Patricia Zimmermann

Patricia Zimmermann

Professor, Media Arts, Sciences and Studies
Faculty, Culture and Communication
Faculty, Cinema and Photography
Faculty, Documentary Studies and Production

Flaherty Stories

Flaherty Stories

Voices from the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar

Tagged as “Flaherty Seminar”

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Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 9:02PM   |  Add a comment
Bill Sloan and Steve Montgomery at the Flaherty Seminar

If you ever took a university film studies course, you’ve met Bill Sloan.

If you are film professor, you worked with Bill Sloan.

If you ever watched classic cinema or documentaries at a film festival, you sat with Bill Sloan.

If you ever borrowed a DVD from a public library, you know Bill Sloan.

For decades, Bill Sloan served as the film librarian and curator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) Circulating Film Library, appointed in 1980 after a stint at the New York Public Library. His wide-ranging vision of international art cinema, American independent cinema, documentary, and experimental film infuses this influential collection. Festivals, museums, and universities around the world depend on it.

With his sharp instinct for films that offered significant breakthroughs in form or content, the MoMA collection contributed a major building block for the emerging academic discipline of cinema studies. It not only set the standard for developing film collections at libraries, but also staked the claim that film and video were as important as books.

I have always conjured Bill as one of those rare and special shamans of cinema who hovered in some mystical meta-mode that knew where you needed to go before you got there.

While his white hair and beard floated around his always-smiling face like cumulous clouds fluffing an azure sky, his black glasses summoned a counterpoint. They seemed a metaphor for his ability to focus on what mattered in cinema.

I first met Bill at the Flaherty Film Seminars in 1980, early on in my career as a screen studies scholar when I was a University of Wisconsin graduate student. By then, he had been attending for two decades.

At that time, I suffered from a very bizarre delusion that the holy trinity of films, filmmakers, and theory exclusively defined film culture. At that first seminar I attended, Bill introduced me to the idea that librarians at museums and public libraries who purchased, collected, and screened films built a field-sustaining infrastructure supporting independent cinema. Across the decades, he had cajoled many librarians to attend the Flaherty. I remember he also insisted that audiences matter as much as the films, an idea that jolted me back then.

Graduate school pummeled me to take up arms as a partisan fighter defending the one form of cinema I felt mattered the most politically—documentary.

In contrast, Bill’s view was more expansive, a galaxy of practices and approaches. He was curious about all films, all genres, all periods. I imagine he considered this strategy a way to trek through many different universes of approach, content, form, style. He possessed that rare gift to find something marvelous in all that he saw. His attitude influenced how I teach film, with shorts dialectically juxtaposed with features.

His pluralist, wide vision of cinema materialized decisively in his programming with Nadine Covert, another film library world luminary, in the landmark 1972 Robert Flaherty Film Seminar. They imported a concept of heterogeneous films jostling against each other to galvanize a combustion of ideas. This aggressive curatorial strategy, channeling Amos Vogel and Cinema 16 from an earlier era, has influenced legions of programmers and professors in the half a century that followed. Bill and Nadine concocted a tempest of diverse filmmaking styles in the works of Les Blank, St. Claire Bourne, Lianne Brandon, Stan Latham, Marcel Ophuls, Yasujoro Ozu, Ousmane Sembene. In 1979, he programmed again, showcasing radical Dutch documentary filmmaker Joris Ivens.

Many know Bill from Bill’s Bar, mounted each year at the Flaherty. He assembled this jerry-rigged, speakeasy-like bar with a folding table, plastic pails for ice, and a glass jar for donations for libations. It took me many years to decipher why he always worked  behind the bar. Literally and figuratively, I suspect he loved serving the next generation of filmmakers, programmers, and scholars. As he poured these young seminarians cheap chardonnay in clear plastic cups and plied them with stale pretzels, Bill connected with each of them. Their urgencies and obsessions delighted him.

Bill impacted me even more profoundly as I plunged into what felt like an endless dark pit of historical research for Scott MacDonald’s and my The Flaherty: Decades in the Cause of Independent Cinema (Indiana University Press, 2017).

Because he served as President of the Flaherty Board from 1974-1977, I interviewed Bill’s four times. We talked about his career as a librarian, his programming and trustee experiences, the evolution of film culture, the importance of the seminar for both its devotees and the field. He proclaimed resolutely “there’s nothing like the Flaherty anywhere.” He argued for its irrefutable impact, but also relished detailed nasty gossip about various trustees and seminarians whose hardline, narrow positions he found despicable, even thirty years later.

When I first approached him, I promised the interview would only require thirty minutes for some historical fact-checking. Every call flooded to two hours. Tales cracked out like lightning in a thunderstorm, a contrast to what many assumed was his quiet demeanor. I wrote furiously in my notebook to capture his labyrinthine stories and the textures of his passionate advocacy for the Seminar so I could figure out the next question that archives could not answer.

He unleashed a hurricane of films, people, debates, love stories, board decisions, disputes. He wanted to be sure I knew who had affairs with whom, who was difficult and harbored selfish agendas, who had a good soul.

As I listened, it became clear, like patches of blue sky erasing storm clouds, that he found the debates that cut through the people who migrated to the Flaherty to argue about cinema energizing, important, vital. I suspect, for him, their ferocity ripped the roof off old structures to expose new cinematic terrains below.

Bill was truly the wizard of international independent cinema, the man behind the screen and behind the scenes who brought all of us into a more capacious world of cinemas we never could have imagined—or gotten to-- without him.






Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 9:56AM   |  Add a comment
steven montgomery

The Flaherty Seminar was legendary in the New York City independent film community, when I became a part of it in the early 1980s. People spoke about the seminar reverently.

However, it took me years to find the courage to take the plunge.

I finally signed up for my first seminar in 1991. At lovely Wells College on the shore of Cayuga Lake, the seminar lived up to all my expectations. It fostered serious devotion to film, but was also very social and enjoyable.  

The cinema of the Arab world shown that year deeply impressed me: Halfaouine: Boy of the Terraces [1990] (Tunisia) by Asfour Stah; Omar Gatlato [1977] (Algeria) by Merzak Allouache; Canticle of the Stones [1990] (Palestine) by Michel Khleifi; and A Door to the Sky [1989](Morocco) by Farida Benlyazid. The year before, I had traveled to Morocco twice, hoping to make a documentary, but the filmmakers’ deep commitment to their material, their compelling storytelling, and their expert cinematic techniques taught me more about the Arab world than I had perceived as a traveler.

The founder of the seminar, Frances Flaherty, had described the value of my experience at the Flaherty. Invoking philosophy, she had written about watching films as a means of “learning to see.”

An image stays with me from that first seminar. After sitting in the darkened auditorium in the morning, quietly concentrating on what was on the screen, I walked out into the sunshine and down to Lake Cayuga with others from around the country and the world. The seminarians were so friendly; the group spirit, very encouraging. Filmmakers discussed the subjects of their films and how they’d secured funding. Programmers and curators talked about what they were showing. Students, with their great enthusiasms about film, nudged me to recall my own passions for media when I was their age.

However, after such a memorable first Flaherty, I must admit I became disillusioned at subsequent seminars because of what was programmed and what was left out. I felt that Flaherty programmers began to favor poorly made “personal documentaries” and nearly incoherent experimental works on trendy subjects. Films that come to mind: Mirror Mirror [1990] by Jan Krawitz, shown in 1993; Video Letters 1, 2 & 3 [1993] by Yau Ching, shown in 1994; Self Portrait Post Mortem [2002] by Louise Bourque, shown in 2004; and Mutual Analysis [2004] by Péter Forgács, shown in 2005. In the worst of these films, the filmmakers narrated in gloomy tones and complained about how harsh reality had hurt their sensitive souls.

In an article for International Documentary in 1997, I wrote about these works as “Films about Me.” I noted they “convey a bitterness towards the world, forever moaning about being victimized by one thing or another.” The creators seemed to disdain cinematic techniques. For example, some filmmakers waved a camera around the room and asserted heavy-handed conclusions on complex subjects. The preponderance of these films eclipsed an important documentary tradition where directors expressed a large concern for humanity and the world beyond oneself.

In the years leading up to the 2008 financial crisis, works on personal subjects so crowded the Flaherty schedule that almost nothing was programmed about the American economy, the banking and financial industries, or the struggles of people in the workplace. The Flaherty contributed little or nothing to prepare people for the financial crisis or to provide a lens though which to understand it.

