Voices from the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar
Tagged as “experimental film”
Thursday, January 18, 2018
EH: Do you remember when exactly we met at Flaherty? I realize I don't remember. I know it was at the 2001 seminar.
MW: We met the first night. You were with Sam Green and I introduced myself to you guys, and we started hanging out post-screenings and at night
EH: Oh, okay! So Sam was there too. Interesting. I didn't remember that. Did you already know Sam?
MW: I didn’t know anybody. I was 19 years old. I’m not even sure how I had heard about the Flaherty Seminar. Maybe my professor George Stoney at NYU had said something, or through my internship with Sandi DuBowski on Trembling Before G-D .
EH: Do you have any special memories of that year? I remember seeing a lot of movies with you.
MW: I remember the first movie we saw. It was about a blind boy, and I believe he was listening to a go-cart race, but I might be remembering it incorrectly. Sight and its relationship to sound were a big theme that year. But of course the theme wasn’t sketched out in advance. It gradually revealed itself.
EH: Yes, I think that was called Hermann Slobbe/Blind Child II  by Johan Van Der Keuken?
MW: Yeah that was it. I was very young so I had seen very little documentary or avant-garde film work. And when I saw that film, I felt like I had entered a special place where my mind would be cracked open. The other highlights of the seminar related to that theme of seeing.
EH: That's incredible. That film stuck with me as well over the years, and I think they showed an Arne Sucksdorff film about seagulls [Trut (“Seahawk”), 1944], which also stuck with me.
MW: Derek Jarman’s Blue , The Heddy Honigmann film about military vets listening to music [Crazy, 1999], the blind photographers collective [the Seeing with Photography Collective gave a slide presentation with live narration entitled Shooting Blind]…they made me think about what it means to represent something you can’t see, which is still something I think about a lot.
EH: Honigmann’s work was also revelatory for me. I've loved it ever since and have watched a bootleg I have of Crazy many times.
MW: It’s incredible to watch people’s faces as they listen to a song that was meaningful to them during war, especially faces of veterans who you might expect to be fairly repressed or stoic.
EH: Yes and especially Dutch soldiers, who are only on supposedly humanitarian missions, but still have to live through wars. I’d forgotten about the Blind Photographers Collective. Derek Jarman's Blue—I remember I hadn't seen that film since it was brand new; I went to a preview screening in San Francisco. I remember that seeing the film print so distressed, with scratches and specks from the intervening decade, actually made me cry. I was thinking of friends I had lost.
MW: Yeah, I remember seeing you cry, and that was a consciousness-raising thing for me, for lack of a better word. I’ve seen Blue a number of times as a digital projection and it’s so much less powerful. There’s a kind of entropy to the print that seems appropriate.
EH: I've never watched Blue in its entirety as a digital copy.
MW: Nowadays museums loop it on video but it’s so flat that way. Remember, they did a secret advanced screening of Hedwig and the Angry Inch  too?
EH: Oh yes, that's right. That was fun. Emily Hubley's animations are the only thing I remember about that movie now.
MW: Did Emily and Faith Hubley show work that year too? It’s funny when you see so many films they start to blur together. I can say that every film I saw there was a revelation to me.
EH: I honestly don't recall, but I think you’re right. For me the big revelation was more the “Flaherty world”—that particularly eclectic crowd that Flaherty attracts. It wasn't exactly what I was used to in NYC film culture.
MW: At that time, my film culture was the MIX Experimental Gay and Lesbian film festival or NYU film school. Flaherty was interesting because it was this place where experimental and documentary film intersected, and the discourse there was academic, but not in the basic film-school sense. There were these ethnographic-film anthropologist types, more theory-driven film studies professors, filmmakers, and students. And those distinctions were really flattened; it was a level playing field for everybody to discuss the films.
EH: Yes that was super interesting. Also I remember getting a strong sense of the “old days” a lot from members. And by that they meant the really old days, because people like George Stoney were still around and in attendance.
