Voices from the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar
Tagged as “Documentary”
Wednesday, September 13, 2017
This is my first blog post so I am not sure how to this but will do my best.
Dear Flaherty Seminar:
I love you!
I love you!
I love you!
There, I’ve said it.
Who am I? And why do I feel that way? I will try to be brief—though I rarely am!
My name is Linda Lilienfeld. I have been a film and picture researcher for forty-five years, specializing in history and science. I work in documentary film, PBS-type series, features, books, and museum exhibitions.
Years ago, I started to work with Peggy Parsons at the National Gallery of Art film program in Washington DC. This allows me to travel to film archives around the world, where material has not been digitized, and look at all kinds of films. The National Gallery of Art shows a sampler of each year’s Flaherty program.
In 1992 I worked on an exhibit about climate change for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The companion book was written by Andy Revkin. It was so compelling that it changed the course of my life. Climate change: what the f..k was that? I mean, I’m from Brooklyn, what do I know about plants and animals?
But I realized it was a very important and complex subject.
So I started a project known as Let’s Talk About Water (www.letstalkaboutwater.com) where I bring scientists together in a panel discussion after a film showing connected to water, and do my best to instigate a dynamic interaction with the audience. I try to get the scientists to speak more simply and clearly and let people feel comfortable to ask “stupid” questions—there are no stupid questions. I try to make it fun. I work with the Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science (CUAHSI) cuashi.org. We do events all over the world.
Water knits it all together and is a great point of entry for conversation about climate change.
So, why do I love The Flaherty Seminar?
Years ago, a colleague of mine, who is very reticent, had just come back from The Flaherty (whatever that was!). He told me it was a week-long seminar where people watched film together, morning, noon, and night. After each program, they would talk about it as a group and continue talking over dinner and into the wee hours of the morning. They argued, fought, and agreed. They deepened each other’s insight into the films—and in some cases changed each other’s opinions of the film.
Each year when we would meet after a “Flaherty,” he could not stop talking—this person who barely said a word!
So he invited me to attend a Flaherty in 1976. Now, in 2017, I have attended between twenty-five to thirty Seminars. How crazy is that?
My first time speaking to the group was utterly terrifying. I was clammy and hyperventilating. But I said my piece. When I’d finally made public contact with the group, the experience deepened.
What is more amazing is how sad I was when it ended and I had to leave the “Flaherty family” and reenter real life.
Afterward my mind kept racing. It was hard to talk to friends who had not been at The Flaherty.
Shards of images continued to flash through my mind, along with connections between the films, the genius of the programmer, why one film sits near another in the sequence, the way those interconnections opened deep reflective thinking about beauty, love, conflict, process, change. And what the filmmakers, who also attend the The Flaherty, had had to say.
The smorgasbord of films and ideas upon which we feasted would express a visual idea so compelling as to be breathtaking. I wanted that feast again and again.
The idea of leaving the real world behind, watching films all day long, spending time with wonderfully bright people to THINK, TALK and REFLECT about life—the good, the bad, and the ugly—is just so gratifying, challenging, and fulfilling.
The programmer has complete freedom—no censorship—to program what she or he wants. But we never know what it will be until the actual show.
No preconception. What is that? RARE! In today’s world, everyone knows too much about everything before experiencing it.
Currently, we are housed on the beautiful and welcoming campus of Colgate University in Hamilton, New York. Due to excellent administration of the event, we glide seamlessly between dorm rooms, not-so-bad cafeteria meals, walks to the screening room, breaks, discussion, happy hour… We float through the magic as film upon film, day after day, unspools and chat after chat washes over us.
As a group, you become (which in fact we all really are) one big organism. You pass people in the hallway. You might never directly talk with them and yet somehow you miss them when it is over. It is the way they said hello, or the fact you met at various intervals in a mysteriously synchronous way. At the Flaherty, I’ve also made friends for life.
But the most amazing effect is how the Flaherty experience enriches my real life and my work—especially my work.
One of the most important challenges of our time is why people are in denial about climate change. How can it be that scientists, geoscientists in particular, and hydrologists especially, know so much—and we know so little. How can anyone call climate change a “hoax?”
I think the problem and the solution is communication between scientists and the public, with universities as the conduit.
I took what I absorbed from The Flaherty and created the Let’s Talk About Water project.
