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 “Frances Flaherty”

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

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
shaefe

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 12:26PM   |  Add a comment
lucy

My first encounter with Robert Flaherty was in 1962, the spring of my first year at Bennington College.

Totally by chance I happened to see a handwritten announcement on a chalkboard on the stairs going to the top floor of the Commons, saying that Frances Flaherty would be screening Robert’s films. I had never heard of Flaherty. But something compelled me to go.

The following fall, I wrote to Arnold Eagle, who had worked with Flaherty on Louisiana Story [1948], inquiring about an internship. I never heard back from Mr. Eagle. But years later in the 1980s, I became his student at the New School, taking courses in 16mm production and subsequently using his studio as a place to work.

One day, when he was cleaning out his files, Arnold happened to find my letter. It stated that Frances had screened Flaherty’s Man of Aran [1934] and Louisiana Story. I sort of remember her doing it in two visits. In any event, I was blown away. I’d never seen anything like these films.

After college, I embarked on a career as an arts administrator. I worked primarily for the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA). My last position there was as Deputy Director for what was then called the Division of Communication and Visual Arts, where I supervised funding for film and media organizations.

Although I loved being part of something I believed in, I’d always wanted to work on the creative side of film and media. So I left NYSCA in 1981. Fortunately, by 1982, I found the Flaherty Seminar. I was hooked forever.

My first Flaherty was in 1982 at Topridge in the Adirondack Mountains in Northern New York State. The film and media historian Erik Barnouw programmed it. Barbara Van Dyke was helming the organization as executive director and coordinator of the seminar. The projectionist was Murray Van Dyke. Located deep in the woods on a lake, with its many historic buildings intact, Topridge was the former “rustic retreat” of Marjorie Merriweather Post.

At this seminar I felt such gratitude to find a community of people with whom I shared goals, dreams, and mission. And, as an aspiring filmmaker, I found this seminar experience and the many, many more to follow extremely helpful in giving me the courage to pursue my own creative path.

As I became more and more familiar with the organization and its people, I discovered what I would call Flaherty godmothers and godfathers, people who came almost every year.

As I said at his recent memorial, Bill Sloan was one of these treasured people. He first attended the seminar in 1964, which means he knew Frances Flaherty. With Nadine Covert, he programmed his first seminar in 1972, another one in 1975 with Barbara Van Dyke, and then worked solo to put together the 1979 seminar.

When I read the program Bill Sloan created with Nadine in 1972, I know I would have been totally blown away. They showed The Sorrow and the Pity [1969]. Does that mean Marcel Orphuls was actually there? They showed a film by Ozu, several films by Claudia Weill and Eli Noyes, and of all things, Greed [1924] by Erik Von Stroheim. They also screened many titles by filmmakers I’m sorry to say I do not know.

My overall impression of their program is one of great variety and richness. I understand from Patty Zimmermann and Scott MacDonald’s recent book about the history of Flaherty [The Flaherty: Decades in the Cause of Independent Cinema], as well as from Nadine herself, that variety was something they worked hard to accomplish and promote as a programming goal.

Bill served on the Flaherty Board of Trustees and as its president from 1974-1977. I believe he continued on the Board over subsequent years in various capacities. He established Bill’s Bar. To this day, it persists. The best conversations about film take place at that makeshift bar.

As I look through the various seminar programs during those years, I regret I was not there. The 1970s seem like the Flaherty’s golden age of film programming.

I served on the Flaherty Board twice, once in the 1980s and again in the late 1990s. For two years in 2000-2001, I was the president. Like most nonprofits during both those periods, Flaherty was working to transition into a more professional and stable organization. A lot of our focus centered on a need for an office and a paid director, first part-time and eventually full-time.

There were of course a number of rocky years along the way, but Flaherty always seemed to bounce back stronger than before. I’ve come to think of the Flaherty as an organization with a soul. It's never lost its reason for being.

I attribute this clarity of purpose to the Flaherty “godparents”: Dorothy Olson, Paul Olson, Bill Sloan, Erik Barnouw, Jack Churchill, Barbara Van Dyke, Tom Johnson, Nadine Covert, George Stoney, and many others. With their unique charismatic presence, these godmothers and godfathers operated as spiritual guides to film and media. Forgive me if I wax too metaphysical.

After taking a break for a few years, I came back to The Flaherty for its 60th anniversary in 2015. I was hooked again and have returned several times. I’m astounded by the community of people that the seminar attracts, a group that has become more and more international. The word is out: this year the seminar sold out in less than twenty-four hours!

I’m proud of all the time I contributed to help the Flaherty to develop and flourish. I see my work for the organization as a chance to give back some of the good the seminar has given me through the decades.

A Flaherty godparent passed away in 2017 at age ninety-nine: Dorothy Olson, a journalist, arts administrator, filmmaker, former Flaherty trustee, and mentor to many in the film and media world. In my last conversation with her, she talked about never forgetting and never recovering from seeing The Sorrow and the Pity at that 1972 Flaherty.

The Flaherty is an organization with a soul. It always seems to find a way to continue, and, I like to think, evolve.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 11:05AM   |  Add a comment
Bo Wang

The 2013 Flaherty Seminar was my first time.

Many film friends were somehow connected with the Flaherty Seminar. Everyone recommended it. So I sent in my fellowship application.