MW: Yes, he was my professor at the time. It was exciting for me to be in such close proximity to real filmmakers. I gained access to information and ideas that I just wasn’t going to encounter at film school, particularly a traditional film school like NYU. And you were a big part of that. I remember a specific conversation we had between screenings.
EH: There was a lot of chatter about the controversies of the past too. Before I went, I recall many people in the Anthology crowd relating the story of George Kuchar getting attacked. They were like—those Flaherty people are crazy! Who would attack dear loveable George??
MW: Well attacking filmmakers is part of the culture there, and I’m not into that.
I guess people are worn down and tired and lose track of the typical decorum of speaking to a filmmaker in a Q&A setting. There’s something weird about people talking about the filmmaker while he or she is sitting there. And some people don’t just talk, they wax on and on about the films and the filmmaker in a way that I think is odd.
There’s a breaking down of boundaries I guess you could say.
EH: Maybe that's the price of the “anything goes” discourse at the Flaherty. It's not limited in any way, really.
MW: I think good stuff comes out of that though, and I think because it is such a horizontal, open forum, people get an opportunity to speak who ordinarily might not be allowed to respond openly to a film. They’re not film critics or professors; they’re students like me. And I probably said some stupid shit to a filmmaker...
EH: Oh yes, always there’s something really amazing or fascinating. It’s also just fascinating to hear everyone’s different perspectives and issues and positions.
MW: Yeah, it becomes less about the film and more about the different approaches to looking at films in general. The thing that you told me that was really transformative was that you can’t just analyze or interpret a film, you have to analyze it within the context of a particular historical moment. I guess on some level that idea seems basic, but it was radical to me at that time. It’s interesting because so much of the present critique of young students is that they look at things ahistorically and “problematize” them.
EH: That’s interesting. I'm not sure I would express that same sentiment in the exact same way today, but I can imagine myself saying that then.
MW: Well, in the context of Derek Jarman’s Blue, that was really meaningful. You’re not just responding to a blue screen right now, you’re responding to a blue screen as a spectacle experienced by people dying of AIDS and the people around them, and the scratches on the print are artifacts of the passage of time. That’s a way of representing something that can’t be seen.
EH: Yes. I think it’s about how all films happen in their own time, but they also happen again and again. For me, that 2001 screening of Blue was qualitatively different from when I saw it on its release.
MW: Yeah, that’s a more nuanced way to put it. I guess what I mean is that I wasn’t an adult during the height of the AIDS epidemic and seeing how you were reacting to that film in the theater helped me understand something that I couldn’t see. That was my biggest takeaway from the Seminar.
Wednesday, September 27, 2017
Like everyone else in graduate school for film and media, I had heard many stories and rumors about the Flaherty.
The post-screening seminar discussions with filmmakers I idolized like Trinh T. Minh-ha, George Kuchar, and Ken Jacobs constituted the stuff of legend. As colleagues in film and media recounted numerous Flaherty intensities and flare-ups to me, I must admit that I assumed that these oral histories had blossomed into exaggerations as they passed from person to person.
However, as I read lively discussion transcripts edited by Scott MacDonald in Patty Zimmermann and Erik Barnouw’s epic quadruple issue of Wide Angle , it became clear these stories were not exaggerated. The Flaherty loomed larger than life.
Years later in the autumn of 2001, I started my new faculty job as an assistant professor of cinema production at Ithaca College. I learned about an event happening in November at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, NY, only three hours northeast of Ithaca. It was advertised as Digital Flaherty. I was intrigued.
In that period, attaching the word “digital” to any concept, practice, or event signaled an attempt at transformation. This seminar would adhere to the longstanding Flaherty ethos—an intense, shared engagement with works, makers, and participants. But it would be shorter in duration and focus on work that was, for lack of a better term, “digital.” In this context, “digital” meant artworks existing only within a digital framework (video games, VR, code art) rather than using digital tools to facilitate analog workflows such as a digital editor or digital effects.
My anxiety mounted as the seminar approached.