I serve as moderator in many of the panels or as a consultant to the host university team. But I strive over and over again to recreate the life, the light, the warmth, the energy, the conflict, the resolution, the clarity that I have experienced at The Flaherty.
The process of The Flaherty gives me confidence to work against the grain of the quiet, reserved scientific community and to push them gently into The Flaherty Way.
We try to convey the power of an image, the many ways it can be read, and the ability to open minds with information, experience, context, and emotion to help us communicate our way out of oblivion.
Thank you, dear Flaherty Seminar. As I said at the beginning, I love you.
Wednesday, August 16, 2017
When I think back on the experience of programming the 2003 Flaherty Seminar, now fourteen years on, many memories readily surface.
I found myself unexpectedly unemployed in the year leading up to the seminar.
My efforts to research and review what had to have been literally hundreds of films in the lead up to the program consumed me.
I recall the regular spirited conversations and stalwart support I received from the Flaherty Executive Director Margarita de la Vega Hurtado and her assistant Brian Coffey.
I recall the countless email exchanges with curatorial colleagues around the country.
I recall the challenges of securing travel commitments from filmmakers whose production schedules were tentative at best.
As the program began to take shape, I remember actually sleeping with the schedule blueprint alongside me. I often awoke to jot down new ways to best orchestrate the sequencing.
I also remember the setbacks.
There was the filmmaker whose work I had hoped to showcase on opening night who informed me two months before the Seminar that he was likely going to be in Afghanistan working on a new film. He was unable to secure manageable transportation back and forth to the US for that week. So there was a push to quickly identify an equally strong and appropriate opening night film.
The Board decided to reduce the length of the seminar by one full day. I was informed late in the process and it discomfited me. This reduced length led to some memorable, hardly ideal, late-night Flaherty screenings. The midnight screening of Glauber Rocha’s two and a half-hour hallucinatory final masterwork, The Age of the Earth was for many seminariarns an even more powerful experience, intensified by the lateness of the hour.
Hours after arriving at Vassar College, the site of the 2003 seminar, I learned that one of my guests, Travis Wilkerson, was suddenly unable to attend.
While I harbor many behind-the-scenes stories about the preliminaries leading up to the 2003 Flaherty, for me, recollections of the ideas and camaraderie exchanged throughout that special week stand as far more consequential.
From Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Israel, Japan, the Philippines, the US, the UK, and Vietnam, that week’s guests possessed a core commitment to confronting social and political injustice across many arenas and in many forms.
Some possessed a lifetime’s body of work. Some had only made one or two films. Despite differences in language, culture, age, and experience, I suspect the feeling for many of us Flaherty seminarians was that we were among our tribe. None of us needed to be convinced that mighty problems everywhere needed to be faced. Our concern was how to face these problems with our cameras.
One central thread of discussion focused on the eternal debate over the role that form and aesthetics play in engendering political efficacy.
During one discussion, I remember a remark by filmmaker Franny Armstrong, whose workmanlike journalistic approach to documentary stood far afield from the overtly impressionistic approach of Holly Fisher, the DIY in-your-face aesthetics of Matt McDaniel, and the hallucinatory epic-didactic poetics of Glauber Rocha.
Franny contended that it doesn’t matter what happens during a film, only what happens once it’s over. Armstrong claimed that results, not reviews, count. Her own very first film, McLibel: Two Worlds Collide (1998), seen by an estimated twenty-five million viewers on television and the Internet, contributed to the global crusade against McDonald’s business practices.
During that seminar, I remember being profoundly moved and inspired by the sheer courage and tenacity of the filmmakers. Directors such as Raymundo Gleyzer and Joey Lozano openly risked their lives to make their work.
The under-recognized Vietnamese filmmaker Tran Van Thuy recounted how his own family turned against his making the extraordinary documentary The Story of Kindness. Thuy’s wife claimed that he was possessed by spirits!
Despite experiencing the hardship of his previous film, Hanoi in One’s Eyes, which the Vietnamese government had banned for five years, Thuy persevered despite many obstacles to produce The Story of Kindness. This essay film was propelled into being by a dying friend’s request to make a film on the subject of tu-te, a Vietnamese term that roughly translates as human relations, fraternity, or simply kindness.