Despite this critique, I wish to express my enduring admiration for the Flaherty at its best. At the seminars I’ve attended, there has always been something extraordinary to see: Lumumba: Death of a Prophet [1992] by Raoul Peck in 1993; Secuestro: The Story of a Kidnapping [1993] by Camila Motta, also in 1993, and Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One by William Greaves [shot in 1967, first version 1972] in 2005, for example. 

Many people have tried to describe exactly what makes the Flaherty unique. I’ve been thinking about this question since my first Flaherty twenty-some years ago. After reading the new book The Flaherty: Decades in the Cause of Independent Cinema, which vividly evokes the great times of the seminar over the years and its important discussions, I finally understand how to answer two important questions. How did the organization that presents the seminar endure for over sixty years? Why are busy and sophisticated people like me spending time writing essays on the Flaherty?

Here is my answer.  The seminar’s structure, designed by Frances Flaherty, is the best forum in the world for enabling us to truly care about cinema in all its forms.

To make my case, I invoke philosophy, as Frances Flaherty did in writing about the origins of the seminar. I’ll use terms from the philosophy of Aesthetic Realism to explain, starting with a description of the contradictory nature of the self who signs up for his or her first Flaherty. 

Founded by the American poet and literary critic Eli Siegel, Aesthetic Realism argues that the self is duel—one aspect of a person yearns for a deep experience in life, hoping to be profoundly affected by the world. This experience can obviously occur after seeing a significant work at the Flaherty.

But something can get in the way of this experience, at the Flaherty or at any other film event. Aesthetic Realism contends that another part of the self seeks to remain intact and runs away from expansive, deep feelings. For example, I might see the greatest film of my life at the Flaherty, but ten minutes later jokingly ask friends about the latest gossip concerning someone at the seminar. Aesthetic Realism describes this impulse as “contempt” and defines it as “the false importance or glory from the lessening of things not oneself.”

In other words, I may love a film and be genuinely moved, but stubbornly resist its sway over me by gossiping, making a phone call, or mindlessly checking my email in an effort to regain composure.

Fortunately, the structure of the Flaherty effectively counters this contempt.  

After a great work is presented, we discuss it in formal sessions, and then again at breakfast, lunch and dinner. There is no running away from the impact and meaning of a film.

No matter how unsettling the original experience, the seminar allows the film to get inside of us and endure. For me, this is the legacy of the Flaherty.




Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 12:05AM   |  Add a comment
Scott MacDonald

I arrived at Wells College in August of 1987—of two minds.

For 15 years I’d been passionately interested in what has been called variously, “avant-garde film,” “experimental film,” “underground film”—and had heard legendary tales of how the Flaherty Seminar chewed up avant-garde filmmakers. Jonas Mekas and Ken Jacobs had apparently attempted to crash the 1963 Flaherty to screen Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures [1963] and Jacobs’ own Blonde Cobra [1963], an event later documented in Mekas’s film Lost Lost Lost [1976]. To Mekas and Jacobs the Flaherty seemed the tired past, not the creative present—an organization and an annual event in need of an intervention.

On the other hand, I’d agreed to be present at the seminar as one of the representatives of Peter Watkins’ epic media-critique, The Journey [1987], which had premiered at Berlin the previous winter. I was proud of the work I had done, along with hundreds of collaborators, on The Journey—and excited that Richard Herskowitz (at the time program director at Cornell Cinema) had decided to show all 14 ½ hours of the film, much of it outside normal screening hours for the Flaherty. This was to be an intervention into conventional media-time, including the media-time of Flaherty seminarians.

I registered to attend the whole week, saw a few acquaintances, made some new ones—and kept telling myself that it would be fun to discuss the visionary Watkins film with seminarians on Wednesday evening.

“Visionary”? The process of making The Journey was meant to model a new kind of political organization: an international, non-hierarchical network of people around the world committed to social justice and environmental sanity, and interested in using the grassroots production of media as a way of learning about the world and acting progressively within it. Ideally, the network created in the production of the film would continue to expand beyond the film, perhaps by using the film (remember, this is before the Internet). Watkins had circled the earth three times between 1984 and 1987 to establish grassroots production units in 12 countries, to talk with locally organized crews, and finally to shoot the film.

I told myself I was not at all nervous about the upcoming discussion.

Then, that Wednesday morning I woke up with large welts covering my body. I’d never had them before and have never had them since.

The discussion with Watkins (and several others who had worked on The Journey) turned out to be a legendary “trashing” of a film/filmmaker (the discussion is included in The Flaherty: Decades in the Cause of Independent Cinema). The film had more than tested the patience of many seminarians and they were happy to vent their frustrations.

In the end, I was disappointed with the response to what I thought was a remarkable cinematic effort, and later on, saddened to realize that my having worked to bring Watkins to the seminar had seriously damaged my relationship with him.

I’m not sorry The Journey was presented at the Flaherty; it deserved to be shown and resonated well with the other films Herskowitz had programmed (by Su Friedrich, Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi, John Greyson, Alfred Guzzetti, Johan van der Keuken, Ilan Ziv…). But looking back on that discussion, I do have regrets.

The Journey is focused on the fact that, around the world, serious global issues were almost never a topic around the family dinner table (not sure the “family dinner table” still exists!). Watkins was interested in demonstrating how conventionally organized families avoided discussing serious issues together. I remember Patty Zimmermann directing a question to me in particular: something like, “Do you think the film might be stronger if it included a unconventional family, like say a lesbian couple?” I should have said, “Well, the focus here is on the dangerous anti-educational, anti-political habits of what traditional culture considers ‘normal’ families.” Instead, I remember saying something (I no longer remember exactly what) that I felt would ingratiate me with Patty and others who felt her question was pertinent. 

I believe the final comment to Watkins was by a woman who identified herself as a former clinical psychologist: “I’m not being mean when I say this, just brutally real—please understand that. I liken your film to radical surgery with a rusty knife without anesthesia.” She went on to explain that there was no way her students could be expected to sit through the film.

Watkins said, “I’m sorry. I can’t respond to your comment.” But I continue to wish I’d said, “If you honestly believe you were not “being mean” with your comment, I’m afraid you’re not clear on what being mean means!” Or perhaps, “I see why you’re a former clinical psychologist!”—though actually being a smart-ass never works out for me.

I returned to the Flaherty the following year, partly because I felt I might need to continue to defend The Journey (I was correct)—and as had been true the year before, I continued to see films of considerable interest, to meet new filmmakers, and to develop new relationships.

The irony is that, though I’ve found it fascinating to transcribe and edit many of the big-group Flaherty discussions (first, for a special issue of Wide Angle [vol. 17: nos. 1-4], bravely published by longtime Flaherty-ite and then-editor Ruth Bradley; and years later for The Flaherty; Decades in the Cause of Independent Cinema), I’ve never liked the seminar model of discussing a film immediately after seeing it and with the filmmaker present—I’m so rarely clear about what I think immediately after a film and am not particularly interested in hearing others’ off-the-cuff reactions.

I attended the Flaherty regularly for many years, but my relationship with the seminars has always felt tentative—perhaps a residue of my experience with The Journey. I guess I’ve never quite forgiven that group of seminarians for not having a sense of humor about how their own impatience with the Watkins epic (a film meant to be a conscious intervention within the regular, predictable, comfortable schedules of those who see it, including “media-savvy” audiences like those at “Flaherty summer film camp”) was, in fact, the essence of what The Journey was about.


Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 8:30AM   |  Add a comment

The 2014 Flaherty, “Turning the Inside Out,” examined “the state of documentary as it travels between the art gallery, the cinema, and the interactive screen,” according to seminar marketing. At the time, this issue constituted the heart of my doctoral research and a significant part of my film festival programming.

I was ecstatic to be awarded a fellowship to attend. I traveled from Toronto to Colgate University with film scholar Tess Takahashi and former Flaherty curator Pablo de Ocampo. Right away, the fellows met with Jill Godmilow, whose What Farocki Taught [1998] I had seen previously, but whose larger body of work was new, thrilling, and uncompromising. Generous to us fellows yet recalcitrant in her documentary dogma, Godmilow set the stage for the Flaherty’s storied conversations and arguments.

The seminar opened with Godmilow’s Far From Poland [1984], which provoked the audience to erupt into applause as the first frames appeared. It was a kind of nerdy-nirvana to experience it.

Filmmakers I admired participated that year, including Jesse McLean, Johan Grimonprez, Raqs Media Collective; and Hito Steyerl, beamed in via Skype as her daughter was ill. A number of new-to-me films were screened that left me reeling. The Anabasis Of May And Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi And 27 Years Without Images [2011] by Eric Baudelaire transported me so intimately that I felt the dread of the haunted subjects’ lives. Duncan Campbell’s Bernadette [2008] transformed homage into mystery.  His film and others I saw at that seminar found their way into my programming and course syllabi.