Digital Flaherty seemed like a great opportunity. The stories I had heard of intellectual battle royales invaded in my psyche. I feared that I would be discovered as a fraud. Or worse, identified as Just Not That Smart.
I rode to the seminar with Patty Zimmermann, my colleague in my new Department of Cinema and Photography. I was nervous about driving with her as well. We ended up talking so much about the upcoming event that we hardly ate the salt and vinegar potato chips we acquired for the road.
September 11 was fresh in everyone’s memories. It cast a pall over nearly everything in that post 9/11 period. However, the intellectual and artistic electricity of the Digital Flaherty seemed to dissolve all those the social and political uncertainties by gathering people together to explore the unknown through conversation.
The imagined combativeness of the seminar was nowhere to be found. We did not just discuss media, we talked tactics with Amy Goodman from Democracy Now! and Graham Harwood from the British new media collective Mongrel, which specialized in digitally-based artists projects with low income and marginalized groups.. We initiated pranks and were deliberately provocative while playing Eric Zimmerman’s Sissyfight 2000 . Afterwards, we spent hours discussing and arguing in small groups trying to figure out why.
My transformative moments came from two guests at that Flaherty: video artist and activist Alex Rivera, who was in a residency at RPI that coincided with the seminar; and VJ and activist Art Jones.
One evening at the seminar, Rivera’s class had taken over a large open space in downtown Troy. They transformed it into a chaotic maze of surveillance with huge movable projection surfaces that continually destroyed and rebuilt while impossibly loud drum-and-bass vibrated the building.
As I navigated the show (Or was it an installation? Or an immersive experience?) trying to establish my bearings, I entered an ad hoc atrium built into the art space. A ring of data projectors aimed at the surrounding temporary white walls, pointing out like spokes on a wheel.
I recognized the projected images from Flaherty’s Louisiana Story . A bank of computers and projectors distorted and recontextualized the images. At the center of this technological confluence stood Jones, manipulating madly on a couple of laptops like a wizard or a shaman. It took me a few moments to understand that everything I was experiencing was being made and remade live in the moment—the space, the sound, the video, myself, everything.
When I returned to Ithaca, I started experimenting with live VJ performance. I even had the good fortune to perform with Art Jones a few times at special music and projection events mounted in the Roy H. Park School of Communications at Ithaca College: Within Our Gates Revisited  and Tet Vu Lan: Dismantling Empire .
I ended up mostly leaving experimental analog filmmaking. As an artist, I transitioned almost completely into expanded cinema and live performative media, using computers with mobile and haptic interfaces to create immersive visual experiences in real time in front of audiences.
This new work led to collaborations that I could not have foreseen in my previous artistic life. I designed and performed media for plays at 3LD Art and Technology Center with the Talking Band Theater Company, the American Composers Orchestra, and composer Dan Visconti at Carnegie Hall. I created solo live cinema experiences such as my current touring show, Blood Lust of the Wolf (http://quarknova.com/blood). For this show, I take Flaherty’s Nanook of the North  and remix it into a fugue state about race, ethnicity, and exploitation. While performing the show live, I detect audience reactions, sensing their level of engagement and even their resistance. I modulate my performance to enter into conversation with the audience, provoke them, and generate more substantive dialogue.
Before the Digital Flaherty, I gave only cursory lip service to moving between and across disciplines. Afterwards, I realized that connections across different ideas, modes, and technologies galvanize everything I make, think, and do. The spark from a few days in Troy, NY ignited fundamental changes in my thinking. In some ways, my unusual mid-career-acquired PhD in information science traces back to those explosive cross-disciplinary connections started at Digital Flaherty.
Revelations are hard to come by. Those artists and thinkers I interacted with at Digital Flaherty long ago in Troy afforded me a privilege beyond a mere technological awakening. They redirected my artistic practice and opened up a new space of epiphany.
Saturday, August 26, 2017
It was a week of many firsts for me.
