Voices from the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar
Tagged as “Dennis LIm”
Thursday, February 1, 2018
I was asked by Mary Kerr to film a trailer for the seminar, something that could be used for “propaganda” purposes.
The filming was to take place during the 2010 seminar, “WORK,” programmed by Dennis Lim. The idea was to give viewers the visceral sensation of being in the thick of it, as if they were taking part in the screenings, discussions, and the extra-curricular activities.
I’d been a Flaherty filmmaker the year before. The 2009 Seminar, “MONUMENTS, WITNESSES, RUINS,” programmed by Irina Leimbacher, was my first, and it was love at first sight. I was happy to help promote the cult of Flaherty.
I was delighted to find out that my friend Josh Solondz would be participating in the project as assistant director. Josh and I were born on the same day (December 11). The stars were definitely aligning in our favor.
Our producer was Mary Kerr herself; Lucila Moctezuma was associate producer. We enlisted the help of Gerry Hooper, a frequent Flaherty participant and an experienced DP, who had worked in Bollywood on the breakthrough gangster film Satya .
From the start, the idea was to conduct interviews with the Seminar filmmakers. This would be a way for us to get to know them, learn from them, poke fun at them and, perhaps, to abuse them a bit. Our team got a boost from Daniela Alatorre, who helped us with the interviews, and from Eva Weber, who worked as general assistant.
Our dual role made the Seminar experience exhilarating for me—and a constant challenge. But because of our special situation, we could see more than an average participant, and we could enjoy the comic aspect of this gathering of film lovers who brought their various preconceived notions and prejudices to a place where non-preconception was the official rule.
We’d been asked to make a trailer, something on the level of a brief commercial, but somehow we were inspired to approach the task as a serious film project. Surrounded by brilliant seminar filmmakers, academics, and other outstanding participants, I felt we had to try for the highest level of excellence.
The problem was, I didn’t know what I was doing. I’d hardly ever filmed human beings, except for dead ones!—in Nascentes Morimur . I’d filmed pigs and naked mole rats, and sewage!
I tried to place the interviewed filmmakers in environments corresponding to the atmosphere of their films. Michael Glawogger’s Megacities  and Workingman’s Death  put viewers in the midst of perilous workplaces: a slaughterhouse in Nigeria, a do-it-yourself coal mine in the Ukraine, sulphur collection inside an Indonesian volcano... We interviewed Michael in the Flaherty kitchen, in the midst of the clamor, with workers passing in front of the camera.
I would start each interview asking about the idea of non-preconception. Michael asserted that there was no such thing, but that it was a nice idea to entertain.
We shot two great Mexican filmmakers, friends and rivals, Eugenio Polgovsky and Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio, in the swimming pool, a location suggested by Pedro’s Alamar .
For Lisandro Alonso, we tried a Hitchcockian Vertigo zoom—suggested by Lisandro’s film Los Muertos . As Lisandro and Dennis Lim walked up a ramp towards the camera, which had been placed on a rug, we attempted, at first without success, to pull the rug and camera backwards as I zoomed in. Lisandro was amused, and said that our clumsiness reminded him of shooting Los Muertos in the midst of the jungle. We enlisted the filmmaker Uruphong Raksasad to help us, and the rug began to move.
We filmed the artist Mika Rottenberg at the local gym, using exercise machines and lifting weights as she spoke—a fabulous location full of reflections in the mirrors and different types of bodies in motion. At some point my conversation with Mika veered toward sex. That part was later excised from the online interview. Flaherty censorship! The official version is posted below.
We also interviewed Uruphong, Lucy Raven, Benj Gerdes and Jennifer Hayashida, Akosua Adoma Owusu, Alex Rivera, Kazuhiro Soda, Zhao Dayong, and Naomi Uman. The interviews were exhaustive. We’d set no limit to how long the conversations should be.
We began to spread the word that this would be a feature film about the seminar. We quickly produced a meta-trailer for that fictitious feature, while working on the trailer proper. In our meta-trailer Bill Brand, using the small, waterproof Kodak camera Mary Kerr had loaned us, filmed underwater shots of Lucy Raven doing laps in the pool. Dennis agreed to show the meta-trailer as part of a regular screening. I wonder if this was the first time that a film made during the seminar was shown at the seminar?