An unexpected key issue emerged: a critical look at the currency of the term “essay film” and the rhetorical strategies of artists using documents, historical records, archival materials, and standard talking heads. Many attendees asserted that this format had shifted so much that some entries seemed more like lecture films. They circumvented the open, interrogative, and often surprising logical connections the essay form embodied.

Those rooted in the documentary film world exhibited anxiety towards gallery-based moving image work. Gallery artists mounted a defensive, apologist discourse about the shortfalls of film and video installation. Many agreed a black box would need to be built inside a white cube in order to sustain a gallery screening. These debates raged on through the week of the seminar.

The seminar’s format cannot ever completely fail—curation be damned.

If audiences don’t like the programming, the discussions still produce generative observations and insights into strategies and approaches. When the programming is well received, the most successful qualities of a work bubble up in discussions, crystallizing.

The Flaherty’s intensive and immersive schedule produces a think-tank like focus where a mutual interrogation of ideas germinate into a richer, more pronounced understanding of documentary. Still, a few more breaks in the screening schedule would be welcome.

The fellowship program introduced me to many remarkable people. I met scholars and curators such as Sonja Bertucci, Almudena Escobar López, Laliv Melamed, Herb Shellenberger, and Josephine Shokrian.  I met talented filmmakers such as Emily Mkrtichian, Bjargey Ólafsdóttir, Arjun Shankar, Peter Snowdon, Libi Striegl, and Julia Yezbick.

The seminar came with both catharsis and a few regrets. Highs included being on a dance floor with Tony Conrad not long before he left us.  

After the most intense critical discussion, I ate dinner with two filmmakers who had just experienced a less-than-jubilant reception. Their harshest critic sat next to me at the table. The filmmakers shed any defensiveness. A discussion about protest, representation, and the self-mythologization of the Left ensued. Conclusions were made and some consensus formed. Here, I felt the generosity and openness of the Flaherty as an intellectual laboratory of artists and thinkers.

There were a few regrets, such as when I returned to my dorm room exhausted, missing a fun night gallivanting in a nearby pond with new comrades. I didn’t want to bother curators Gabriela Monroy and Caspar Stracke, a lost opportunity. I later connected with them at DocPoint Helsinki. Their intelligence, curiosity, and behind-the-scenes anecdotes overwhelmed me.

In 2014, I was at a crossroads. I was simultaneously finishing my PhD with a dissertation about experimental documentary and post-minimal art and programming for film festivals in Toronto. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to pursue next. In a strange way, the Flaherty impacted my decision. Three years later, I was appointed a visiting assistant professor at Colgate University to teach documentary film classes.


Epilogue: The 2014 Fellows

On the second to last day of the 2014 seminar, I collaborated with the other fellows to try to give something back to the Flaherty.

We created a list of notable quotes we’d overheard. I’ve pulled a few of the gems from the sheet we distributed at the end of the seminar entitled “What The Flaherty Taught­­­­­­­­­ in 2014”­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­: ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­  ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­  ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­  ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­  ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­  ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­  ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­  ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­  ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­  ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­  ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­  ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­  ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­  ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­  ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­  ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­  ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­

Over the last week during break-out sessions, in private discourse over drinks, or otherwise, conversations between the fellows have generated many critical insights, deft observations and valuable provocations that, so far, have been left unshared with the larger seminar.

We want these comments to reach those best served by them, so here are a few morsels.

How to make a film (borrowed from “Rules of the Road” driving manual):

  1. Get the big picture.
  2. Watch out for the other guy.
  3. Make sure they see you.
  4. Keep your eyes on the road.
  5. Always have an out.

Thesis number one for documentary practice: films need to be beautiful not just on the outside but on the inside.

Every film should ask the viewer, “Who am I, standing next to this?”

You can only be conscious of yourself when there is an other.

You can’t be in solidarity with yourself.

Where’s your labor going, baby?

We’re not looking at the panopticon, This is the reverse shot.

Read yourself into a crisis—then make a film.

Eisensteinian montage can be a Pavlovian proposition.

A film should break vases.

Film festivals outsource risk to independent filmmakers.

The Flaherty runs on caffeine and alcohol.

I think we should just stay here and never go back to where we came from.





Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 2:40PM   |  Add a comment

Why, when I think of the early (1957?) Flaherty seminar where I worked as a eighteen-year-old gofer, do I indelibly envision Frances Flaherty sitting high above the main floor of the barn, beside Sam Ogden’s chimney, looking down on the proceedings—while also being separate from them.

Curious, too, is how she tended, I believe, to be present at most screenings of her husband’s work whenever she had occasion to be present, as was true at her home, which was what the Dummerston setting for the seminar was—otherwise known as Black Mountain Farm, very much a hillside location, possibly deserted when the menfolk went off to war in the 1940s.

(I don’t know this factually in Frances’s instance, but I do know that by 1957, there had been well over a century of hillside farm abandonment in Vermont and other New England uplands.) 

I do know, both at the University of Virginia, where I founded a film society (Moving Images) around 1958, where she appeared (and just how was that trip from Vermont financed?) and at Williams College (where I once hosted her) that she would sit through whatever Flaherty film was being screened, even though she must have seen these works hundreds of times.

Could it be that tending to Bob’s work, caring for his work, was an act of devotion, even a religious observance, say like Holy Communion, to be celebrated or practiced again and again? 

So I don’t have a sense of Frances’s being down on the main floor of her barn, which housed both the screening/discussion room and (was it?) two larger bedrooms on the south side, the left side as the building was entered from the east. There must have been a bathroom, but I don’t recall it. 

Confusing now to me, some sixty years later: was there a projection booth?  There must have been, but do I now also recall David Flaherty, Bob’s brother, threading 16mm projectors out in the open room? 

Also, when Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali [1955] was screened that summer (and he himself was present as that seminar’s featured “guest”), surely no 16mm print existed, and just how was 35mm handled, presumably with two projectors?

Of significance in the main “screening” room was a grand piano. Included within the large coterie of summering artists and scholars amongst whom the Flahertys had settled in southern Vermont, was Rudolf Serkin, who usually played at the early seminars. But I don’t recall his doing so when I was there. Of course, my gofer role did cause me to be away from the property on errands to neighboring Bratttleboro and elsewhere—wielding Frances’ coupe car, with a rumble seat (why the Flahertys, or why she, with such a car?). 

But back to the aerie: Frances up there alone in her high-elevation inglenook. It was a balcony seat of a sort. I never recall anyone else being up there with her, and I don’t know if I myself ever went up.

And I should say, it was always difficult, however often in her later years I saw Frances, mostly in Dummerston, to know what she was thinking. There was, about her (at least for me), an air of superiority, and maybe that air has wafted through subsequent seminars over the years: here is film that, on the whole, is not blockbuster, that is the work of individuals more than companies, that may be somewhat outside the mainstream of box office successes, that is somehow special and to be savored by only the cognoscenti or self-appointed. 

I also see Frances up there, “hawk-like.” Always my sense was that some people discussing Bob’s work did not know the truth as she and Bob himself knew it, and she would silently correct them.

Excellent examples of this “correcting” mode are documented in the remarkable Louisiana Story Study Film [1960], made years back at the University of Minnesota (and, stupidly, never shown at any of the many seminars I attended—since it is so very helpful to understanding the Flaherty approach). How often in that film does she correct Bob’s cameraman, Ricky Leacock, by saying “You know…” As if the cameraman did not know!




Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 9:49AM   |  Add a comment

The Flaherty Seminar is a homecoming.

But home isn’t always the most pleasant of places.   

At the Flaherty, I leave behind my life as a professor, media-maker, and programmer in the Midwest, a place I’ve never really considered home. 

I make the long drive to Colgate. Along the way, I visit family and friends in the Buffalo area. The vast rolling hills of central New York amaze me. Photos never do them justice. Zigzagging on rollercoaster roads, I manage to remember how to find Hamilton, New York, where the Flaherty Seminar happens. I have gone four times. 

When I went to college, my family couldn’t afford the dorm experience.  So going to the Flaherty offers a chance to live the youth I never had. While many participants don’t like the dorms, I think it’s fun living there for a week. I often joke I should hang a Creed poster on the walls.

The rigid schedule of screenings, discussions, and meals comforts me. Perhaps it is similar to how military people appreciate routine or how prisoners eventually relish their own institutionalization. Structure provides a weird comfort: it takes care of everything. 

At the Flaherty, I have conversations with the custodians and cafeteria staff, the working folks running things behind the scenes. These are sometimes my best, most unpretentious Flaherty conversations. To watch all these documentary films about ordinary people and not actually engage such people in real life would feel strange.  