My first film seminar. My first time staying in college dormitories. My first summer not leaving Upstate New York the moment the semester at University of Rochester ended. My first time moderating in a theater (thanks to Laura U. Marks, Steve Reinke, and Khalil Joreige).
More significantly, it was my first time immersed in week-long experience dedicated to experimental film from the Arab world within a US context. I’m still unsure how to describe the seminar: summer camp for sleep-deprived filmmakers and academics; daily intense conversations after multiple screenings; and one too many caffeinated beverages.
I had heard of the Flaherty Seminar through the Film and Media Studies program at University of Rochester, which offers two annual fellowships that support the attendance of two doctoral students from different departments. At that time, I had just completed my coursework. I wasn’t sure I was going to commit to film. Logistically, it seemed very unlikely that I would have access to contemporary Arab or Middle Eastern cinema.
My hesitation immediately dissipated when I saw the announcement for Laura U. Marks’ program for the 61st seminar, “The Scent of Places عطر الأماكن.”
I had met Laura U. Marks in the spring of 2013. My advisor and director of the Film and Media Studies program Jason Middleton had invited her to screen her curated series “Arab Glitch.” With a continuous adrenaline rush of anticipation, I designed the poster for the event: an image of Souad Hosni juxtaposed with the text “Hubbell Auditorium, University of Rochester.” Arab cinema, experimental Arab cinema, was coming to Rochester, New York!
Only two years later it was back again—at the Flaherty.
I was especially intrigued by Marks’ program because of my own interest in Arab cinematic practices that shift away from mass-mediated trauma and politics. After spending so many years in the United States, I found myself yearning for alternatives that would cut through the homogeneity of images circulating around me.
Despite the constant influx of images from the Arab world, certain voices were painfully missing.
Where were the voices of those on the peripheries, the disabled communities, and the LGBT communities outside the project of the homonationalist other? Where are the women Lila Abu-Lughod has written about in her essay "Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?"
Where were they?
And what were people cooking nowadays in Syria? Who supplied medical equipment? How much does a wheelchair cost? What kinds of pets did people in Yemen have? When will we confront anti-blackness in our communities? Are people still buying Coca-Cola in crates? What parts of the lamb were the khalas and ammos cooking these days?
What does Baghdad smell like today?
“The Scent of Places” answered many of these questions for me.
In Rawane’s Song, Lebanese filmmaker Mounira Al Solh states that after trying—and failing— to make art about the war, she probably has “nothing to say about the war!” Though she stages a refusal to engage with geopolitics, Al Solh deftly works through her own conflicting identity politics, art clichés, gender restraints, and pregnancy woes in her films.
Similarly, in Sometime/Somewhere Else Egyptian filmmaker Hassan Khan refuses categorical identification through his use of irony and the absurd. Hala Lotfy’s arresting Coming Forth By Day captures one exceedingly long day in the lives of a mother and daughter, providing around the clock care for their disabled father/husband confined to his bed. They, too, are confined. Without any governmental or social support, the women’s lives are suspended.
These films impacted me in ways that continue, even now.
The program also included filmmakers who were not from the Arab world such as Marie-Hélène Cousineau, Arthur Jafa, Ulrike Ottinger, Steve Reinke, Juan Manuel Sepúlveda, and Ramon Zürcher who provided an interesting array of perspectives.
“The Scent of Places” was a profoundly moving and thought-provoking experience. I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to participate as a fellow, especially during a time when images from the Arab world continue to occupy hollowed out binaries.
If I ask you to conjure three images from the Arab world or the Middle East, what enters your mind?
My guess is that those imagined phantasmagorias might not feature a 1960s Rocket Society, protestors on Second Life, or a man elaborating his dedication to winning a sunbathing championship.
These much more expansive and quotidian imagescapes emerging from the seminar’s programming are why “The Scent of Places” was an absolutely essential viewing experience.
Many thanks to Patricia R. Zimmermann for inviting me to write this post. Shukran to Laura U. Marks, Anita Reher, Sarie Horowitz, Toby Lee, and everyone whose labor contributed to such a wonderful week.
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.