Voices from the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar
Tagged as “Erik Barnouw”
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.
Thursday, September 28, 2017
I was honored to be invited to program the 2000 Flaherty Seminar. I had attended a seminar in 1994, which featured an eye- and mind-opening array of works selected by Somi Roy and, as part of a 40th anniversary series, by Erik Barnouw and Patty Zimmermann. That was enough to intimidate me.
Like others before me, I decided that my programming for the seminar would not focus just on “documentary” but explore “non-fiction” films.
In addition to documentary, this strategy allowed me to consider animation—including documentary animation—and avant-garde work. I wanted to feature artists working within these different realms whose films looked at the world, history, or social and political issues in radical or innovative ways, or explored ideas, even cinema itself, in an experimental or essay form.
The title of my seminar, "Essays, Experiments, and Excavations," reflected this conceptualization.
I began by thinking about artists whose work pushed these boundaries, such as Peggy Ahwesh, Travis Wilkerson, Harun Farocki, Zoe Beloff, Abraham Ravett, Tran Kim-Trang, and Chris Sullivan.
Once I had confirmed five or six filmmakers, I started to look at relationships between their works. As I did, other filmmakers came to mind, as did earlier, historical films, sometimes suggested directly by a particular film of one of these artists.
I allowed myself the freedom to interweave films from the past—the Lumière Brothers, Jean Painlevé, Santiago Alvarez—with contemporary films. I wanted to create a provocative array of resonances, a challenging dialog between the films themselves as well as between participants.
It was natural for me to bring my experience programming experimental films at Pacific Film Archive (now BAMPFA) to the Flaherty. There is a lot of creativity in curating programs of experimental shorts, but also a lot of pleasure for the audience. They come to understand filmic and intellectual ideas imbedded in a work through seeing it in relation to other films. The programming itself can help bring out ideas that an artist is exploring.
Unusual for the Flaherty, the majority of my seminar programs consisted of short films and videos. I relished mixing together works with different stylistic approaches that linked on multiple levels of theme, idea, or mood.
Such juxtapositions create sparks between works, allowing further readings to arise. Today the term "curating" is in common use, but back in 2000, I think it was surprising and stimulating for participants at that Flaherty to see programs of shorts and to understand that somebody carefully curated not only each program but also the overall flow throughout the week of the seminar.
I wanted those attending the seminar to see several pieces by each filmmaker in order to better understand the artist's concerns and aesthetic approach. My goal was to generate a deeper audience engagement. Setting this up over a week-long seminar can be challenging; even the best laid plans can go awry.
After a screening that included one of Tran T. Kim-Trang’s early videos, someone stood up and attacked her work. The person asserted that Tran's video was little more than an intellectual exercise. She would never show Tran’s videos to her students.
As the days went by, as they do at the Flaherty, several of Tran’s other videos were screened. Toward the end of the seminar, this same woman, now having viewed many of Tran’s works, spoke out again. As I recall, she said, “I have an apology to make,” then offered a beautiful tribute to Tran's Blindness Series [1992-2006].
These moments of revelation are very particular to the Flaherty Seminar, where viewers can immerse themselves in an artist's work over a period of days, hear the invited filmmakers and others speak about cinema, and have time to reflect and reconsider.
Friday, June 16, 2017
“I bet you thought I was dead!”
At my first breakfast at the 1980 Flaherty Seminar at Wells College in central New York, I picked at overcooked scrambled eggs and burnt wheat toast. I had sat down at the only open seat at a table with two gray-haired gentlemen.
Sheepishly, I introduced myself. One man offered he was George Stoney, who I knew as the community media and Challenge for Change legend.
The other, the one who thought I figured he was dead, identified himself as Erik Barnouw.
I blurted out that I had just read his books on documentary and the history of broadcasting to prepare for my PhD qualifying exams at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. That’s when he chortled the statement above. He was 72.
I had received what was then called a “grant-in-aid” to attend the seminar programmed by documentary scholar John Stuart Katz, a film professor at York University in Toronto. This Flaherty was the first film event I’d ever attended on the East Coast. Madison friends insisted I was insane to go just two weeks before my exams.