The seminar challenges participants to exist without preconception, a task difficult to accomplish, especially for smart academics with big egos. But can these faculty types win at foursquare, a schoolyard game often played at the seminar? 

After the last screening and discussion of the day, I like to walk quietly through the small thicket of trees to return to my dorm room. No media. Insects buzzing. Stars. 

Once, late at night, a van packed with seminarians went skinny-dipping. Like a lost scene from Dead Poets Society, naked people from Mexico, Spain, and maybe Portugal swam in a secluded lake owned by a fancy school. As the sun rose, we returned on winding back roads flanked by foggy landscapes, feeling exhilarated. 

Rubbing shoulders with others from Buffalo is another Flaherty highlight. These DIY media-makers, folks from Squeaky Wheel, and descendants of the radical Media Study Department at SUNY-Buffalo remind me where I am from.

A rust-belt city, Buffalo’s unofficial nickname is The City of No Illusions, which for me translates as a city with a vastly under-recognized experimental and media-activist legacy. Without fail at the Flaherty, I meet New Yorkers who wear fancy glasses that cost more than my monthly rent and they talk shit about Buffalo. Their disdain drives me mad. 

One year, Tony Conrad, my former mentor at SUNY-Buffalo, crashed the seminar. It was a pleasure to catch up. Some whispered, “I think that’s Tony Conrad over there.” To me, he was just Tony.

I remember his radiating smile. At a local dive bar in Hamilton, Tony playfully hopped up and down on the dance floor like an ostrich, a nod perhaps to Tony’s former band, The Primitives, and their famous song and dance, “The Ostrich.” Tony’s dancing was joyfully out of place and challenging, just like his experimental films and videos.  

We chatted about the trials of my life as a professor in Illinois. We joked that the Department of Media Study is such a radical program that afterwards it’s hard to fit in anywhere else. I sought career advice. Tony replied cryptically, “These things take time.  They can take a long time.” Tony passed away the following year. This was our last conversation.      

Tony’s teachings, Buffalo’s vanguard media scene, and the Flaherty heavily inform my ideas about underground media, radical experimentation, and challenging the status quo.  

The documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty made a career constructing dehumanizing films about other people and cultures. Now a seminar exists in his name. Yet, that seminar is very critical, even of him, a strange contradiction. 

Beyond Robert Flaherty’s problematic representations of others, many criticize the seminar for high cost and limited accessibility. When I enthusiastically tell others about the seminar, a common response is, “I’d love to but it’s too expensive.” What about all the people who might never have a chance to attend the Flaherty? 

Combined with the Buffalo scene and DIY punk culture, my Flaherty experiences galvanized me to create a microcinema in the irregular hallway in my Champaign, Illinois, apartment. I called it Hallways Microcinema, a nod to Buffalo’s Hallwalls. It had a two-year run with twenty-one events, all free.

I programmed screenings drawn directly from the Flaherty, including projects by Su Friedrich, Lourdes Portillo, Johan Grimonprez, and Jesse McLean. I met up with Vanessa Renwick from the Oregon Department of Kickass at a Flaherty. While touring, she presented her films for us. Without Hallways, these works wouldn’t have seen the light of day in Champaign.  

Hallways served as a microcosm of the Flaherty Seminar. We screened challenging works and opened up lively discussion. People drank, hung out, talked, and formed a community.  Like any community, it could be seen as exclusionary. 

At the Flaherty, you work through half-baked ideas and get advice over meals. You never know where a conversation might lead you. 

In 2016, I was thinking about applying for a Fulbright Fellowship. Somehow, I got connected with screen studies scholar Patty Zimmermann. She had recently spent time in Ukraine, delivering lectures. She encouraged me to apply to Ukraine, an emerging democracy with students voraciously consuming new ideas. Her enthusiasm sold me. 

I write this Flaherty Story looking at winter outside my window in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, my home for a year. I contemplate my next course of action. I think about how the Flaherty Seminar supported and nurtured me. I consider how fortunate I was to be able to attend.

The problem with experiencing a mind-blowing Flaherty Seminar is that the next one will most likely disappoint you. Even though this has happened to me twice, my return to Buffalo, central New York, and the Flaherty always conjures a homecoming, reminding me where I am from and where I might go.


















Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 12:08PM   |  Add a comment

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 [1998].

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 [2009]. 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 [1998] and Workingman’s Death [2004] 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 [2009].

For Lisandro Alonso, we tried a Hitchcockian Vertigo zoom—suggested by Lisandro’s film Los Muertos [2004]. 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:

Michael Glawogger interview:

Mika Rottenberg interview:

(Thanks to Josh Solondz and Jim Supanick for reviewing and adding valuable points to this piece.)














Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 6:37PM   |  Add a comment
Photo by Mike Galinsky

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 [2001].

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 [1966] 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 [1993], 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 [2001] 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.





Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 9:47AM   |  Add a comment
Carlos A. Gutierrez

Based on my very first experience attending the Flaherty Film Seminar in the summer of 2003, I never would have thought I’d become part of the Flaherty family.

My first experience at the seminar, which probably was not that different from many other people’s, was overall frustrating and discouraging, even though I saw some amazing work and met some great people including filmmakers Eryk Rocha, Ernesto Ardito and Virna Molina.

For me, having recently graduated from a MA in Cinema Studies program, it seemed redundant to return to an environment where academic discourse and personal interpretations predominated over the interests of the cinephile.  

However, the then Executive Director Margarita de la Vega Hurtado insisted that I return and so I did in 2004, for the seminar marking the Flaherty’s 50th anniversary, and again a couple of years later. I was not conscious at the time that I was slowly sipping the Flaherty Kool-Aid.

To my surprise, I was then selected to program the 2007 seminar, along with my friend and colleague Mahen Bonetti. We had previously partnered to produce an outdoor screening of Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus at Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park back in 2002, drawing a wonderful crowd.

One of the biggest assets of the Flaherty Seminar is its placement of curatorial practices at the forefront of the organization. With over sixty years of history, the Flaherty is one of the limited number of film organizations that do this. Sure, film festival programmers abound, but for the most part they fail at creating conversations and larger discussions with their film selections.

I’m surely not the first one, and won’t be the last one, to say it, but curating the Flaherty Seminar is a programmer’s dream come true. Having a captive audience for one week, not having to announce the program in advance, and having complete freedom to mix formats, genres, nationalities, narratives and aesthetics is an idyllic experience.

For many of us who have had the privilege to program the seminar, the experience has served as a sort of postgraduate degree that has made us reflect and improve our curatorial practices.

I have to confess that some of my favorite moments at the seminar have been non-cinematic. The recent and unexpected passing of director Eugenio Polgovsky brought to mind the times we mischievously sneaked out of screenings to catch some of the World Cup Games.

Watching the Argentina, Mexico, and Spain games at the 2010 seminar with Eugenio, Lisandro Alonso, Josexto Cerdán, Pedro González Rubio, Sofía Gallisá and others, or watching the Brazil-Mexico game at the bar of the Colgate Inn with Cao Guimarães, Chris Gude, Daniella Alatorre, and Jorge Caballero, and others, created a very special camaraderie that I deeply treasure. 

Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 9:02AM   |  Add a comment

My recollections of the Flaherty are closely tied to one courageous friend and witness and to one revolution witnessed through social media.

I first came to the Flaherty in 2003 as a guest for the “Witnessing the World” seminar, programmed by John Gianvito. My dear friend and comrade-in-arms, Joey Lozano, attended in conjunction with the screening of Peter Wintonick and Kat Cizek's Seeing Is Believing: Handicams, Human Rights, And The News [2002], a prescient feature documenting the impact of video on the world.

Seeing Is Believing surveyed the use of video for human rights. It featured the organization I work for, WITNESS, which focuses on how to enable anyone anywhere to use video technology to advance human rights, and works closely with citizens and human rights movements around the world. One of the film’s central characters is Joey Lozano, a pint-sized activist who with zest and tremendous moral and physical courage documented the resistance of indigenous rights activists on his home island of Mindanao in the Philippines.

In Seeing is Believing, Kat and Peter’s exploration of the question of who gets to tell the story of witnessed reality ranged from the members of Nakamata, an indigenous land rights movement that Joey taught to film for themselves, to anti-extremist activists in Europe, and people fighting human trafficking.

Because I attended only that one session of the 2003 seminar, my memories are tied up with the emotion of seeing my dear friend Joey and celebrating him on the big screen. The subsequent loss of both Joey and Peter to early deaths from illness tinges that memory, particularly poignant for me since I believe this screening was the only time we were ever all together in the same place.

