film Seminar.
Rather than a hotel, we all checked into a sanatorium of the Union of Soviet Composers, a spacious structure just two steps away from a beach on the Baltic Sea. This was where Soviet composers were supposed to rest from the daily grind and soak in the musical inspiration carried by the salty Baltic air.
The year was 1990. The Soviet Union would be dead by the end of next year, but few in the world sensed the unforeseeable.
For seven days, we explored each other’s films. And, inevitably, we explored each other.
To start, the Americans said a few kind words about Gorbachev. We winced. In turn, the Soviets made a few kind remarks about Ronald Reagan, whose stature for a brief period in the Soviet Union was not unlike Simon Bolivar in South America. American filmmaker Steve Roszell then stood up and ripped Reagan apart to the enthusiastic cheering of his fellow Americans.
We all took note and dove back into films.
The screenings began with the obvious and the sacred: Nanook of the North  and The Man with a Movie Camera  and progressed to then current American and perestroika films. Although it seems unbelievable now, most of us so-called Soviets had never seen Nanook until that seminar. And most of the Americans had never seen Dziga Vertov’s masterpiece.
That September we saw a great number of excellent films. I personally made three major discoveries: The Thin Blue Line  by Errol Morris, The Seasons  by Artavazd Peleshyan, and Sherman’s March  by Ross McElwee. Of the three filmmakers, only Ross was present. I fell in love with his film and its brave, intricate self-irony.
Michael Moore’s blockbuster Roger and Me  was also screened. Its showmanship struck me with its chutzpah and subtle card stacking. After the screening, some American filmmakers were quick to explain to the uninitiated that not all aspects of capitalism were as bad as painted in Michael’s film. Those were kind and reassuring sentiments.
Another important discovery was Tongues Untied  and its gentle, amiable author, Marlon Riggs, who passed away so young.
Our two interpreters were in high demand. Not one of the Americans spoke any Russian. A handful of the Soviets spoke some basic English. Outside of the theater, our professional interactions were rather limited, although everyone generously compensated with hand gestures. We were genuinely interested in understanding each other.
No matter how free spirited, the Soviets were more or less part of the State system of filmmaking. There were no independent film studios. Everything we did, no matter how subversive (remember, perestroika?) was financed by the State. We worked with set budgets and as a rule tight production schedules.
Unlike us, the Americans were truly independent. They often assumed considerable personal and financial risk when they embarked on a project.
To borrow a phrase from Pulp Fiction , “the little things” stood out. We shot 35mm stock, whereas the Americans shot mostly 16mm and with a few exceptions, on video. None of us Soviets had ever worked with video. “U-Matic” was a word we heard at that seminar. Steve Roszell, who directed the documentary Writing on Water  on video, patiently explained “U-Matic” to all of us. With his thumb and index finger he had us imagine ¾-inch tape. The “U” sounded exotic and foreign, maybe because it reminded us all of a U-boat.
“It took me four years to complete Sherman’s March,” Ross McElwee told me over our evening glass of kefir. I shook my head in awe and disbelief. In 1989, I completed my first feature documentary Interpretation of Dreams in under ten months. Little did I know that it would take me sixteen years to complete a feature documentary when I relocated to the US.
My film was rather well-received by this binational crowd. No small part of this favorable reception was due to the simple fact that Freud and his books were on the forbidden list in the Soviet Union. Our American friends were just beginning to discover the Soviet realities. “The little things” were very often shocking to them. Impressed with my film, video scholar Deirdre Boyle brought a tape of Interpretation of Dreams to Richard Pena. The next year, he invited me to the New Directors/New Films series. That invitation was a transformative event in my life.
I offer one final memory about that September.
The seminar coincided with the Jewish High Holidays. One day, several American filmmakers expressed interest in visiting the only synagogue in Riga. Some of us Soviets joined them. We arrived in the city. We met a number of old men praying outside the synagogue. One of them asked who we were. I began to explain, of course, in Russian. Then British–Israeli scholar and filmmaker Alan Rosenthal
We stepped aside and watched Alan and several of these men converse in a once dead and now revived ancient tongue. Two worlds connected without any external help.
In a way, this connection across divides is exactly what happened during that 1990 Flaherty Seminar. Half of us did not speak Russian, the other half did not speak English. Certainly, almost none of us spoke Hebrew. But we all spoke film. And we connected. We all got some sense of each other, and maybe even a better sense of the world.
Where this “better sense of the world” took us all is a whole different story.
P.S. The former Soviet Republic of Latvia is now an independent country and a member of the European Union. The sanatorium that once belonged to the Union of the Soviet Composers has long been converted to luxury condominiums. A three-bedroom apartment currently lists for 650K Euros. Long live capitalism! I guess…