When I signed in, Barbara Van Dyke, the Flaherty Seminar’s executive director, greeted me with a hug. I wondered if she was related to Willard Van Dyke, the legendary filmmaker from the radical film group NYKINO and eventual head of film at the Museum of Modern Art.
At the opening reception, I’d gravitated to a huddle of twenty-somethings like me. I connected with Ruth Bradley, a PhD student at the University of Michigan who later became editor of Wide Angle, director of the Athens Film and Video Festival, and a longtime friend and collaborator.
At that first breakfast, I froze. I was sitting at a table at 7:30 a.m. with two men who had, in my neophyte assessment, changed documentary history.
When they kindly probed about my in-progress dissertation on the history of amateur film, I blurted out that I felt overwhelmed by mountains of unknown material. Erik smiled. He said, “Never be intimidated. Just get out your shovel and keep digging.”
In graduate school, I’d read and battled about documentary, then a marginalized area in film studies. The abstractions of Bateson, critical historiography, Fanon, Foucault, Habermas, Marxism, and psychoanalysis, drowned my soul—and my clarity.
At that Flaherty, independent film was front and center. A community, a history, a practice, a theory, the Flaherty redefined the documentary community as a seething cauldron of obsessed partisans and gutted my preconceptions about documentary and independent film.
I watched American regional independent narrative cinema like Alambrista , Gal Young ‘Un , Heartland .
Observational documentaries such as Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers , Faces of November , N!ai, the Story of a !Kung Woman , Scenes from Childhood  were jammed against archival works such as The War at Home , The Trials of Alger Hiss , America Lost and Found .
Experimental documentaries like D.O.A.  and Poto and Cabengo  jolted me. For the first time, I experienced how documentary, programmed with experimental films by Warren Bass, Dana Hodgson, Emily Hubley, Caroline Leaf, could propel new conceptual thinking.
The French Canadian documentary/narrative film Mourir a Tue-Tete  scraped away my feminist documentary theories. The film chronicled a rape with daring self-reflexivity. Anne Claire Poirier, the militant feminist director from the National Film Board of Canada, was present. In the campus pub, I crammed into a booth with her and three other young women, enthralled.
I could not figure out if the seminar was conservative, liberal, or radical. I had never attended any media event so focused on long discussions, intense debates, and entanglements between animation, archival, ethnographic, experimental, expository, hybrid, narrative, observational, personal work.
The participants featured filmmakers from every genre, as well as anthropologists, art world types, broadcasters, cinematographers, commercial media workers, distributors, elderly cineastes, exhibitors, film scholars, graduate students, journalists, librarians, marketers, and producers. Their combustions torched something inside me about the urgency of independent media that I’d not felt as a PhD student.
I was utterly intimidated. The seminar experience catapulted me into verbal paralysis.
Discussions cascaded like ferocious waterfalls of debates, ideas, histories, positions, and anger. I listened from the back of the room, jumbled up with anger, awe, critique, disdain, engagement, fascination, and frustration. I uttered one incoherent, overly theoretical, tortured statement. I filled a spiral notebook with notes.
Here, documentary was not about theories but about aesthetics, debates, histories, people, politics, and high stakes. Documentary and experimental film felt confusing, embodied, pulsing, significant. Devotees possessed feverish intensities.
Walking to a screening, I bumped into visual anthropologist Jay Ruby. His sharp mind terrified me. He knew exactly what he thought about every film. Back then I criticized Nanook of the North  as racist and colonialist, a position I later gutted after reading Jay’s reassessment of the film as an early collaborative ethnographic film.
At lunch, I met Bill Sloan, the librarian for the Museum of Modern Art, who spoke generously about the short experimental works.
I met film librarian D. Marie Grieco. Before a screening, she whispered two revelations to me. First, Frances Flaherty, not Robert, inaugurated the seminars, but film history had erased her. Second, Barbara was Willard’s ex-wife, and she, too, had been expunged from film history.
I realized that Frances Flaherty had built a place where young people like me could talk to legends like Erik—and Anne Claire, D. Marie, George, and Jay…
At the end of that seminar, Erik Barnouw offered the closing benediction. He performed this at every seminar he attended.
Erik recounted a story about a seminar acolyte who asked French filmmaker Chris Marker how he created such complex editing. Marker replied, “I get lost.”
Smiling, Erik commanded all of us: “Now get lost.”