My next opportunity to come to the Seminar was in June 20-26, 2009, for “Witnesses, Monuments, Ruins,” programmed by Irina Leimbacher (hmm, I spot a magnet-like attraction to “witness” in Flaherty Seminar titles). It was during this seminar that I witnessed a revolution on social media.

Some of my memories of the 2009 seminar are the classic Flaherty kind: kindred spirits meeting across a lunch table or after a discussion, amazing audiovisual experiences watched without regard for the time and in blissful ignorance of what would come next. I recall some manic dancing late at night to Michael Jackson music following the news of his death on June 25th during the seminar.

As someone who lives and works in the constant crisis mode of global activism and often watches videos as evidentiary material, sometimes on double-speed, the experience of the seminar’s screenings and gatherings embodied a refreshing change of pace.

The films that most powerfully spoke to me were the works of Omar Amiralay, as well as Lisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s Sweetgrass [2009] and Amar Kanwar's multi-channel video installation, The Lightning Testimonies [2007]. I had recently returned from Syria, which at that time was caught in the artificial passivity of an ossified authoritarian state whose pre-history Omar caught in his courageous, subtle films. Omar's Film-Essay on the Euphrates Dam [1970] and The Chickens [1977] spoke simply, directly, and powerfully to human rights issues.

Sweetgrass offered an amazing sensory experience quite different from my usual filmmaking tastes. Together with Sensory Ethnography Lab films I was to see later, this film set my mind thinking about what immersive experience could mean in a film and how one can really feel an alternate reality.

Shortly after the seminar, I began exploring how storytelling arcs of immersive livestreaming and virtual reality experiences that capture both the mundane moments and the crisis moments in frontline activism can help engage viewers to move from being passive spectators to immersed, engaged witnesses. This process has now evolved into a livestreaming-and-action project at WITNESS, called Mobil-Eyes Us.

However, frustration also infuses my memories of the 2009 seminar.

I was powerfully aware that a new form of witnessing was being enacted in Iran at the very moment we were enjoying the seminar. The events known as the Green Movement were entering their second week of massive global attention.

This political struggle mobilized images on social media to engage Iranian and global publics. On the first day of the seminar, Neda Agha-Soltan, a student protesting the Iranian election, was murdered on the streets of Tehran. Her death, captured horribly yet cinematically on camera, was then shared on YouTube for so many to see.

Nevertheless, the structure of the seminar, which insisted on privileging the program that had been curated, seemed to exclude this on-the-ground, amateur-produced witnessing. I remember a powerful sense that we seminarians were staying inside our box talking about witnessing while the world outside the seminar was changing and being witnessed in real time.

Of course, after eight years of continued work with movements and activists using digital media to witness so many variants of opportunity, failure, frustration, and success, the revelatory sense of that particular moment has dulled for me.

But I still remember that those of us engaged in human rights media practices occupied a moment of discovery in 2009. Yet, paradoxically, in the midst of a Flaherty seminar exploring the act of witnessing, we chose not to witness in real-time.

I'm waiting for my next Flaherty. Surely, now is the time for a curator to include witnessing not only within another seminar title, but also to reflect during the seminar the diverse ways witnessing occurs in social and real-time media.


Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 10:54AM   |  Add a comment

Perhaps the struggle to recover fading memories, what St. Augustine would call remembering forgetfulness, is more useful than having access to perfect memories.

Or so I thought as I sat to write this remembrance of events from two decades ago. The truth is at first I remembered little about my involvement with the Flaherty Seminar in 1997, which is ironic given that the theme was “Exploration in Memory and Modernity.”

There is a somewhat valid excuse for my forgetfulness. At the time, I was holding down a full time job producing video advertisements for the cable company, studying full-time in a masters program at Ithaca College, and working as research/project assistant for Patty Zimmermann, an Ithaca College screen studies professor who was one of the programmers for the mini-Flaherty Seminar—Michelle Materre was the other.

I remember getting up at 4:30 AM on weekdays to do school work before going to my job, and then attending graduate classes in the evening. I often share this tale with my students struggling to balance work and school, which I am sure they find annoying.

In any event, the point is that I was busy, probably too busy to fully appreciate the impact of what I was involved in.

So it is only now, as I collect the isolated memories floating around my head and “curate” them into a meaningful experience, that I realize the impact that the Flaherty had on my development as a scholar.

What I actually remember from that October are little snippets of life as a student assistant.

I remember stuffing envelopes with invitations (this was before e-vites). I remember running to and fro making sure programs were distributed, chairs were available, signs were posted, and speakers were escorted to the right classrooms. I remember helping to fix projectors and setting up snacks; in short, getting done the things everyone just expects should be done when putting together an event. I do remember the artists and scholars: Daniel Reeves, Anne-Marie Duguet, Reginald Woolery...  Or rather, I definitely remember the names and some of the work, even if I don’t always remember the faces.

I remember the parties and get-togethers and being a bit intimidated about interacting with the kind of folks whose work I previously encountered only in the classroom and who were now standing in front of me. 

Most of all, I remember the Digital Salon, a room full of computers featuring websites and CD-ROM content by artists like Muntadas.

I provided technical assistance in putting the room together. I remember getting the sense even then that this was something new and exciting that redefined modes of spectatorship and interaction.

Of course, by today’s standards it seems quaint that we would have to get all this digital content into one room in order for people to experience it. But it is precisely because consumption of digital content has become so atomized and individualistic that the idea of the Salon seems endowed with a sense of collectivity that is now missing.

As I put all these memories together, I realize that the Flaherty was a key moment in my education as a scholar.

Yes, I was taking graduate classes at the time, reading and writing and working on research projects.

But the experience of helping to organize that weekend Flaherty gave me a sense—for the first time, I think—of belonging to an intellectual community, of being able not just to watch or read thought-provoking work, but to interact with the people who created it, and be able to have a discussion about it. In other words, as a student I had done scholarship, but now I started to feel like a scholar.

I eventually went on to do my doctorate at Columbia University and have been teaching at SUNY Oswego for almost a decade.

Many years from now, I know my students will probably not remember the details of everything they are learning. They are just as busy as I was.

But hopefully some of them will have similar opportunities to reflect on and organize their memories, to realize that they did find a community and a purpose in the midst of all that activity.

And hopefully they will also remember the sense of excitement about their discovery, as I do when I think about my involvement with the Flaherty in 1997.

Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 10:08AM   |  Add a comment

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 [1998] 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 [2005] and Whore’s Glory (2010). Experimental filmmaker Naomi Uman, a dear friend from the 2004 Hallwalls Artists’ Residency Project, shared her Ukrainian Time Machine [2008]. 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 [1983], 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.”



Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 10:03AM   |  Add a comment

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 [1995], 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 [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 [1948]. 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 [2005] and Tet Vu Lan: Dismantling Empire [2006].

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 ( For this show, I take Flaherty’s Nanook of the North [1922] 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.







Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 10:43AM   |  Add a comment
Deridre Boyle

I attended my first Flaherty Seminar at Pine Manor Junior College in 1977.  That was forty years ago!  It was a momentous event for me for many reasons.  Part of it had to do with something no one could have foreseen: a film community known for its often heated debates came together in mourning over the sudden and unexpected death of one of its much loved participants, Sol Worth. 

Still in shock, I soon discovered that the women’s movement was still being hotly debated at Flaherty: gender politics challenged the power dynamics of discussions, which surfaced most conspicuously around the work of Swiss filmmaker Alain Tanner.  I remember it well because I cut my teeth as a media critic by summoning my courage to take Tanner to task for his cavalier representation of women in his films.  Laughed down by some audience members, I persisted with my critique, winning Tanner’s fury and my self-confidence in speaking up for women’s voices. 

Not surprisingly, given all that was going on that year, no one challenged the conspicuous absence of video at the Seminar.  This upstart, unprofessional medium was dismissed by an old guard who considered film the only medium worth looking at; video didn’t even rate a debate.

If memory serves, it took the Seminar’s most revered elder statesman to overturn resistance to screening video.  In 1982 Erik Barnouw programmed what was for many of us our most memorable Flaherty seminar at Camp Topridge in the Adirondacks.  It was a glorious site that had once been the summer home of Marjorie Merriweather Post, owner of General Foods and long reputed to be the wealthiest woman in the United States.  Ms. Post also owned Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, which was later purchased by you-know-who. 