The five-hour ride from Brooklyn to the small upstate New York village of Hamilton was shorter than expected. Chi-hui Yang drove the car, with me, Kimi Takesue, and Raquel Schefer, who had flown from Paris to New York the day before, talking all the way.

We talked about the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar organization, past films screened, and about Laura Poitras and Edward Snowden, who had flown to Hong Kong a few weeks before, in order to leak thousands of classified NSA documents. I was planning a film on Hong Kong.

I was new to the New York independent film community. In 2011, I’d earned a MFA degree from the School of Visual Arts. In early 2013, the Museum of Modern Art’s Doc Fortnight had screened my first film, China Concerto [2012]. I was struggling to make work and to survive in New York. The Flaherty Seminar promised both inspiration and community.

I had heard so much about the week-long, far-away, intense film seminar, which caged film people up together so they could watch films together and fight over them. The Flaherty’s reputation for intensity, the principle of nonpreconception (which I later learned was Frances Flaherty’s idea and not Robert’s), and egalitarianism both attracted and intimidated me.

The theme for the 2013 seminar was “History Is What Is Happening.” Pablo de Ocampo curated.

That first evening, the program opened with Queen Mother Moore Speech at Greenhaven Prison [1973].

2013 was the time of post-Occupy-Wall-Street political fatigue. Trumpism was yet to appear on any horizon but his own.

Pablo’s programming was a map of contested geographies: Israel and Palestine; decolonization and postcolonial struggles in Africa and Asia; Japan, post-Fukushima; and America’s landscapes of racism.

As I look back from the vantage point of 2018—and Trump, Brexit, the wars, migrants and refugees, and environmental destruction—the seminar’s call for historical consciousness, radicalism, and collectivity looms as pertinent and urgent.

The first post-screening discussion was an immersion and the intensity and ruthlessness continued throughout the week. The participatory lecture performance, A Call to the Square by BLW, provoked criticism about how it positioned participants in its re-enactment of history.

The discussions heated up quickly.

I found Eyal Sivan’s The Specialist: Portrait of a Modern Criminal [1999] one of the most interesting films in that year’s program. And it triggered one of the most intense discussions.

The Specialist focused on the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961, employing archival footage, much of it never widely seen before this film. Instead of concentrating on the victims, Sivan had turned his attention to Eichmann, a perpetrator, who sat inside a bulletproof glass cage during the trial.

 The human face of the perpetrator defending his actions, combined with the repetitive spectacle of a trial comprised of archival footage, provoked questions about how we perceive history through archives and about the ethical construction of Hannah Arendt’s concept of the “banality of evil.”

I was conflicted by Deborah Stratman’s works. O’er the Land [2009] and Village, Silenced [2011] were the most enjoyable films I watched that week. However, I found King of the Sky [2004] problematic. The film was shot in Xinjiang, the Uyghur province in Northwest China. At the beginning of the closing credits, Deborah described its location as East Turkestan, the term used by Uyghor Jihadists advocating independence. I’ve never been a Han nationalist, but Stratman’s (Western liberal) position seemed too easy. It ignored historical complicity and complexity.

Sometimes the discussions became overly intellectual and theoretical, the discussions about the Otolith Group, for example. And the intensities of continuous viewing and extensive talking were exhausting. For most people it’s rare to experience such intellectuality and intensity in post-screening discussions.

By the fourth or the fifth day, after days of challenging films and exhausting debates, everyone was tense. We walked into the theater to discover that the movie was Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil [1983]. I have to admit that I thoroughly enjoyed this screening, compared to my previous experiences watching it in a graduate school class. With the new context that the other films in the program had provided, Sans Soleil released me, and others, from the heated anxieties of intensive debate.

Many questions kept coming back to me all through the seminar. One especially salient problem was how documentary and experimental films should respond to the realities of the lived world.

Pablo’s programming combined conventional documentary films with many experimental works inflected with documentary qualities—blurring most boundaries.

The alleged role of documentary filmmaking—to use the camera as a way of exploring subject matter external to the filmmaker or to capture a social reality—has been questioned for more than a hundred years. The Flaherty was continuing this debate, but in new ways, with new films, and new participants.

The epistemological question haunting the entire history of documentary filmmaking is actually quite simple: how, and how closely, can the camera approach the reality of the subject filmed? Can the camera, in the end, only reveal its own practice? 

Self-reflexive strategies and formalist experimentation offer safe, extremely self-conscious paths to validate the work of documentary as it intersects with the world. But are self-reflexivity and formalistic avant-garde styles enough to guarantee a progressive response to changing social realities and historical urgencies? Or are they, given their limited audience, just another form of conservative politics? 

I left with many questions about cinema, along with pages of handwritten notes from screenings and discussions that I looked forward to examining later: Wendelien van Oldenborgh’s utilization of historical materials and spaces, Deborah Stratman’s aesthetics and playfulness...

My brain was exhausted from watching so many films and talking with so many different seminarians.

Driving home, I realized that my pre-Flaherty Seminar views on cinema needed reconstruction.

Beyond the gutting of my own preconceptions, that seminar left me with a curious and most welcome sense of empowerment and a newfound confidence that now, I could think through how I make films. 


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 8:47PM   |  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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