After “WORK” was finished, Josh and I began editing our many hours of footage. We loved the material and had endless fun with it. During particularly hot summer days we’d strip and edit au naturel. Many versions were created, representing the various modes of experimental filmmaking. Six months later we had a 2 ½-hour feature.
We’d have continued, had Mary not come by to bring us back to reality: the Flaherty, she reminded us, had requested only a 2-minute piece.
Josh and I are still entertaining the idea of making the feature. After all, there’s entire archive of interview footage, as well as discussion tapes that could be tapped. The feature could be endless, a Flaherty film that continues to grow longer, like the Flaherty experience itself, which feeds us and through which we continue to grow.
The official Flaherty Trailer: https://vimeo.com/18136767
Michael Glawogger interview: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=3EsqC6I7Hm0
Mika Rottenberg interview: https://vimeo.com/23155242
(Thanks to Josh Solondz and Jim Supanick for reviewing and adding valuable points to this piece.)
Thursday, February 1, 2018
Yes! I programmed the Flaherty Seminar, in 2012. We were young and wild. Well, more wild than young.
[From here on, you can read the whole text in a linear way, paragraph after paragraph, or choose your own way. I’ll try to help you with some indications. If you’re just interested in my Open Wounds seminar, you can read #3, #5, #10 & #12, and skip the rest]
Since then, I’ve been wanting to return. I didn’t try to come back in 2013—I needed a rest after 3 seminars in a row, and being in the center of the storm during the last one. Anyway for one reason or another, I haven’t been back. And yes, I miss you, Flaherty Seminar.
[More about the earlier seminars I attended in #4, #5]
I think 2012 was a good year for the seminar. At least, people looked happy at the end and most of the anonymous surveys confirmed this. Don’t worry, I won’t bore you with the nice comments I received; I read them to myself when I’m feeling down.
[If you think this is too corny you can find some wilder anecdotes in #5, but if you’re really enjoying it, you might want to jump to #10]
I participated in my first seminar in 2010. I’d arrived in New York that year on a grant from NYU’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese Literature. The year before, I had agreed to be artistic director of the Punto de Vista film festival. Former executive director of the Flaherty, Margarita de la Vega Hurtado, was my contact in America for Punto de Vista, so, being in New York and given my new programming position, there was no excuse: I had to go.
[If you would like to program the Flaherty, you’ll find more about how I was selected to program in #6 & #7]
The 2010 seminar, WORK, was programmed by Denis Lim. I remember meeting Dennis the day before the seminar. He looked extremely nervous. I have great memories of that year. Carlos Gutiérrez has also shared this in his “Flaherty Story”: 2010 was the year of World Cup in South Africa (yes, the one won by Spain!). Most of the Latinos at the Flaherty, including Lisandro Alonso, Pedro González Rubio and Eugenio Polgovsky, were soccer fans, so when there was a match (and there were matches all the time) we skipped screenings. I remember Lisandro saying to us in low voice, “Hey guys, the next film is one of mine; let’s watch the game!” The problem was that Lisandro’s films are short and we couldn’t see the whole match before the discussion.
In 2012 there was no World Cup, but someone knew about a lake near Colgate University where people could swim. At the end of the seminar there were two kinds of participants: those who had gone to the lake and those who hadn’t.
[Is this too frivolous? Maybe you can find something more transcendental in #7 or #11.]
If Margarita de la Vega Hurtado was the one to bring me to my first seminar, Lucila Moctezuma, then a Flaherty Trustee, first made me think about the possibility of programming a Flaherty. I have a clear memory of her innocent smile when she asked me, during the 2010 seminar, “Would you like to program a seminar?” During my holidays I drew up a proposal, and at the end of 2011, when my Flaherty experience was a distant midsummer night’s dream, I received a call from Mary Kerr.
[You’ll learn about the curatorial process in #7 and #9.]
I learned a lot working on my Flaherty for almost a year and a half. I remember a crisis with Mary Kerr. It happened eight or ten weeks before the seminar. I sent Mary a first draft of the program, and then, after a long, sleepless night, changed everything. She was really mad, and Lucila needed to mediate. Finally Mary accepted my changes, and I agreed not to work during sleepless nights. My seminar was the last one for Mary as executive producer—no connection I hope! By the end of the seminar Mary and I were like two old pals after a dangerous mission. The title for my seminar (“Open Wounds”) was Mary’s idea. I wanted it to be “Bleeding Wounds.” Dennis suggested “There Will Be Blood.” I liked them all.