Post considered Camp Topridge a “rustic retreat” situated on 300 acres in God’s country.   It contained numerous buildings including a Russian dacha that proved essential to this story.   Topridge was a stunning location for the Seminar; the main lodge featured a huge, circular, windowed room surrounded by sofas and a plethora of animal trophies mounted along the walls.  Post-screening discussions looked out over a sparkling lake, and each day fabulous meals were prepared by students at a local culinary school. 

Arguably the best thing about the place, though, was the dacha, a charming Russian cottage dedicated to screening video.   Several large-screen monitors were scattered in the vaulted but cozy central hall where videotapes by Daniel Reeves (Smothering Dreams, 1980), Edin Velez (Meta Mayan, 1981), and Minneapolis public TV producers Deanna Kamiel, Ken Robbins and Tom Adair were shown.  Passionate discussions about the relationship of video to television and the documentary tradition were conducted there.  

I do not know what it took for Erik to persuade IFS naysayers to give video a chance, but whether it was the spectacular sunsets on the lake, the superb dinners or the eerie stag antlers on the walls, video arrived at Flaherty with panache and seemed to please most everyone; video was no longer an oddity at Flaherty but a partner with film.

The following year tapes by video artists and documentary activists like Bill Viola (Hatsu Yume,1981; Chott el-Djerid, 1979; Ancient of Days, 1979-1981), Skip Blumberg (Pick Up Your Feet: The Double Dutch Show,1981) and Paper Tiger Television were shown.  Emboldened by the success of single-channel tapes, Flaherty programmer D. Marie Grieco boldly decided to present the first video installation in 1984. Bill Stephens, one of the first African American video artists to be featured at the Whitney Museum in New York, showed Belief Sandwich, Relief Gauntlet (1981) which proved challenging to stage.  Cornell University was not equipped to handle an outdoor display like this, but the Seminar’s adept technical staff pulled it off. 

Bill Stephens was not the only video practitioner that year; also featured were works by Michelle Parkerson (Gotta Make This Journey: Sweet Honey and the Rock, 1983), Ed Emshwiller (Sunstone, 1979), Cecilia Condit (Possibly in Michigan, 1983), Max Almy (Perfect Leader,1983), and Dan Reeves (Amida,1983).  Presenting innovative work by so many talented video makers made it clear that video had become a Seminar staple. 

More tapes were featured the following year by artists like Louis Hock (The Mexican Tapes: A Chronicle of a Life Outside the Law, 1986), David Schulman (The Race Against Prime Time,1985), and Kirby Dick (Private Practices, 1986).  Soon any differentiation between work shot on film or tape receded, and all those doubts raised about the video medium and its professionals subsided. 

Today, a generation that calls everything “film” probably knows little about the battles that once raged between film purists and video iconoclasts determined to defend the distinctive features of this outlier electronic medium.  I suppose this struggle to include analog video at the Seminar seems strange today.  But it took leadership from influential figures like Erik Barnouw and George Stoney to usher reluctant trustees and snooty filmmakers to accept the “new media” called video as part of the Flaherty.

Once I stepped down as an IFS trustee, I attended far fewer seminars, but I did travel to Riga, Latvia, in 1990 for a terrific cross-cultural Seminar where the audience was surprised less by media than by the clash of confused expectations about the Other.  The Americans expected the Soviets to make political films like Vertov, and the Soviets thought the Americans would offer up “heros” like Flaherty. 

Instead of a cozy capitalist dacha, we enjoyed the generous appointments of a spa retreat for Soviet artists.  No one was particularly interested in video, especially since the Soviet filmmakers were just beginning to use portable 16mm cameras instead of 35mm.  Asked to introduce “guerrilla television” to colleagues who knew nothing about video, I got nowhere fast: we hadn’t understood that our new friends were just beginning to experiment with their brand of cinéma vérité.  

Several decades later and back in the states I decided to see what was happening at the Flaherty Seminar.  I attended the 2009 Seminar at Colgate University, which was brilliantly programmed by Irina Leimbacher.   I was delighted to see the sophisticated presentation now given to video installations.  Amar Kanwar’s multi-channel work was beautifully installed on several walls in a room of its own where participants could spend as much time as they wished to fully appreciate it.  The Seminar had come a long way in recognizing the seriousness and artistic excellence of the now digital medium of video.  

Looking back over all this time, I am pleased to have been a participant-witness to the early days of video at the Seminar and to have known many of the people—videomakers, programmers, technicians, trustees, and Seminar participants—who helped this history unfold.  Many of them are gone now, and I am honored to bear witness to their varied contributions to making the Seminar new-media friendly, inclusive, and illuminating to this day. 


Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 8:44AM   |  Add a comment

Part One

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 ( 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)  We do events all over the world.

Water knits it all together and is a great point of entry for conversation about climate change.

Part Two

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.





Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 11:31AM   |  Add a comment



When I was at Columbia Journalism School, Willard Van Dyke, then curator of film at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), told me to stay connected to the independent film community by joining the New York Film/Video Council (NYFVC)—I was headed toward a career in television.  Why didn’t he suggest that I attend the Flaherty Film Seminars?  I don't know, but he was involved with both. 

So were others I came to know, like Bill Sloan (Bill’s Bar is still a Flaherty mainstay) and George Stoney, whose All My Babies [1953] had been shown at the first Flaherty Seminar. 

I’d seen All My Babies in a documentary course that George taught at Columbia University before he went to Canada, then came back to become a legendary professor at NYU. Both Bill and George were past presidents of the New York Film/Video Council of which I was a board member for seventeen years and president for eight. 

The NYFVC was a non-profit that had been serving the independent media community since 1946. It programmed all forms of visual media. I never thought of TV and film as separate pursuits but many did. Other distinctions abounded: narrative vs. documentary; film vs. video; and one that always disturbed me, journalism vs. documentary. Often at Flaherty I heard filmmakers say, “I’m not a journalist.”  

The first informal continuing professional education I experienced before Flaherty was at INPUT: the International Public Television Producers Conference in 1992 in Baltimore when I was Executive Producer of Listening to America with Bill Moyers [1992: 26-part TV series] on PBS.  I would go on to other INPUTS in Fort Worth, Halifax, Rotterdam, Aarhus, Barcelona, San Francisco, and Lugano. 

Law, medicine and many other professions have continuing education requirements; journalism and documentary filmmaking have none—though within each area non-profit organizations like the Flaherty informally make continuing education possible.  

For me the Flaherty Seminar has been a condensed form of graduate school with a diverse group of students who share similar interests. Lifelong friendships are formed.

In 2003, the year I went to INPUT in Aarhus, Denmark, I attended my first Flaherty Seminar, at Vassar College. It was curated brilliantly by John Gianvito. Lucy Kostelanetz, a neighbor and member of the NYFVC and the Flaherty Board, had recommended that I go because the topic was “Witnessing the World.”  

Two films by Canadian filmmakers fascinated me: Zyklon Portrait [1999] by Elida Schogt and Seeing Is Believing: Handicams, Human Rights, and the News [2002] by Peter Wintonick and Katerina Cizek.

Avi Mograbi’s Israeli films were incisive and humorous, especially Happy Birthday, Mr. Mograbi [1998]. The entire audience at Vassar seemed appalled by Holly Fisher's Kalama Sutta [2002] because she’d made an experimental, artistic film in Burma — a place and subject that cried out for documentary reporting.  I’d never before seen an audience erupt in such disapproval. 

Tran Van Thuy’s Vietnam documentaries were a special gift. The British filmmaker Franny Armstrong showed McLibel: Two Worlds Collide [1998]; it was critical of McDonald’s before Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me [2004].

Franny also showed an impressive film she’d made in India, Drowned Out [2002]. I recommended it to Thirteen/WNET’s new international series Wide Angle, which commissioned her to make a shorter, more journalistic version for broadcast. Marlo Poras’s Mai’s America [2002] stayed with me and I screened it for documentary students years later at Columbia. 

At my first Flaherty, Marcia Rock, who runs the NYU journalism documentary program, asked me if I’d like to teach Documentary History and Strategy.  For the next three Spring semesters, I taught at NYU and then, after raising enough money to complete production on my work-in-progress, Nam June Paik & TV Lab: License To Create, I co-taught and mentored students at Columbia Journalism School.  A student filmmaker I met at Flaherty, Alana Kakoyiannis, shot second camera when I interviewed Paik’s widow Shigeko Kubota, a video artist in her own right.

