Voices from the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar
Tagged as “Flaherty Film Seminar”
Saturday, October 28, 2017
Since 2003, I have attended eleven Flaherty Seminars!
I have moderated my share of discussions. I was a featured filmmaker in 2009. I served as a board member from 2006-2008. At this point, I see the seminar as a well-oiled machine with a schedule we can count on.
Yet each seminar has been profoundly different. How to sum that up in five points? I keep coming back to the films and the five ideas that return to me year after year as key constituents of the Flaherty’s unique zeitgeist.
What is cinema? What constitutes a cinematic experience? I have seen the gamut at the Flaherty, from essay films, expository films, experimental, non-fiction, fiction, musicals to installations and video games and Benshi performance. And each Flaherty shows work that expands my notions of cinema in wonderfully surprising ways.
Years before the GoPro and drone cameras, Leonard Retel Helmrich filmed a man walking over a narrow railroad trestle 1000 above an Indonesian Valley in Stand van de Maan (“Shape of the Moon,” 2004). The view was from above via a homemade bamboo-pole mount and it was terrifying. Helmrich filmed other scenes in the film with his own invention called steadiwings. He calls his filmmaking process “one-shot cinema” because he edits more for camera movement than framing or photography.
Another example of craft at the seminar was Laura Poitras’s Risk . Through her camerawork looking up at Julian Assange, she shows the egotistical anarchist to be as self-conscious as a People Magazine star even as he functions as an important historical figure in our time.
I have started wonderful and enduring friendships at the Flaherty. I met longtime heroes and heroines—Scott MacDonald and Trinh Minh-ha--and found them incredibly down to earth.
Beyond these moments of connecting with people you admire, there are also those more awkward moments reminiscent of junior high school when you emerge from the cafeteria food line with your tray, scouring the dining room for a seat. My most wonderful meals have been those when I’ve plunked myself down with people I’ve not met before: students, established filmmakers, critics.
At the 2012 “Open Wounds” seminar curated by Josetxo Cerdán, I remember a great meal with Susana de Sousa Dias from Portugal and Laila Pakalina from Latvia. Their work had not shown yet so I had no idea they were featured filmmakers. We talked about traveling, family, and the films screened at the seminar.
Later, I was completely blown away by de Sousa’s beautiful and horrific 48  featuring an incredibly adept use of archival mug shots woven with interviews with ordinary citizens arrested under the 48-year dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar in Portugal.
I was mesmerized by Pakainiŋa’s gorgeous cinematography, measured pace, and dry humor portraying men and nature—especially riparian birds—in Three Men and a Fish Pond . I also loved fellow seminar attendee and filmmaker Robb Todd’s jilting imitation of the film-star birds’ during the discussion.
I confess that at times the quantity of images and ideas truly overwhelms. I feel the need to remind myself what I love about film. Of course, it is the ideas, but it is also the sheer pleasure I get from seeing truly beautiful images that transport me out of the room and under water in the Caribbean Sea, in Alamar  by Mexican Pedro González-Rubio and into the air in Teddy Williams’ The Human Surge  in 2017.
I loved the crazy, playful, imaginative Rube Golderg creations of Israeli artist/filmmaker, Mika Rottenberg in Squeeze , and in Cheese  where seven ethnically diverse sister/ maidens prattle and poke about an enormous wooden contraption, part farmhouse, part animal barn, part milking machine, part cheese churn, making cheese, yes, but also washing, combing, and styling each other’s impossibly long, Rapunzel-like hair. The experience was mesmerizing and hilarious.
Even the most wrenching of Flaherty Seminars has its moments of intense humor. In the midst of films about the tragedies of Minamata disease caused by environmentally-induced mercury poisoning, revealed by the Japanese documentarian Tsuchimoto Noriaki at the 2003 Flaherty, we saw Israeli Avi Mograbi’s hilarious and ominous films, Happy Birthday, Mr. Mograbi , August: A Moment Before the Eruption , and Wait It’s the Soldiers, I’ll Hang Up Now , which provided scathing views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When programmed together, they traced people’s reactions to Mograbi’s camera and the mounting distrust in the streets leading into the Second Intifada.
Ah, the moments of outrage.
I have been guilty of sharing in some of the politically-correct indignation over who gets to represent whom and how. And I have also been mildly piqued at the tremendous amount of time we devote to such debates, seminar after seminar. One memorable debate happened at my first seminar, “Witnessing the World,” curated by John Gianvito in 2003. In the post-screening discussion of Holly Fisher’s faux travelogue about Myanmar, Kalama Sutta: Seeing Is Believing  participants questioned Fisher’s right to represent the Burmese. At my most recent seminar in the summer of 2017, the debate was over Dominic Gagnon’s depiction of Inuit people in of the North . But the issues were different: if Inuit post images of themselves on the web that some feel reinforce negative stereotypes, what responsibility does a filmmaker bear if he uses them?
Of course, if we don’t keep asking ourselves those difficult questions, if we don’t demand that filmmakers create their work with a sense of purpose and responsibility, then there isn’t much to talk about. It’s why I go to the Flaherty—to see those non-commercial films I cannot see elsewhere and to talk about them with people whose varied perspectives provoke, enlighten, delight, and yes, sometimes outrage me!
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.
Tuesday, July 25, 2017
I was a townie and former carpenter who was a cinema and photography student at Ithaca College in upstate New York.
In 1987 I was privileged to be one of the first undergraduate students to attend the Flaherty Seminar on an internship.
I was encouraged to apply and delighted to be accepted. I enjoyed meeting filmmakers and scholars from around the world. I enjoyed seeing films I would never have been able to see otherwise.
I have two very vivid memories of the Flaherty.
One is the screening of The Journey  by Peter Watkins and the other is a discussion of The Bombing of Osage Avenue  by Louis Massiah.
I’ll start with the latter.
It’s the story of the police bombing of a house controlled by MOVE that engulfed an entire block in the Cobbs Creek area of West Philadelphia.
During the discussion the comments by a British man talking about how police in the U.S. used excessive force as a matter of course struck me as much as the film did. My immediate gut response was Northern Ireland and the official British response to that conflict. My take away was that we all seemed to be myopic about our own state of affairs.
Unfortunately, I was a little too timid and unsure of myself to speak up.
I also give a lot of credit to Richard Herskowitz, as well as Peter Watkins and Scott MacDonald, for screening Watkins’ 14-hour epic, The Journey .
While I did indeed consider it a marathon, I’m glad I watched the whole film.
I even turned my name badge over and drew a “?” to mimic the ending of each segment of The Journey.
At that 1987 Flaherty Seminar, I had the rather schizophrenic reaction of being simultaneously in over my head and at home.