[Now I need to summarize; if you feel you didn’t read anything remarkable in the previous paragraphs, maybe you’d better stop reading, because you won’t in the next five either!]
Steve Holmgren was, at least for me, another key person during those years: he ran the bar my year and was the one who introduced me to the Flaherty Skull Ceremony. If you haven’t heard about this, either you know little about the Flaherty, or you’re not interested in nightlife!
[A lot of partying goes on during the Flaherty. There are some other words about sleepless nights in #12]
I do have bittersweet memories too. Debating my ideas with the Advisory Board on the phone was sometimes painful. I thought I was the programmer, but everybody had something to critique or something to propose.
On the good side, I remember the conversation with Kathy Geritz about Sun Xun, and how she opened my mind—and Sun became part of the program. I have a special memory of a couple of conversations about seminar dynamics with John Gianvito at the Yamagata Documentary Film Festival. And Maria Campaña, a Flaherty Fellow my year, helped me after the seminar: she made possible our having Eduardo Coutinho at Punto de Vista in 2013. I also remember Mar Cabra, a young Spanish woman who didn’t enjoy the experimental part of my program. Now she’s a well-known investigative journalist in Spain.
[In #11 I try to develop some controversial thoughts on the seminar dynamics.]
I loved having Lourdes Portillo and Su Friedrich heading my filmmaker team. Now, almost six years later, I think even the collisions between filmmakers during the discussions allowed us to go further into how we think about film, history, and humanity.
[Do not read the next one if you haven’t read #3, #5 & #9.]
There is always something repetitive about the Flaherty. Not because of the regular structure of the event, but because of the dynamics of the discussions. It doesn’t matter what the topic of the seminar is; at a certain point, particular issues will arise again and again. I was astonished during the WORK seminar that there was no discussion about class struggle at all. At some point the discussion went back to gender issues right away.
And in between discussions, there is always an underground battle going between two groups: the academics on one hand (too pretentious and theoretical for the others) and the filmmakers and people from the industry (often identified as the old timers). Of course, neither group believes in the principle of “non-preconception,” and part of the programmer’s work is to deal with the preconceptions of both groups. I faced it in a confrontational way, by playing a song before every screening to create a particular mood.
[Last paragraph: I hope your journey through my text has been worthy of your time.]
The morning after my seminar, I remember a small group of sleepless people crossing the campus, heading down into the town of Hamilton to have breakfast. I was walking with a Flaherty newcomer, David Pendleton, the programmer at the Harvard Film Archive. He was completely enthusiastic about the seminar. Later, he had his own (PLAY, 2016). David was one of the three now-dead friends I’ve mentioned in my text, along with Eugenio and Eduardo. If documentary is about something, it’s human beings, and the passing of these loved ones has left us all with bleeding wounds.
Saturday, October 28, 2017
How does one extract the highlights of a cultural phenomenon that meets, exceeds, undermines, and sometimes thwarts expectations?
How does one parse an intensely subjective experience that defies easy description and begs for critique?
How does one describe the ways in which the polemical and the personal intertwine in inextricable, indistinguishable, and sometimes identical ways?
The Flaherty Seminar touches all these questions, and invites many more. I think of it as acomplex system, somewhat like a knitted thing constructed of varying stitches: a platform, aretreat, a conference, a school, a cult, a family, a haven, a coven, a privilege, a vestige of the past, a beacon of the future, a happy holiday.
So far, I’ve experienced four iterations of the Flaherty seminar.
Of course, I feel the ever-pressing obligations to write about the incredible films presented, the moderated conversations with the creators, and the conversations with esteemed academics in documentary film studies. Many others have written about the films, the people, the programs.
I want to dive into a different pool.
In my heart, the Flaherty Seminar feels like an intuitive and subjective experience. It unfolds with many sets of lived revelations, almost unbearable shudders, and shining moments.
Thanks to the advice and encouragement of my friend, archivist and historian Carolyn Tennant, I attended my first seminar in 2004 at Vassar College. I was fairly new to the job of film programmer. I was living in Buffalo, New York, working as media arts director at Hallwalls, the nonprofit arts center. This provided me with a magnificent and substantial hands-on education in arts management, arts funding, fundraising, curating, criticism, archiving.