In 2007 I saw two versions of Natalia Almada’s Al Otro Lado (To the Other Side), one at INPUT in Lugano, the other at the  53rd Flaherty Seminar, “South of the Other,” programmed by Mahen Bonetti and Carlos Gutierrez, at Vassar. Almada’s film focuses on drug trafficking and illegal migration between Mexico and the United States and highlights narco corrido music.  I subsequently went to MoMA to see her next film El General [ 2009]

Dan Streible, of Orphan Film Symposium fame, superbly curated the last Flaherty seminar I attended in 2011, "Sonic Truth.". George Stoney showed A Reunion of All My Babies [2010] and we saw the 1906 film A Trip Down Market Street Before the Fire.  Most powerful for me was Tan Pin Pin’s Singapore Gaga [2010]. I’ve followed her films since. 

Caroline Martel’s Wavemakers [2012] was an intriguing work-in-progress and I later went to the Museum of the Moving Image to see a completed version. 

Sam Pollard showed some of his work with Spike Lee, and I was introduced to the animated films of Jodie Mack, whom I later ran into on Main Street in Hanover, NH during a fall mini-reunion at Dartmouth. 

I met Lillian Schwartz and learned that she had worked at the TV LAB at Thirteen/WNET, the subject of my nearly finished documentary. Dan showed her earlier experimental work at Bell Labs. 

For me the highlight of “Sonic Truth” was my friend Jane Weiner, who came from Paris to show her documentary On Being There with Richard Leacock [2010]. I later drove her to interview Robert Drew in Sharon, CT.   

When organized well, there’s no better introduction to remarkable films and significant filmmakers than the Flaherty Seminar.



Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 6:06PM   |  Add a comment
Joel Neville Anderson

Breakfast, screening, discussion, lunch, screening, discussion, dinner, screening, discussion, dancing, repeat.

The more I read about the Flaherty Seminar, the more I was reminded of the description I’d heard applied to my BFA conservatory: hippie bootcamp. I applied for a graduate-student fellowship, cobbled together the remaining half of the subsidized registration fee and bus fare from my university, and found myself in June, 2013, at Colgate for the 59th Flaherty.

I soon learned that following the seminar organizers’ egalitarian intentions, everyone was provided with the same dormitory rooms and cafeteria meals, along with an experiment in cinephilic endurance and sleep deprivation that forced a confrontation with the art and ethics of film curation.

Upon reflection, I feel fortunate to have had my first Flaherty experience at Pablo de Ocampo’s “History is What’s Happening.”  This challenging confrontation became emblematic of the struggle to talk seriously about documentary ideas, as a group, that I’ve experienced every time I’ve returned to the Flaherty—four times so far.

From Queen Mother Moore Speech at Greenhaven Prison [1973] by the People's Communication Network, which opened de Ocampo’s program, to its repetition at the very end, so much has stayed with me: Basma Alsharif’s Home Movies Gaza [2013], The Otolith Group’s People to be Resembling (2012), Deborah Stratman’s O'er the Land [2009], and Joyce Wieland’s Solidarity [1973].

I won’t forget sitting down for the first afternoon screening with no idea it would be Eyal Sivan and Michel Khleifi’s 272-minute Route 181 [2003]. The discussion of Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc’s Ca va, ca va on continue [It is ok, it is ok, we go on, 2012-13] led me to Édouard Glissant’s life-changing book Poètique de la Relation [Poetics of Relation, 1990]. And Jean-Paul Kelly’s Service of the Goods [2013] forever marked my thoughts on Frederick Wiseman's documentaries from the 1960s and 1970s about social safety nets and institutions.

After Sarah Maldoror’s Sambizanga [1972], I can never see Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil [1983] the same way again, an experience that was repeated with Sana Na N’Hada’s O Regresso de Amílcar Cabral [The Return of Amílcar Cabral, 1976] at the 2017 seminar.

More retreat than a conference or festival with overlapping panels and screenings, the Flaherty’s medium is the program assembled by the curator. As the week continues, the burden is on “captive” participants to take control of the seminar through discussion sessions and make it their own. Tension builds amidst interstitial coffee breaks, happy hours, late night conversations, and small group breakout sessions, demanding some form of response in the large discussion forum. This often results in a midweek bloodletting.

In 2013, this came with a performance by the BLW collective (Rozalinda Borcila, Sarah Lewison, and Julie Wyman): A Call to the Square [2013]. Lewison and Wyman read Queen Mother Moore’s speech, then invited participants to recite Asmaa Mahfouz’s January 18, 2011, call to join the January 25 protests in Tahrir Square, demanding an end to Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak regime.

Participants were invited to re-perform Mahfouz’s address in small groups, writing down their reactions. Intended or not, the exercise rehearsed the documentary proposition of re-presenting another’s physical performance or speech and re-locating its site of communication, necessitating confrontation with this new space of reassembly. The discussion that followed voiced important criticisms about how the exercise defined the seminar participant as white colonizing subject.

The problems brought to the surface by the performance reflected a central conceit of the seminar: the principle of non-preconception, originally instituted by Frances Flaherty at the earliest seminars. Revealing the nature of each film only as the projector’s light hits the screen (program notes are supplied later) is a constitutive feature of the seminar, which recruits its audience based entirely on the desire to return to its cinematic well and on the qualifications/theme of the announced programmer.

The principle reveals two diverging understandings: the notion that one can dispose of preconceptions versus a recognition that stripping typical curatorial pre-conditioning necessitates a different kind of controlled environment and requires that the group deal with different ways of preconceiving. This challenges the group to deconstruct habitual modes of preconceiving and embrace a shared yet always uneven vulnerability in imagining a more equitable space.

More often than not, the discursive spaces generated by the Flaherty remain embattled with normative power structures and defenses scraped down to blunt candor by cycles of sleeplessness, inebriation, and waking dreams in the cinema. This leads to moments of generosity, embarrassment, cruelty, and epiphany from veterans and first-timers alike.

The yearly exercise is a reminder of what it takes to honestly approach an art object, others’ reactions, and the ramifications of refining lines of separation and/or coalescing into general consensus.


Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 8:57PM   |  Add a comment
John Gianvito

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.


Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 4:57PM   |  Add a comment

In 1984, the Robert Flaherty film seminar made its way to Cornell University. Richard Herskowitz, who was then the director of Cornell Cinema, maneuvered to get it there. 

Well known in Ithaca, Richard and his wife Jill mounted memorable Halloween costume parties. One party was “Come as Your Parents.” Ann channeled her mother, dressing as a super-dreadnought. At another party, “Come as You Art,” a woman draped Tampax dipped in blue water around her neck and asserted she was in her “Blue Period.” 

So when Richard appeared at our Cornell University office and asked if we could help him screen video for a crowd of rabid cinephiles—it sounded like fun. We had never heard of the Flaherty.

At the time we had an office on the fifth floor of Statler Hall, home of Cornell’s famous School of Hotel Administration. To get to our office, you had to push through a set of heavy red doors adorned in white paint with the words “Research and Development.”    

The office buzzed with gear and gearheads. Cameras, microphones, television monitors, cables, distribution amps, and mixers crowded the space: everything needed for the creation and display of ½-inch and ¾-inch video. The IBM PC had just been released and the Mac was released that year.    

For the video sessions at that year’s seminar, Richard had access to a basement classroom in Cornell’s dreary psychology building, not far from the Cornell Cinema theater where films were screened during the Flaherty week. 

We pushed the classroom’s chair-desks into the four corners and dragged in four 25-inch monitors, 80-pounders on tall racks. We draped the floor with cables. The monster monitors did not match and they made the room hot. For video presentations twenty to twenty-five people crowded closely around each monitor. Back then, fewer than eighty people attended the seminar.   

We showed Meredith Monk’s Ellis Island [1981] that week. Showing video to a large group in the early 1980s wasn’t always easy, but her video and the way that we showed it were a success. We were now part of the projection team.

That week, we met experimental collage filmmaker Bruce Conner, who screened A Movie [1958], Ten Second Film [1965], Permian Strata [1969], and Mongoloid [1978]. At the time, we had no idea who any of these people were! 

Lovable, formidable, old-school tyrant, film librarian D. Marie Grieco programmed that year. She showed a plethora of short films and videos, constantly rearranging the program on the fly. When his screening times were changed, Bruce Conner had a meltdown on Phil’s shoulder.

In 1985, curator and historian Deac Rossell was the programmer. The Flaherty had found a new home at Wells College, about thirty miles north of Ithaca. We had full use of their lovely old grand dame theater with its thrust stage, generous apron, and orchestra and balcony seating. 

Gorgeous 19th century three-story windows graced both walls of the theater. We used many fifty-foot rolls of black garden plastic to insure the blackout needed for projection during daylight hours. It was August and with air circulation cut off, the theater was hot. Sometimes, we brought in factory-sized fans and battled their noise. Wells College sits on the shores of Cayuga Lake, one of the narrow, forty-mile long Finger Lakes in central New York. The swimming was excellent and lounging on the dock, between or after screenings, offered daily relief from the heat. 