Again, Thuy found his film banned, but following the personal intervention of Communist Party leader Nguyen van Linh, Thuy’s film was not only released but rapidly became a popular and influential work.
The practice and person of Noriaki Tsuchimoto occupied the heart of the week’s dialogue.
At seventy-four years of age, Tsuchimoto wrote to me in advance that while genuinely honored and excited about the prospect of attending the Flaherty, complications from diabetes might slow his participation and his ability to sit through the week-long program. I assured Tsuchimoto that he and his wife and collaborator, Motoko, need only attend their own programs.
As soon as the seminar got underway, it was clear that Tsuchimoto was drawn in by the experience. He attended every program.
Widely regarded as one of the two pre-eminent documentarians of Japanese cinema alongside his colleague Shinsuke Ogawa, Noriaki Tsuchimoto is most renowned for an extensive series of eighteen plus documentary films made over a thirty-five-year period on the impacts of toxic poisoning on residents of the fishing community of Minamata.
Among the earlier and later works of Tsuchimoto screened, the highlights were the screenings of his Minamata—The Victims and Their World (1971) and his Shiranui Sea (1975).
Tsuchimoto offered deep lessons about what being a committed filmmaker means.
He discussed his ongoing auto-criticism in the pursuit of pushing his work further.
Before home video or digital downloads, Tsuchimoto spoke about how he circumvented the traditional avenues of art house and television exhibition. He traveled widely around Japan and elsewhere, screening his films in nontraditional venues in small villages and community centers. He periodically stopped the films and discussed them with audiences, much like Octavio Gettino and Fernando Solanas did with their Hour of the Furnaces (Argentina, 1968)
Tsuchimoto discussed how much he had learned from the spiritual values of the Minamata victims, and he shared the difficulties and challenges of depicting their story well.
Tsuchimoto gave the seminarians the powerful maxim: Remembrance is Strength. He contended that this maxim constituted a fundamental belief of the documentary filmmaker.
The ongoing sustenance I draw from that one week in June of 2003 continues, I suspect, to prove Tsuchimoto’s point.
Thursday, March 2, 2017
By Patricia R. Zimmermann and Scott MacDonald
We are pleased to announce our new blog, Flaherty Stories, which serves as a companion to our new book, The Flaherty: Decades in the Cause of Independent Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017). The book is out in May 2017. In case you would like to pre-order, here is the link: http://www.iupress.indiana.edu/product_info.php?cPath=1037_7487_7488&products_id=808634
The blog will feature the voices and stories of the Flaherty Seminar, now in its 63rd year, as a way to celebrate the heterogeneity of people, films, and perspectives that have convened at the legendary film seminar.
In the ten-year journey of researching and writing this book, we encountered many stories and people. Many we spoke with had much more to say than could be quoted in a scholarly book. We hope to share these stories with you here, and invite other Flaherty devotees to contact us as well.
Here's the description of our book:
This is the inspiring story of The Flaherty, one of the oldest continuously running nonprofit media arts institution in the world, which has shaped the development of independent film, video, and emerging forms in the United States over the past 60 years.
Combining the words of legendary independent filmmakers with a detailed history of The Flaherty, Patricia R. Zimmermann and Scott MacDonald showcase its history and legacy, amply demonstrating how the relationships created at the annual Flaherty seminar have been instrumental in transforming American media history.
Moving through the decades, each chapter opens with a detailed history of the organization by Zimmermann, who traces the evolution of The Flaherty from a private gathering of filmmakers to a small annual convening, to today’s ever-growing nexus of filmmakers, scholars, librarians, producers, funders, distributors, and others associated with international independent cinema.
MacDonald expands each chapter by giving voice to the major figures in the evolution of independent media through transcriptions of key discussions galvanized by films shown at The Flaherty. The discussions feature Frances Flaherty, Robert Gardner, Fred Wiseman, Willard Van Dyke, Jim McBride, Michael Snow, Hollis Frampton, Erik Barnouw, Barbara Kopple, Ed Pincus, Trinh T. Minh-ha, Bruce Conner, Peter Watkins, Su Friedrich, Marlon Riggs, William Greaves, Ken Jacobs, Kazuo Hara, Mani Kaul, Craig Baldwin, Bahman Ghobadi, Eyal Sivan, and many others.