2004 celebrated the 50th anniversary of the seminar. Susan Oxtoby curated. Perhaps because it served as an introduction to generations of makers whom I encountered in person, I remember this seminar the most clearly.
At that seminar, I hung out with filmmakers Eve Heller, Phil Solomon, Julia Meltzer, David Thorne, Janie Geiser, and Louis Klahr. I was as inspired by their work as I was by their warmth. A month or two before, my father had died, and in sharing that loss with them I felt both comforted and bolstered.
As I staggered across a field with my head spinning from excitement and agoraphobia, Ricky Leacock, the legend of direct cinema, steadied me. Scholar Eric Barnouw’s widow Betty Barnouw told me that she would always knit in movie theaters, occasionally slipping stitches in the dark. I frequently found myself sitting alongside fellow knitter Ruth Bradley, who ran the Athens Film and Video Festival and edited the journal Wide Angle at Ohio University.
In 2006, I returned to Vassar for Steve Seid and Ariella Ben Dov’s program entitled “Creative Demolition.” The Buffalo contingent (Carolyn Tennant, Caroline Koebel, Stefani Bardin, and myself) was in full force that year. Many people remarked at how much we seemed to like each other. A surprising observation. Of course we did!
Sharon Lockhart, Jacqueline Goss, Adele Horne, Patty Chang, Zoe Beloff, and Vittorio De Sita screened films and videos. Fridolin Schönwiese’s moderated conversation with Kathy Geritz about It Works  stays with me. The conversation was a revelation because it is so difficult to find adequate words to describe the workings and meanings of sound in film. Here were two brilliant people doing exactly that with inspiring generosity.
And, at the 2006 seminar I knit a fine-gauged, green gossamer cardigan—my “Flaherty sweater.” On the last night, I finished it in my single dorm room, enjoying the self-imposedisolation. In contrast to its intense camaraderie, the seminar also affords moments of solitude even while it does not openly encourage them.
In 2010, Dennis Lim was the programmer, exploring the theme of “Work.” I attended on a professional development grant and worked for the seminar. I poured wine at Bill’s Bar. I attended workshops. I communed with other fellows. There was no time to knit.
The late Austrian documentarian Michael Glawogger relentlessly put himself in harm’s way for films like Workingman’s Death  and Whore’s Glory (2010). Experimental filmmaker Naomi Uman, a dear friend from the 2004 Hallwalls Artists’ Residency Project, shared her Ukrainian Time Machine . During a post-screening discussion, she spoke with the Mexican filmmaker Eugenio Polgovsky who died this year, another premature loss.
As I look back on these experiences, the key wonder of the seminar resides in the post-screening discussions. Their intensities and reflections compound the Seminar’s great wealth of screening experiences and opportunities for connection. Listening and choosing to be involved in the discussions (or not) and remembering that they are only one of the opportunities for exchange is vital. Some of the most valuable insights are rendered during chats with others between screenings and discussions, colliding in the dorms, sharing meals, or raising a glass at the bar.
2013 was my most recent seminar. I went to take in colleague Pablo De Ocampo’s program called “History is What’s Happening.” Of all the seminars I’ve attended, this was the most overtly political. Sadly, my detailed notes are illegible today, the handwriting not keeping pace with the hand knitting.
The films of Sara Maldoror – the brilliant Guadeloupian director of African descent – still resonate with me. A cameo from one of her films appeared in Chris Marker’s San Soleil , an overt yet accidental, unmistakable connection across time, lives, makers, and states of being. This concept of cinematic excavation also reverberated across the films of Eyal Sivan, Basma Alsharif, Sirah Foighel Brutmann and Eitan Efrat as well as the Otolith Group, all makers invested in the fine gauges of historic memory.
Complexity. There is no one Flaherty seminar experience. Each seminar is distinct. The other attendees and one’s own stage of life inform each experience as much as the films programmed. One’s willingness to open up and remain present might be most important in navigating the somewhat unusual experience of not choosing the films you experience.
To exhaust the knitting metaphor: the common thread to my four seminars so far, unraveled and reworked, remains this maxim--“only connect.”