The projection booth at Wells housed two finicky carbon arc 35mm projectors (the same projectors William Randolph Hearst had installed in his castle), gamely manned by projectionist Michael Grillo who had worked with us at that original Cornell seminar. The 16mm projectors were ancient too, and it was a continual battle to keep them working. We supplied the growing mountain of video playback decks in formats such as Betacam, Betacam SP, PAL, SECAM, ¾”, Hi-8, VHS, Super-VHS, then later, DVCAM, mini-DV, and DVD. At some point we rented a theatrical sound system for the week. 

Eventually, we teamed up with Richard Herskowitz to share a Sony multi-standard video projector. The Flaherty used it for one week in the summer. Cornell Cinema used it and stored it for the rest of the year.

In 1986, seminar programmers Tony Gittens and Linda Blackaby screened plenty of video, an important turning point for the seminar. Very politely, they provided us with a long list of shorts to screen, with almost no time for preparation. We balked. They discovered that we were unpaid help. In time, we arrived at an understanding with the Flaherty about how to plan the video screenings, and our role came to include a stipend, plus food and a dormitory room. 

By 1987, the Flaherty seminar experience had become our summer camp, and in 1994 Jason Livingston, then a Cornell University student, joined our team.

For us, one of the most memorable events was video artist and experimental musician Steina Vasulka’s outdoor walk-through installation, a total surprise for seminarians as they left the theater that night in 1996. We’d set four video projectors on their sides, turning them ninety degrees or more so images of waterfalls ran sideways and geysers shot downward. We used bed sheets for screens to create both front and rear-screen projection effects that combined with the shadows of passersby. Miraculously, the summer rains stayed away that night. 

For both of us, the Flaherty has meant much more than just the films and the formal discussions about them. Even at our first Flaherty we noticed that there was plenty of time to meet people and discuss almost any aspect of our art, our careers, and our lives with people who soon were to become lifelong friends.

Later when, as a member of the board of trustees, Phil helped organize and administer the Flaherty seminar in Israel, the people of Kfar Blum, our host kibbutz, understood the Flaherty’s informal gemutlicheit and embraced it immediately. This was something that Ann encouraged when she became president of the board.

We remember swimming in Cayuga Lake with George Stoney; sitting on the terrace late into the evening with Eric Barnouw; helping Bill Sloan keep up with the early rush for drinks at Bill’s bar, even before it became “Bill’s Bar”; convincing Frannie Flaherty, Robert and Frances’s daughter, to stay up and dance to some pretty good rock and roll; and realizing that the delightful woman we’d just had lunch with was Meredith Monk—knowing that we’d be showing Ellis Island the next afternoon and confident that it would look really good!















Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 10:31AM   |  Add a comment
Dale Hudson

At my first Flaherty Seminar in 2006, I was asked to sit in a circle with the other participants to introduce ourselves. Each person opened with a numerical inventory of how many seminars they had attended.

I had just returned from India. I wasn’t sure whether jetlag distorted what I was hearing or it if these statements were really being uttered in public.

Rumors swirled in screen studies circles that the seminar was cultish and debates vitriolic. I remember feeling that the seminar seemed like a cross between a first-year seminar at a university and a 12-step program for lost souls seeking reorientation.  

The seminar developed into something else: a vibrant space for the challenge of having one’s expectations disrupted.

I found myself addicted to the ritual of awaking each morning for three screenings of unannounced films and videos. When I attended the seminar again in 2007 and 2008, I remember feeling emboldened that I could announce to newcomers that it was my second or third Flaherty. I now understood how the seminar worked.

My colleague and now coauthor Patty Zimmermann had encouraged me to attend. She’d even found a way for me to get funding from Ithaca College. She also shared that the design of the seminar owes more to Frances Flaherty than to her husband Robert. I mused, how typical, a woman does the work and a man gets the attention.

I thought about how Alice Guy-Blaché films are not taught as widely as Georges Méliès films. I recalled that her role in developing film as a narrative medium had been largely forgotten until feminist scholars (all women in this instance) recovered this repressed history.

Patty revealed that in the film studies courses at Ithaca College, she and Gina Marchetti had adapted Frances Flaherty’s strategy of eliciting responses as free from preconceptions as possible.

I was part of the film studies team at Ithaca College with Patty. We distributed syllabi that included only the titles of what would be screened. No place of production. No year of production. No running time. No language or format. And certainly no director’s name.

Although the first year film students in this large lecture class could search online to learn more about the films, few did. They all seemed to find it more fun to arrive without expectations, mesmerized by the provocations to see and to hear and to think and to immerse in the unknown.

My experiences at my first Flaherty rewired my own lingering preconceptions.

I bonded over discussions with Mahen Bonetti, Amalia Córdova, Carlos Guittérez, Roger Hallas, Anna Siomopulous, Sharon Lin Tay, Chi-hui Yang, and others. No matter what was screened or what was said at the large group discussions, the seminar solidified our commitment to voices academia and film culture marginalized, discredited, or ignored.

The seminar disrupts standardized histories of narrative film, documentary, and experimental media, as well as standardized programming at art houses and museums. It made me realize how much has been excluded. It was my first experience of encountering indigenous media and video games in the same space as documentary—and documentary for television alongside documentary for art houses. 

I met extraordinary artist-intellectuals including Ashim Ahluwalia, Natalia Almada, Rebecca Baron, Ximena Cuevas, Theo Eshetu, Jacqueline Goss, Leonard Retel Helmrich, Oliver Husain, Laura Kissel, Khalo Matabane, Christina McPhee, Liz Miller, Amir Muhammad, Jenny Perlin, João Moreira Salles, Eddo Stern, and Renée Tajima-Peña. Since then, their films, videos, and installations have ended up on my syllabi, and I’ve analyzed these works in my scholarly publications.

I also met artist-intellectuals whose work I studied in graduate school or had taught in classes, such as Ursula Biemann, Vittorio de Seta, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, and Moussa Sene Absa. I “met” Bahman Ghobadi live via Skype. He had not been able to secure a visa to enter the United States.

For me, the smaller discussions were fortifying. The big discussions were sometimes intimidating, often frustrating, and occasionally pointless. But they were always part of something larger that was unequivocally inspiring.

Although I have not been able to attend my fourth Flaherty, I look forward to doing so. I hope that a Flaherty might one day be held a little closer to where I live. Anywhere in the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, or even East Asia would be closer than central New York. I have not found another event that rivals it.

After three seminars, I am addicted to screening media in classes and public programs without advance framing. I am addicted to having my assumptions proven incomplete and my preconceptions rendered incorrect.

I give thanks to the brave women (and men) in the history of The Flaherty Seminar, partisans for an independent cinema who made this way of knowing the world possible for so many generations of seminar participants.

The Flaherty Seminar pushed me to think in unanticipated and unexpected ways. I am so grateful to Patty for encouraging me to attend my first seminar and am eager to read the seminar’s history that she and Scott MacDonald have painstakingly assembled after a decade of research.

The Flaherty is a productively disunified and unruly experience.

Editors’ note: The Flaherty Seminar’s international scope is evident in the array of home countries for the participants mentioned above: India (Ashim Ahluwalia), México/United States (Natalia Almada), United States (Rebecca Baron), Switzerland (Ursula Biemann), México (Ximena Cuevas), Italy (Vittorio de Seta), UK/Italy with family from Ethiopia (Theo Eshetu), Kurdish Iran (Bahman Ghobadi), United States (Jacqueline Goss), Netherlands/Indonesia (Leonard Retel Helmrich), Canada/Germany with family from India (Oliver Husain), United States (Laura Kissel), Chad/France (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun), South Africa (Khalo Matabane), United States (Christina McPhee), United States/Canada (Liz Miller), Sénégal (Moussa Sene Absa), Malaysia (Amir Muhammad), United States (Jenny Perlin), Brazil (João Moreira Salles), Israel/United States (Eddo Stern), and United States with family from Japan and México (Renée Tajima-Peña). 






Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 8:47PM   |  Add a comment
Patricia R. Zimmermann

“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 [1977], Gal Young ‘Un [1979], Heartland  [1979]. 

Observational documentaries such as Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers [1980], Faces of November [1964], N!ai, the Story of a !Kung Woman [1980], Scenes from Childhood [1980] were jammed against archival works such as The War at Home [1979], The Trials of Alger Hiss [1980], America Lost and Found [1974].

Experimental documentaries like D.O.A. [1980] and Poto and Cabengo [1980] 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 [1979] 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 [1922] 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.” 






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